Sunday, 24 April 2011
Not long after I left the warmth of the BBC I found myself in a warehouse outside Leeds, directing inserts for a crap ITV show. We were there to get an interview with David Jason - but his show was of more interest to me than the show I was working on. He was bringing Mr Micawber to life outside the pages of David Copperfield. At that stage no-one knew how it would work but the writer had the kind of form that suggested it could well succeed. He had a passion for Dickens and had a track record with Jason that was unparalleled. The writer was John Sullivan and sadly it was one of the few things he touched that didn't turn to gold. However, on that rainswept day in Leeds I got to meet the man who dreamed up Del Boy, shake him by the hand and share a coffee. He was quiet, unassuming, amusing and nervous . Micawber was a departure for him, a world well away from sitcoms.
John Sullivan died yesterday, he was 64 and had been making people laugh most of his working life.
The first time I laughed at something he'd written I didn't know he'd written it. It was a sketch on the Two Ronnies Show on BBC 1. The first show where he got due credit for his work was Citizen Smith. "Power To The People" was the first of many catchphrases Sullivan dropped onto a viewing public in a life spent crafting Funny stories. His great talent was creating such rich and wonderful characters. The laughs came naturally, it was only funny if it happened to that character or came out of that character's mouth.
Though his crowning glory will always be Only Fools and Horses he was no one-trick pony. Citizen Smith, Just Good Friends, Dear John were all favourites, as was the Only Fools spin-off Green Green Grass. He tried his hand at comedy drama with Micawber and Roger Roger and Over Here but he was never the best dramatic writer - good god, he had the gift of comedy! most dramatist would cut off all their appendages to have that talent.
I haven't watched an Only Fools in a while, they've been repeated so often I feel I know them like old friends, but when we were away last week on the Canary Island of Fuertaventura the kids found a pile of DVD's at our villa. Amongst them was an episode of Only Fools, the one where Del gets tricked into hang-gliding. Watching it was a treat, a real master class in a plot that works like a comic clockwork mechanism.
With the irony that a sudden death brings the latest episode of his Only Fools prequel Rock and Chips is screening on the BBC this Thursday night - but it's the David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst version that made Sullivan famous. The one that will stand the test of time.
When the public know the name of the writer you surely do have a hit.