May 9

A tribute to Only Fools and Horses producer Gareth Gwenlan

I was very sad to learn of the death today of Gareth Gwenlan, one of Britain’s most experienced and successful television comedy directors and producers.

Gareth had an extraordinary comedy pedigree. He worked on so many of the top shows of the past four decades like Butterflies, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and To The Manor Born and later, as the BBC’s Head of Comedy, commissioned some our most popular sitcoms including One Foot In The Grave, ‘Allo, ‘Allo, Blackadder, Birds of a Feather and Bread.

He took over as producer of Only Fools and Horses in 1988 and developed a strong partnership and friendship with writer John Sullivan, and went on to produce John’s other BBC work including Heartburn Hotel, The Green Green Grass and Rock & Chips and Roger, Roger.

Brecon-born Gareth loved comedy and once said that he’d “been paid all my life to indulge in my hobby”. He was 79 when he died (although I know most people thought he was about a decade younger) and had been working until very recently. He produced a remake of Yes Prime Minister in 2013 and recently worked on the popular Welsh comedy High Hopes. He received an OBE in 2013 for services to broadcasting.

Taking over as producer of Only Fools and Horses in 1988 from Ray Butt, Gareth (along with new director Tony Dow) worked with John Sullivan on the longer episodes and onwards to the triumphal ratings success that was the Christmas 1996 trilogy which saw record viewing figures of 24.3 million.

However, even before this Gareth had already played a secret key role in the show in a number of ways: In 1981 he’d supported John Sullivan when he was trying to persuade senior BBC executive that the new show should be called Only Fools and Horses (rather than the working title Readies). They’d not heard the expression only fools and horses work before but Gareth, then a producer in the comedy department had and gave John vital support.

And in early 1985, following the death of Lennard Pearce, who played Grandad the previous December, Gareth, by then Head of Comedy, rubber-stamped the casting of then unknown actor Buster Merryfield as Uncle Albert. (In fact at Buster’s audition, Gareth read the part of Rodney, to Ray Butt’s Del while Buster read Grandad’s lines as the character of Albert had yet to be created).

Gareth was good company, astute and a great diplomat. He was enormously helpful to me when I was researching and writing my books The Only Fools and Horses Story and Only Fools and Horses: The Official Inside Story and he told great stories.

Among my favourite was an incident during the filming of Miami Twice: The American Dream in 1991, which required Gareth organisational skills and a good deal of diplomacy to overcome as the production team came up against the all-powerful Teamsters union which came close to derailing the filming.

“I was literally summoned to go down and see the head of the Teamsters’ Union in Miami and, I swear to God, had it not been so serious, I would have thought I was in a bad American B movie,” he recalled.

“I was shown into this very sombre, dark wood panelled office with heavy leather furniture where I found this great fat, balding guy sitting at his desk. He had a real James Cagney-at-his-worst accent and he said: “So what are you doing in my town?” I explained how much money we were spending in the city and that we were employing some sixty local technicians and he said: ‘Yeah, but you ain’t employing any of my members?’ I said that we weren’t because we had owner-driver vehicles and we were told that was fine.

“He said: ‘Well I’m here’s to tell you that it ain’t fine. I want twelve of my drivers on that set tomorrow, otherwise I shut you down.’ I know it sounds like something out of a film but it’s absolutely true.”

In the end Gareth used his diplomatic skills to avoid a union blockade – even though it meant employing three Teamsters drivers that the production didn’t need or even use.

Before becoming a television producer Gareth trained as a teacher and an actor – and he did actually appear in an episode of Only Fools and have some lines. It was the 1993 Christmas special Fatal Extraction and he found himself literally right in the thick of the action in the brilliant riot scene as a policeman on horseback.

Gareth played the cop who broke up the riot temporarily to let Del, Raquel and Damien through in Del’s ‘tasteful’ Capri Ghia, by announcing over the megaphone: “Hold it, hold it, hold it – it’s Del Boy.”

“We couldn’t find an actor who could ride so I did it,” he told me. It meant he had a very clear view of the fake battles going on between drama students, hired to play the rioters, and extras playing the police. “The students were bloody marvellous. They were being real but within the bounds of being safe and no one was even bruised,” he recalled.

Gareth Gwenlan was a truly great producer, whose skills and professionalism helped to give the rest of us some classic comedies to enjoy. My thought are with his family and friends.

 

November 6

Revealed: He who wrote, He Who Dares

del_boyHe Who Dares, the much anticipated autobiography of Peckham legend and businessman Del Boy Trotter, has been getting rave reviews and is already a Sunday Times best-seller.

Published by Ebury last month, lots of people have been asking who actually wrote it. Well, I can today reveal that Jim Sullivan, son of Only Fools and Horses creator John Sullivan, penned it.

The 302-page book is based on Jim’s Dad’s Only Fools and Horses scripts but Jim has also added material from John’s notes which means the book is sprinkled with original and authentic material that has never been seen before.

Jim, who has previously written episodes of Only Fools spin-off The Green Green Grass and also last year’s Sport Relief sketch which saw the Trotters rub shoulders with David Beckham, says: “We wanted the book to be as authentic as it could possibly be.

“My main concern was getting the tone of Del right.  Del would write as he speaks, which isn’t always pretty (or coherent), but it has its own rhyme and reason. And, whether it’s achieved or not, I wanted the readers to hear Del as though he’s there in the room chatting to them.

“The trickiest part, besides trying to cover and include such a large amount of material, was filling in the missing decade of the 70’s and getting up to speed on what the Trotters’ have been up to since we last saw them, but it has been a lot of fun and has given me a deeper appreciation of the depth and richness of this world my Dad created.

“I also managed to work in some of my Dad’s notes, a couple of examples being the truth about Triggers’ parentage and ‘Trotter-Trim’.”

You can order the book here: 

 

August 6

When Arthur Daley helped Del Boy: The story of how Minder aided Only Fools and Horses

OFAH MinderWriter 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 ColeDavid 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!)


“Author Steve Clark’s book The Official Inside Story is the definitive history of Only Fools and Horses. He is the expert on the series” – Sir David Jason

 

Get four Official Only Fools and Horses Books for just £13.99 INCLUDING FREE delivery

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