sat 23/01/2021

Q&A Special: Writer John Sullivan, 1946-2011 | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Writer John Sullivan, 1946-2011

Q&A Special: Writer John Sullivan, 1946-2011

The creator of Britain's best-loved sitcom recalls his slow start at the BBC

Comedy writer John Sullivan has died aged 64, writes Adam Sweeting, after spending six weeks in intensive care battling viral pneumonia. The creator of several hit comedy series for the BBC, Sullivan is guaranteed immortality for his masterpiece, Only Fools and Horses, which ran from 1981 to 2002. Featuring the escapades of the wide-boy south-London brothers, Rodney and Del Boy Trotter (Nicholas Lyndhurst and David Jason), it became one of the best-loved British comedies ever screened, and also gained a substantial international following. A 2004 poll named Only Fools... as the best British sitcom of all time, and the show's 1996 Christmas Special scored a ratings record of 24 million viewers.

Sullivan was born in Balham in 1946. The son of a plumber and a charlady, he left school at 15 with no qualifications, but managed to land a job as a scene hand at BBC Television Centre. He cherished ambitions as a TV screenwriter, and regularly submitted scripts to his employers. He was unsuccessful until he sent a script about Marxist activist "Wolfie" Smith, the Tooting Che Guevara, to comedy producer Dennis Main Wilson. Wilson was impressed, and Sullivan was given three months paid leave to develop the idea. This became Citizen Smith, and it ran for four series. When Sullivan was asked to pitch ideas for a follow-up, he came up with the prototype for Only Fools and Horses.

Watch Only Fools and Horses extract

He enjoyed further success with Just Good Friends, Dear John and Sitting Pretty. In January 2010, the BBC aired the first episode of Sullivan's Only Fools... prequel, Rock & Chips. The second instalment was screened in December 2010, while the third one is scheduled on BBC One on Thursday, 28 April.

After hearing of Sullivan's death, Sir David Jason said: "We have lost our country's greatest comedy writer but he leaves us a great legacy, the gift of laughter." The BBC's head of comedy, Mark Freeland, added: "No one understood better what makes us laugh and cry than John Sullivan. He was the Dickens of our generation. Simply the best, most natural, most heartfelt comedy writer of our time."

Sullivan is survived by his wife Sharon, two sons and a daughter.

John Sullivan, 23 December 1946 - 23 April 2011

Jasper Rees writes:

A burly man with sad eyes, silver hair and a slight lisp, John Sullivan had the quiet manner of someone who has said "thanks but no thanks" to the limelight. While Del and Rodney were entertaining 24 million viewers in the mid-1990s, their creator could have walked along Oxford Street during the January sales completely unaccosted.

It’s not widely known that the creator of Only Fools and Horses came to sitcom via David Copperfield, a novel about a child who grows up to be a writer. "You were almost frightened of English classes at school," he told me. "Then we got a teacher who instead of making us just read and answer questions actually read Copperfield to us. All of a sudden the whole thing became Technicolor and I understood what I'd been missing for so long. It released this imagination within me."

As Mark Freeland suggests in his tribute (above), the connection makes sense. Sullivan’s eye for a fleshy caricature and ear for a demotic catchphrase belong to the same comic tradition which gave us Dickensian caricatures. "Lovely jubbly" has followed "Humbug!" and "Something will turn up" into the language through the tradesman's entrance of the popular serial. His remarkable career was reminiscent of Johnny Speight (Till Death Us Do Part) and Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (Hancock, Steptoe): an ordinary background gave birth to an extraordinary career. Here he explains how it happened.

Is there such a thing as the John Sullivan voice?

I'm sure you have a style. I feel there is a style you can't escape from: you can see it in Fool and Just Good Friends and Roger Roger. The voice was there.

How did Citizen Smith come about?

The idea had been around five years or so before I sat down and wrote it. I had been sending scripts off for so long, for nine years or so, and had them rejected, and I had this idea about this half-hearted urban guerilla who played revolution, and I always thought it was my best idea. I had this terrible fear that if I presented it and had it turned down it would be the end for me. I didn't know how I'd come back. So I was frightened of sending it in until I met Dennis Main Wilson. He was my mentor and was a very inspirational kind of person. Dennis started The Goons, did Hancock’s Half-Hour, Till Death Us Do Part. He was a legend. He really gave me the strength to go and do it. He actually said to me once, “Don't talk about it, do it.” And I suddenly realised, I've been talking about this for five years. Never done it.

Were you earning a living in any other capacity?

