This review contains spoilers.
The third episode of this Only Fools And Horses prequel begins to the upbeat strains of Twisting The Night Away. It’s February 1962, and Joan Trotter (Kellie Bright) is watching astronaut John Glenn’s rocket being launched. She and young Rodney are looking at a Bournemouth holiday brochure, a holiday she should have taken if her plans hadn’t been thwarted by Del Boy…
The extended Trotter family is joined by Del’s grandmother. Vi Trotter, played by Paula Wilcox, has been roped in to babysit Rodney, as Joan’s job at the cinema and as ‘housekeeper’ to Freddie Robdal takes up more of her time. Phil Daniels, growing into his role as grandad Ted Trotter, and Shaun Dingwall as Joan’s husband Reg, make welcome return appearances.
Meanwhile, Freddie “the Frog” Robdal (Nicholas Lyndhurst) is being investigated by the police for a robbery on a jewellers in Margate. He gave Joan a ring from the robbery. This means that we get the welcome return of Mel Smith as the ineffectual Detective Inspector Thomas, a role not a million miles away from Inspector Bribeasy, the ‘tec Smith played in the Smith And Jones sketches, Porno and Bribeasy of The Yard. Smith was probably the best thing in the rather lacklustre Christmas special Five Gold Rings.Thomas tries to convince Robdal he has an eyewitness to the robbery in a desperate attempt to get a confession. Del (James Buckley) is keen to buy a Lambretta, to be up with his mates and, more to the point, to impress his latest fiancee. Inspired by the millions the film Breakfast A Tiffany’s has made, Del decides filmmaking is his future.
Del’s relationship with Barbara Bird, a nicely judged performance from Jessica Ashworth (young Sarah Jane in The Sarah Jane Adventures) provides the light relief to Joan and Freddie’s problems. Del tries to impress upon the art-loving, vegetarian Barbara that his film project, Dracula On The Moon, is an artistic venture. Cinema owner Mr Raynor, the always excellent Robert Dawes, is impressed by the film idea, using it as a means to an end in his continuing pursuit of Joan – something he later regrets when Freddie finds out.
Del then buys a Lambretta from car dealer Alberto, using money Joan obtained by pawning Robdal’s ring. DI Thomas, determined to get his man, arrests Robdal for murder (a hanging offence in the early 60s). Aware he’s been set up, Robdal does a deal to keep Joan’s name out of the investigation. Thomas eventually puts Robdal away on a lesser charge of not having a tax disc.
Del meets Barbara’s parents at their home in Kings Avenue. Alex MacQueen (one of James Buckley’s co-stars in The Inbetweeners) plays the slightly eccentric Bernard Bird, a funeral director. Samantha Spiro (recently seen in Simon Amstell’s Grandma’s House) is outstanding as Beryl, Barbara’s man-eating mother. Del’s chances take a hit when Bernard discovers his daughter is dating the son of a docker.
Long-term Only Fools… fans are rewarded with the details of Ted Trotter’s affair with Trigger’s grandma, which was mentioned in the Only Fools And Horses episode, Ashes To Ashes. Del is seen singing along to Old Shep, which was the focus of the episode, Diamonds Are For Heather.
Del gets to say “lovely jubbly”, though this seems a little out of keeping, given the older Del only began saying it in his Yuppie phase. Perhaps he just re-discovered it.
Robdal promises to “go straight” after his release. He wants to take Joan and Rodney to Bournemouth and buy a boat. Joan is worried about Del’s future, Freddie is convinced Del will be fine if he meets the right girl and so it becomes paramount to their plans to elope that his engagement to Barbara goes well.
The engagement party is a delightful comedy of class and manners. Realising she is trapped in a lifeless marriage, Beryl Bird makes a pass at Del, much to the consternation of all concerned. Despite Joan’s brave attempt to calm the situation, the engagement is off and Joan’s dream is ruined. Del toys with the idea of giving up girls and entering the priesthood, then he spies his Lambretta. As Robdal waits for Joan’s answer, Del and his mates ride their Lambrettas in the moonlight. They are heading for Brighton.
All in all, this episode is a pleasant hour of comedy-drama, a decent balance of plot and characterisation. The cast has grown in confidence, though Del’s mates have few lines. Kellie Bright is excellent as the frustrated Trotter matriarch. Sadly, the untimely death of John Sullivan has cast doubt on the future of the series. Sullivan wrote Green, Green Grass with his son Jim, so maybe he will continue the story.
Rock And Chips was perhaps his most subtle comedy, darker than Only Fools And Horses, yet rich in their shared characters. Joan Trotter is as fully rounded as one would expect from Sullivan. The last major piece in the Trotter jigsaw if you will. The series was something of a love letter to the 60s and Sullivan’s formative years, the BBC delivering the period setting perfectly.
John Sullivan was one of British comedy’s greatest writers. While Only Fools And Horses and Citizen Smith remain his best known work, he also wrote for The Two Ronnies and penned several other sitcoms in his career: Just Good Friends, the quietly excellent Dear John, Sitting Pretty and Roger, Roger to name but four. Each shared his love of language and great characters. An impressive legacy.
Good TV writers are so rare. Sullivan will be sorely missed.