WRITER: John Sullivan[SPOILERS] It's actually rather sad how John Sullivan refuses to let Only Fools & Horses lie; having already destroyed its perfect 1996 finale by bringing the show back for three more ill-advised Christmas specials, allowing the series to "end" on a weak note in 2003, before creating dreadful spin-off The Green Green Grass for supporting character Boycie to headline. Now, Sullivan has penned a prequel to answer some of those questions about Only Fools that nobody was asking...
DIRECTOR: Dewey Humphreys
CAST: Nicholas Lyndhurst, Kellie Bright, James Buckley, Shaun Dingwall & Phil Daniels
Peckham, 1960. Derek "Del Boy" Trotter (James Buckley) is a grinning teenaged entrepreneur-in-the-making with an Opedipus complex[*], his father Reg (Shaun Dingwall) is a workshy layabout, his granddad (Phil Daniels) bares no vocal similarity to the late Lennard Pearce, and his mother Joan (Kellie Bright) is a cut-price Bridget Bardot working in a fleapit cinema where her manager Mr. Rayner (Robert Daws) constantly lusts over her. Into the Trotters' lives comes "reformed" safe-cracker Freddie "The Frog" Robdall (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and his accomplice Gerald "Jelly" Kelly (Paul Putner), fresh out of Dartmoor prison for robbery after the war. Freddie takes an instant liking to glamourous Joan, orchestrating an eventual tryst while her useless husband's away, and thus fathering Del's younger half-brother Rodney.
It's a simple story, spread out over 90-minutes, which means there's plenty of unnecessary diversions and moments of business designed to give Only Fools aficionados some thrills; from the simple pleasures of seeing characters like Trigger (Lewis Osborne), Boycie (Stephen Lloyd), Denzil (Ashley Gerlach) and bullied classmate Slater (Calum McNab) when they were youngsters, to the genesis of gags like Del's ineptitude with the French language (his mother's similarly tongue-tied, mistaking "c'est la vie" with "Tel Aviv"), a forbearer of Del's habit of making bad investments (a blue carpet that causes annoying static shocks), and perhaps the Nag's Head pub's inaugural Jolly Boys outing to Margate.
It's all very well-meaning, and Rock & Chips certainly judges a few things just right. It was surprisingly canny to focus on dreamer Joanie and her unhappy marriage, rather than do a lazy retread of the original series with a teenage Del Boy trying to erase memories of David Jason. The second success is some pretty good casting –- from Inbetweeners star Buckley as Del (vocally similar to Jason with moments of familiar body-language, yet never a straight impersonation), Bright as the dim-witted working class girl with a heart o' gold, and Lyndhurst playing his own father as a charming, intelligent man with an unfortunate streak of criminality. The rest of the cast were decent, too, if often difficult to remember exactly who they were supposed to be (as Boycie has yet to develop his braying laugh, nor Trigger his deadpan facial expressions.)
Unfortunately, the downsides were more evident every step of the way. Firstly, it felt very strange to give us a prequel to a studio-based sitcom that played as a micro-budget drama. With the absence of the familiar studio laughter you associate with these characters (younger versions or not), the show seemed to just sit there rather flat; not funny enough to be an obvious comedy precursor to the illustrious Only Fools, yet not dramatic enough to justify the attempt to make this feel like a grownup period piece with a few jokes thrown in.
The gags themselves were either painfully predictable, reassuringly cheesy, or simply unfunny. Worse, the gag quotient was so low compared to Only Fools (even at its lowest ebb) that Rock & Chips often felt like a tedious game of "spot the reference", tethered to a storyline everyone could guess the outcome of after 10 minutes. It also didn't help that Lyndhurst and Bright didn't have much chemistry together, and there was something a bit uncomfortable about seeing them together as lovers. Still, both actors were undoubtedly the acting heart of the show, but if Rock & Chips becomes a fully-fledged series (which I'm sure it will be), it'll be interesting to see what they do with Joan's character -– she may have been the keystone here, but her character just wasn't funny enough to shoulder the comic burden of a weekly series.
Overall, Rock & Chips wasn't a total disaster, but it felt like a pointless excuse for John Sullivan to revisit his biggest success, now that David Jason has called it quits and present-day adventures are impossible. It stands a chance as a regular series (hey, it's already better than Green Green Grass!), but I'd like to see it break from this special's faltering comedy-drama style and become a proper old-fashioned sitcom filmed in front of a live audience. I still say that's the best way to "scare" writers into ensuring there's something for people to laugh at in their scripts. Then let James Buckley move closer to the heart of the plot as Del Boy, and actually make an effort to give us a laugh per minute.
As prequel ideas go, Rock & Chips was akin to George Lucas deciding his own Star Wars prequels should be trio of introspective, character-based dramas -- not really what we want, considering what worked before.
24 JANUARY 2010: BBC1 / BBC HD, 9PM
[*] I must say, it felt very strange to see Del wolf whistling his own mother or commenting on her "pins", particularly as nobody ever mentioned how strange that behaviour is! More innocent times?