Apart from plumbing? I done numerous jobs. Lorry driving, building sites, and writing when I was at home. At the same time, because I went to the BBC to work it all came together. I was working on the Porridge set and during a break in rehearsals Ronnie Barker was laying on the bunk in the prison set. And I went up to him and said, "Do you read anybody's sketches?" he said, "Yeah." So the following Sunday I brought some sketches in and one-liners for him. Ronnie liked some of them and he put me on a contract to write for The Two Ronnies. I went on to work for them for five seasons. Exactly the same time as Dennis Main Wilson bought Citizen Smith. The main one I did was Sid and George, the two barroom philosophers, two cockney guys who sit in a bar and talk rubbish.

"It's a duck": Sid and George in The Two Ronnies

What were you doing on the Porridge set?

Shifting the scenery, dressing the props. In my letter I wrote, “This is what I want to do with my life. And I'd like to work in the BBC, any job at all, just to be there.” The moment I put it in the letterbox I thought, no, you fool, that's it, you've killed your chance. They're going to say, “Here's another nutter.” They didn't. They came back and offered me a job and basically said "Don't annoy the stars." That was the only warning I got. Which I did.

How long had you been there before you annoyed Barker?

About 18 months. I could see if they weren't doing anything, I'd go up and talk to them, trying desperately to find out who were the producers, who did what. It was a real campaign on my part.

Was it a foreign country?

Where I worked they were all guys the same as me. I was amazed to find out when I sold the script that there was another guy working with me who had had a Play For Today starring Patrick Troughton, but then nothing after that. He had never said anything.

There must have been a point at which you thought, I'd like to write for television?

About 1967. I was working in them days in Watneys Brewery down in Balham. What they did, they paired you off and you'd work in various areas. The guy they put me with was called Paul Saunders, who I'd been at school together with. A naturally funny fellow, and we got on really well and comedy was really important to us. One day he suggested, "Why don't we have a go at doing this?" So I went and bought some old typewriter at a second-hand shop and we took about seven or eight weeks to tell this story. We sent it off and it got turned down immediately and he lost interest, he seemed to be dejected by it, whereas I enjoyed the process so much that I thought I don't care if they reject it, I enjoy it, I'll just carry on on my own. They were absolutely right to chuck it out. It became my hobby. Every so often I'd come up with something I thought was a really good one. I sent things to The Frost Report and Dave Allen and everything but couldn't get through until I went to the Beeb.

Why couldn't you get through?

At the time I thought it was good enough. I'm not sure how people look at it when they get scripts coming in from strangers. They tend to just play safe and go to agents and get recognised writers. Perhaps they're not willing to take a gamble.

Watch a clip from the pilot of Citizen Smith

When did you get an agent?

The night we did the pilot of Smith, Dennis Main Wilson introduced me to my agent. He came along, saw the recording, and he had to judge what he thought of it. It became a cult thing. Somewhere once I picked up a newspaper and it was in the ratings at number nine but that was when ITV were on strike. That was the best it did. I always thought you were nothing unless you got in the Top 10. I didn't realise that you don't necessarily have to be in there. I was quite content with the whole thing because it had given me enough money to get a house. Life was better, as long as it went on I was happy.

It was Citizen Smith that got you Fool.

We finished Smith. I had a contract for six or seven episodes of whatever I was doing, plus one. I did a pilot about the manager of a football team which the BBC liked. They put me on a contract for a series but at the same time Bob Lindsay was also going for a series about a boxer called Seconds Out. Bill Cotton came back from America and suddenly realised he had two sporting comedies, so he dropped my football one. I had a contract for six episodes of something and nothing to fill it with. The director of Smith said to me, “Why don't you do that thing about the readies men?” Fool was called Readies at one time. I went away and wrote the pilot and the Beeb didn't like it at all but they were kind of over a barrel. Because of this contract they either had to pay me for doing nothing or let me write it. In the end reluctantly they let me write them. Really it was Bill Cotton turning down one pilot idea that we got pulled on the road. It might never have happened otherwise.

Did they like it?

It was too colourful for them. Did they have to speak like this? I only took it from what I'd heard. They didn't like the first series but they had a tradition that they'd always give you a second. They didn't like that either. Then it went incredibly quiet. Nothing happened. No one said, “We don't want it.” No one said, “We do.” Then the head of comedy repeated the second series in the summer and suddenly it went up to number four or five. From nothing at all they wanted two series, 14 episodes straight off.

Del Boy falls through the bar

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