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Writer John Sullivan always credited the success of Minder with helping BBC executives to change their minds and commission Only Fools and Horses in 1981, having first rejected it.
Minder, which had started on ITV two years earlier, was proving to be a big ratings success. John always believed that there was a realisation that there was an audience for shows about modern-day, rough, tough, London wheeler-dealers and the BBC wasn’t yet tapping it.
“When Minder first came out I was choked because I thought that they’d done that modern London,” John told me, in one of many interviews he gave me. “They weren’t doing markets or tower blocks but it was modern London and it was very good and I just thought: ‘Shit. That’s that idea gone.’
“But after [John’s comedy] Over The Moon was axed and I wrote Readies [his working title for Only Fools and Horses] the BBC changed their minds. I’ve always given credit to Minder for opening that door for me, because without it I don’t think that idea would have ever got used.”
Of course, despite a difficult start Only Fools and Horses went on to become a huge success and the Christmas specials became the jewel in the BBC’s festive crown.
In August 1985 the BBC discovered that ITV’s big Christmas Day hope was a feature length episode of its hit drama Minder called Minder On The Orient Express.
Michael Grade moved quickly and revealed that he would be putting the Only Fools and Horses special To Hull and Back in direct competition to the Minder special and the press began billing it as a Minder versus Del Boy clash.
Of course, this all took place back in the days before most households had video recorders and PVRs were many years away. In the Daily Mirror Tony Purnell pointed out that it would be viewers who’d suffer and quoted an unnamed BBC source as saying that: “It’s another case of the viewer losing out yet again.”
“Millions of fans will be forced on Christmas night to choose between loveable London rogues George Cole and Dennis Waterman and equally loveable London rogues David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst,” Purnell wrote.
The Daily Express said it presented an “agonising choice” for viewers and called on both the BBC and ITV to repeat the shows early in the New Year to give viewers a chance to see the one they missed.
The paper decided that Michael Grade’s move was connected to the BBC’s loss of its popular American drama Dallas to ITV company Thames, which made Minder, and it said he was still smarting at its loss. It quoted Grade as saying: “We are in direct competition with ITV. That’s the way it is and always will be.”
In early December even David Jason joined in the friendly rivalry when asked who would pull in more viewers. “It’s got to be us, innit,” he was quoted as telling the Daily Mirror. “We will be funnier and better… no doubt about that my son. I will put my feet up with the rest of the country. Poor Arfur will have to make do with Minder, along with his three regular fans.”
George Cole, who played wheeler-dealer Arthur Daley in Minder hit back: “There is already talk of an ITV blackout. Obviously Del Boy is behind it because he’s so worried.”
Away from the joking, the two actors (pictured above together in 1987) clearly felt sad that the viewers would have to choose which to watch with David Jason saying that TV bosses who engineered the clash are “buggers, aren’t they? It’s bound to cause rows in families up and down the country. There is nothing we can do about it, I guess.” George Cole said: “It’s a shame. We must have a similar following and not everyone has got a video to record one of them for later viewing. Millions of fans will be disappointed.”
Nevertheless the viewers made their choice and the BBC gave ITV a thorough pasting in the ratings with 16.9 million tuning in to watch Only Fools and Horses compared to a few million less for Minder.
- David Jason and George Cole appeared together in the ITV series Diamond Geezer in 2007. At the time George said: “It was very good to work with David Jason. He’s a fantastic man.”
- Lennard Pearce, who played Grandad in Only Fools and Horses, once appeared in Minder. You can see him here (and earlier in the episode).
- In 2009 the Only Fools and Horses theme music (written and sung by John Sullivan) was voted the greatest television theme music ever – beating Minder’s I Could Be So Good For You, sung by Dennis Waterman.
© Steve Clark 2015 All Rights Reserved
(The obligatory plug for my official Only Fools book!)
Ray Butt was the original producer of Only Fools and Horses and was instrumental in getting the show on television. Sadly Ray died two years ago, aged 78. I was asked to contribute to a tribute on BBC Radio 4’s programme The Last Word which you can listen to here:
And here’s a link to my original written tribute to Ray.