John Sullivan obituary

Creator of TV sitcoms such as Only Fools and Horses and Citizen Smith that became national institutions

According to various polls, Only Fools and Horses is the most popular UK sitcom of all time. Its author, John Sullivan, who has died aged 64, after a bout of viral pneumonia, once said "I'll never kill off Del Boy while the public still loves him," and even after the series officially ended in 1991, he kept writing further episodes and "specials" for 20 years.

The history of British broadcasting is rich with Dickensian television comedy writing rooted in lower-middle and working-class lives. Johnny Speight created the loudmouthed bigot Alf Garnett; Galton and Simpson came up with Steptoe and Son, the warring rag-and-bone merchants; and Sullivan gave us the Peckham wheeler-dealer Derek "Del Boy" Trotter. Del Boy, with ludicrous aspirations of amassing great wealth, and as played by David Jason, was Sullivan's favourite creation.

As the son of an Irish plumber, John Sullivan, and his charlady wife, Hilda, in south London, Sullivan knew people just like Del Boy (so did Jason, whose father was a fish merchant). Many of his characters stepped right out of the Peckham market of his youth into our living-rooms. Audiences knew exactly who they were, and why they were funny, and Christmas without the Trotters became as inconceivable as Christmas without turkey and crackers; Only Fools and Horses regularly attracted viewing figures of over 15 million, sometimes 20 million, and won the Bafta award for best comedy series in 1986, 1989 and 1997.

The Trotters were rooted in the aggressive, DIY, self-employed culture and vernacular of working-class south London, Sullivan's world, with Jason's incorrigible wide-boy ("lovely jubbly" was the hand-rubbing phrase at the prospect of sealing another dodgy deal) and his moon-faced brother, Rodney ("you plonker"), played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, acquiring institutional status in the national consciousness.

The show began in 1981 as a story of three men of three generations in Peckham, all without a woman in their life. Del's upbringing had installed moral virtue and a sense of family solidarity, even though he would sell any load of old rubbish to gullible punters; and he would protect dim-witted Rodney with his life. The third main character was Grandad, played by Lennard Pearce, a bit of a whinger, retreating into deep sulks, but loveable all the same.

When Pearce died in 1984, Sullivan replaced him with Buster Merryfield as the peppery Uncle Albert, who moved into the household after a life at sea. Del's "business" was conducted either from home, or in the back of his little Reliant Regal Supervan with its "Trotters Independent Trading Company" sign; or else in the local pub, the Nag's Head, where the cynical barman, Mike (Kenneth MacDonald), presided over a motley crew of regulars.

Most prominent among them were the gangster spiv Boycie, resplendent in his camel coat with a velvet collar, and the slow-witted philosophical mutterer Trigger, characters inhabited by John Challis and Roger Lloyd-Pack to the highest degree of humour and authenticity. So brilliant and accurate was Sullivan's writing that these people really did acquire a life of their own; they only had to appear to fulfil every expectation we had of them, a rare quality in any drama. Love and marriage did enter the Trotter brothers' lives, with Cassandra (Gwyneth Strong) for Rodney, and Raquel (Tessa Peake-Jones) for Del Boy. But the core of the show was the childlike partnership and double act of Del and Rodney, a sort of south London Laurel and Hardy, fuelled equally by irritation and affection.

Sullivan saw the success of his story of Del Boy's recurrent failures as symptomatic of the zeitgeist: "He was out there in the vanguard of this new era in British history," he said in 2003. "No one seemed aware of this great tidal swell of change among the working classes, buying property and owning companies, until Del Boy showed Maggie Thatcher the way. I was also very lucky that all this new technology came in as I was writing him, so Del started off with one of those brick-like mobile phones."

Sullivan's first producer, Ray Butt, was succeeded in 1985 by Gareth Gwenlan, who says that the pre-eminence of the writer in television comedy is what distinguishes the genre in this country. Sullivan didn't "create" a series and then leave it to others; he wrote every word.

