PLEASE NOTE: THIS EPISODE SCREENS ON SUNDAY NIGHT ON BBC ONE AT 9PM. THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.
Only Fools And Horses was one of the most successful sitcoms ever broadcast by the BBC. Writer John Sullivan always hinted there was a story to be told about Del Boy’s younger days. So, the time now seems right to explore that avenue.
The BBC has attempted prequels before, most notably 1988’s First Of The Summer Wine, wherein Peter Sallis played Clegg’s father, which lead to a six part series in 1989. In Rock And Chips, Nicholas Lyndhurst plays Rodney’s father Freddie Robdal aka ‘Freddy the Frog’, a roguish safe cracker with artistic leanings and frogman diving skills (hence the nickname!).
The main focus of Rock And Chips is the blossoming romance between Del’s mum Joan Trotter and Freddie Robdal, a character first mentioned in the 1987 Only Fools And Horses Christmas special The Frog’s Legacy.
Rumours abounded Freddie “The Frog” Robdal may have been Rodney’s father. Joan Sims guested as Joan Trotter’s friend Irene “Reenie” Turpin (also Trigger’s Aunt) who tells Del the full story. In the final episode of Only Fools And Horses, 2003’s Christmas special Sleepless In Peckham, Rodney discovers the truth when he finds a photograph of Freddie on the 1960 Jolly Boys Outing to Margate. Viewers aware of all this will get a lot out of this special.
Curiously, the title was originally to be Once Upon A Time In Peckham, then Sex And Drugs And Rock And Chips, which was a bit of a mouthful. But why was it shortened? Perhaps not to be confused with the current Ian Dury biog film, Sex And Drugs And Rock n’ Roll, or more likely it was the drugs reference (which is borne out in the drama, incidentally) or perhaps it was just too similar a title to the BBC’s 1999 drama, Sex And Chips And Rock ‘n’ Roll…?
The establishing shots are rather low key. The monochrome titles are a world away from the upbeat, jaunty Only Fools And Horses opening singalong. The interesting use of ungraded videotape (at least on the preview copy) and the opening scene of Joan (a standout performance from Kellie Bright), looking beehive glamorous, staring rather wistfully into her dressing table mirror, is (perhaps intentionally) startlingly reminiscent of a mid-70s Play For Today. Thus, the tone is set and the lack of a laugh track marks this out as more comedy drama than sitcom. The comedy moments take second place to the illicit romance of Joan and Freddie.
Del Boy, for once, isn’t the main focus of the show. Inbetweeners actor James Buckley plays the wheeler dealer at fifteen, hormonal and desperate to lose his cherry. Embracing under-age smoking and drinking (but drawing the line at drugs) and surrounded by all his mates, Boycie, Slater, Trigger (always a bit behind the others) and newly arrived from Liverpool, Denzil.
Del Boy’s stance on drugs is interesting as it seems to support David Jason’s perception of the character “…not always honest but moral“.
Buckley is a talented young actor and deserves to be better known. He embellishes the part with some of David Jason’s mannerisms, notably the forward pushing nod of the head. It’s such a good performance, it feels churlish to suggest Buckley is about four inches too tall to be Del, though people do shrink with age!
Sullivan has included several characters and throwaway lines which explain many things in the parent show. The character of Jumbo Mills was seen in the 1986 Only Fools And Horses episode Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? returning from Australia to restart his erstwhile partnership with Del Boy. They used to sell things from a van outside the Nags Head in the 60s.
Here they are seen together selling ‘hooky’ carpets from a van. Only Joan’s friend Reenie Turpin suspecting the carpets might not be from a reputable source.
Albie Littlewood appears too. He was mentioned in the 1985 episode Happy Returns as Del’s love rival for the hand of the rather gauche Juney. Littlewood meets a rather tragic end in 1964. There were reports the special would feature the never-seen Monkey Harris; it doesn’t, I’m pleased to say.
Rock And Chips enjoys its nostalgia, giving us lots of big cars and 60s sounds as it charts the Trotter’s move from their overcrowded home in Orchard Street to the legendary flat in Nelson Mandela House. The reason Joan was keen to have another child so many years after Del Boy was partly to make the move possible, the housing department wanting to be seen to do their best for families with young children.
The special ends with the birth of Rodney. Interestingly, the name Rodney was chosen by Joan after the actor Rod Taylor, star of the (superior) 1960 film of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine…
The star of the drama is undoubtedly Kellie Bright. Recently seen in Catherine Tate’s Nan‘s Christmas Carol and episodes of Horne And Corden, Bright was a juvenile lead in the 80s and 90s with parts in T-Bag and The Upper Hand. She brings just the right mix of sassy Cockney sparrow and struggling mother figure to Joan Trotter.
Nicholas Lyndhurst as roguish Freddie Robdal (in a suit and trenchcoat, reminiscent of his Gary Sparrow character) is just too likeable to convince as the hardman, but Robdal is more high-minded than the average villain, so Lyndhurst just about gets away with it. It’s obvious where Rodney gets his artistic leanings from and his intelligence.
Phil Daniels relishes his role as a middle-aged version of Grandad complete with the ever-present trilby. Shaun Dingwall (Rose’s dad, Pete Tyler in Doctor Who) is seen here as Del’s abrasive painter and decorator father, Reg.
Mention should be made of Emma Cooke who shines as the all-knowing Reenie Turpin and the ever-reliable Robert Dawes has a marvellous cameo as Joan’s sexually repressed boss, cinema manager Mr Rayner.
All in all, Rock And Chips is an enjoyable and nostalgic one-off. Don’t expect a laugh-out-loud comedy, though. It’s darker and more thoughtful, bittersweet, even.
The main story is relatively slight, but this allows a chance to catch up with all the Fools And Horses regulars in their younger days. Dedicated fans will appreciate the back stories of the various characters.
James Buckley does very well, but we don’t really see enough of him. Also it would have been fun to see a teenage Marlene living up to the phrase “…all the lads remember Marlene!”
BBC One has been carefully resting Only Fools And Horses for several years now to make it more welcome should it return in whatever shape or form. John Sullivan holds the record for the most-watched comedy show of both the Nineties and the Noughties: The Christmas specials of Only Fools And Horses from 1996 and 2001-3.
Whilst I’m sure it will be popular, it seems unlikely Rock And Chips will give Sullivan the record for the new decade, but I think the special may well lead to a series. Such a series could focus more on Del Boy and his mates as Rodney grows up, perhaps ending with Joan’s untimely death and Reg’s departure (with Del’s sixteenth birthday cake!), leaving Del and Grandad to bring up Rodney, which would set the scene for the start of Only Fools And Horses…