When Joan Trotter, tragic mother of legendary sitcom siblings Delboy and Rodney, meets Frederick Robdal, she sees a way out of her life as a cinema usherette and a chance to move from the overcrowded family home in Orchard Street to the “palace in the sky” that high rise housing promised at the dawn of the 60s.
Unlike its parent series, Only Fools And Horses, Rock And Chips has a rather downbeat opening, a world away from the catchy knees up of the parent series’ signature tune.
We are introduced to Joan looking wistfully at herself in the mirror adjusting her fashionable beehive hair-do in a scene exuding with a pathos redolent of the classic BBC Play For Today series of the 70s and 80s.
What follows may make you smile, chuckle occasionally, but this is a bittersweet comedy drama laced with romance and not necessarily what we had come to expect from John Sullivan.
The Only Fools And Horses writer originally approached the BBC with the idea of a prequel in 1997, when his most popular series appeared to end with Del and his family becoming millionaires. Initially, the proposal was rejected. Sullivan was encouraged to write a series of Christmas specials by a BBC lacking fresh ideas at the turn of the millennium, which were made during 2001 and aired between 2001 and 2003.
Sullivan reminded viewers of the Freddie Robdal character he established in the 1987 Christmas Special The Frog’s Legacy, in the eventual last episode of Only Fools And Horses called Sleepless In Peckham. The rumour of his father’s identity had haunted Rodney since the 1983 episode Thicker Than Water when it was established he and Del had different blood groups.
In 2003, the BBC greenlit the prequel, only to shelve it a year later, preferring Sullivan to develop the characters of Boycie and Marlene in a spin-off called The Green, Green Grass. Eventually, the BBC commissioned and filmed the prequel in 2009. Originally shown in January, Rock And Chips was watched by 8 million devoted Trotter fans anxious for a fresh take on the family at the heart of one of Britain’s best-loved sitcoms.
Unusually for a BBC production, this DVD has been licensed to Lionsgate. Is this a suggestion the show may not eventually spawn the long anticipated series? Or maybe Only Fools And Horses will join a small band of sitcoms which have begat more than one spin-off? Man About The House and its progeny George And Mildred and Robin’s Nest being perhaps the most obvious example.
After the, frankly, misguided The Green, Green Grass (Boycie’s used car dealer background could have been better served had Minder and Swiss Toni not got there first?) a thoughtful bittersweet comedy drama would be welcome (and since this review was written, has now been officially commissioned). Nicholas Lyndhurst, although nominally the lead, is a generous enough actor to allow his younger co-stars to take centre stage.
Special mention should be made of Kellie Bright as Joan Trotter. Her performance is undoubtedly key to the show’s success and she puts in a winning performance which holds the attention and makes Delboy’s fond reminiscences in Only Fools seem suddenly more credible and poignant.
Grandad Trotter is played here by Phil Daniels, who has clearly made a keen observation of the late Lennard Pearce’s brilliant character performance. Grandad’s name is revealed as Ted.
Delboy is played by James Buckley, familiar to some quarters as the eager, cocksure Jay from The Inbetweeners. His erstwhile layabout Dad, Reg Trotter, originally glimpsed in the parent series and played by Peter Woodthorpe is played here by Shaun Dingwall, whom Geek fans will recognise as Rose Tyler’s Dad in Doctor Who.
We meet Del’s mates Trigger, Boycie, and (newly arrived from Liverpool) Denzil as young men. We also learn more about a young “Jumbo” Mills with whom Del sells carpets and “hooky” gear from the back of a van. Jumbo appeared in the 1986 episode Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? attempting to get Delboy to join him in his motor business venture in Australia. Although we see a young Junee and the unfortunate Albie Littlewood, we don’t meet young Marlene, so the phrase “all the lads remember Marlene” continues to tantalise us. Likewise “Monkey” Harris remains an unseen trader on Del’s phone.
Joan’s best friend is Reenie Turpin, played in The Frogs Legacy by Carry On stalwart Joan Sims and here by Emma Cooke. Reenie, who is Trigger’s aunt, is clearly well aware of Delboy’s dodgy schemes, unlike her hopelessly naive nephew. Joan’s boss at work is the frustrated cinema manager Ernie Raynor, a delightful cameo from the excellent Robert Daws, who starred in Sullivan’s cabbie comedy drama Roger, Roger.
Rock And Chips exploits its period credentials. There is a heavy dose of 60s nostalgia, all big cars, Dansette record players and milk bars, yet somehow it all falls a bit short of the kind of thing the BBC normally does so well, seeming a little clean and contrived.
An important historical detail is the fact the tower block that became Nelson Mandela House is called Sir Walter Raleigh House, in 1960. Mandela was yet to become the imprisoned cause celebre.
The series doesn’t overplay its prequel status too much, allowing the characters to breathe but, arguably, doesn’t give us as much Delboy as we might like. Then again, this is very much the story of Joan and Freddie, the supporting cast adding to the established mythology of Only Fools And Horses.
There are no extras, which is a serious missed opportunity. Surely a ‘making of’ doc or a commentary from Nick Lyndhurst and Kellie Bright could have been arranged?
BBC1 has been carefully resting Only Fools And Horses for the last few years and consequently Rock And Chips feels quite fresh and has a great deal of potential as a heart-warming Sunday night comedy drama for a season or two. As long as the BBC doesn’t overplay its hand, it may well have an interesting new take on one of its best-loved sitcom franchises.
Rock & Chips is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.