Sullivan's ability to write about the world he knew was a rare gift, but sluggish to manifest itself. He grew up in Balham, south-west London, failed his 11-plus examination and left Telfer Scott secondary school aged 15 with no qualifications, except a love of Charles Dickens, whose books "came alive" for him thanks to an English teacher who read them out in class and encouraged his pupils to join in with the characters' voices.

He worked as a messenger at Reuters, then for a year at an advertising agency, Collett, Dickenson and Pearce (which employed the future film-makers David Puttnam and Alan Parker), before joining a second-hand car trader as a cleaner, then salesman. He played amateur football for Southside Athletic and joined Watney's Brewery, where an old schoolfriend showed him a newspaper article about the TV scriptwriter Speight earning £1,000 for each episode of Till Death Us Do Part; Sullivan was earning £1,000 a year. He bought a second-hand typewriter and started work on an unproduced sitcom called Gentlemen, about an old soldier running a gents' lavatory. Sullivan bought self-help books and studied English and maths but in 1972 was still working as a plumber. He met and married Sharon, a secretary, in 1974 and decided to work at the BBC as a scene-shifter in order to make some contacts for his writing. Encouraged by the comedian Ronnie Barker, he started writing comedy sketches for The Two Ronnies and Dave Allen.

He approached the veteran producer Dennis Main Wilson in the BBC club with an idea about a suburban revolutionary. He took two weeks' leave to write the pilot episode of Citizen Smith at his in-laws' home in Crystal Palace, and Wilson included it in the Comedy Special series, the successor to Comedy Playhouse, which had spawned many sitcom classics. The first of four series of Citizen Smith aired in 1977, with an absurdly funny Robert Lindsay playing Wolfie Smith, a poor man's Che Guevara in a black beret, and leader of the Tooting Popular Front, a small band of inept political terrorists (battle cry, "Power to the People"), running up bar bills and attracting only scorn and indifference.

While still writing Only Fools and Horses, Sullivan wrote other popular sitcoms, notably Just Good Friends (1983-86), a comedy romance between Paul Nicholas's working-class bookie, Vince, and Jan Francis's prissier, more middle-class girlfriend, Penny; and Dear John (1986-87) in which a schoolteacher played by the outstanding Ralph Bates muddled through in a west London bedsitter after his wife ran off with his former best friend. The Dear John format was sold to America, where it was remade and (with Judd Hirsch in the lead) then sold back to the BBC, with Sullivan writing some of these episodes himself. Roger Roger (1998-2003) was set in a mini-cab firm and deployed a new set of dubious, fast-talking characters, and Heartburn Hotel (1998-2000), written with Steve Glover, strayed into darker territory, with Tim Healy playing an embittered Falklands war veteran who takes over the Olympic hotel in Smethwick, named in the misguided belief that Birmingham would host the 1992 Olympic Games.

None of these later series repeated the runaway success of Only Fools and Horses, and Sullivan even fell out with the BBC when he turned to Dickens; his Micawber (2001), with Jason in the title role, was produced by ITV. Sullivan wrote only the first series of The Green Green Grass (2005-09), in which Boycie and his wife Marlene, played by Challis and Sue Holderness, exchange the back streets of Peckham for the open fields of Shropshire, where they do not take all that successfully to life down on the farm. The third and final episode of another Only Fools spinoff, Rock & Chips, a "prequel" set in the 1960s, is due to be broadcast this Thursday.

There were rumours that Sullivan might be writing one last episode of Only Fools, with all the characters rolling up to collect their old age pensions. Lloyd-Pack says that Sullivan always left the writing of each episode to the very last minute; there was rarely a finished script when shooting began. But he had a seemingly bottomless fund of stories to draw on, and the edginess in the rehearsal room undoubtedly fed into the general liveliness of the acting and dialogue.

Sullivan himself was a reserved and unassuming man, who loved working with actors, and spent endless hours in the editing room. He never moved in showbusiness circles, preferring to be at home with the family in Reigate, Surrey, where he collected good books and fine wines, and at his holiday apartment in Majorca. He was appointed OBE in 2005 and is survived by Sharon and their three children, Dan, James and Amy, and two grandchildren.

• John Richard Thomas Sullivan, screenwriter, born 23 December 1946; died 23 April 2011

• This article was amended on 26-27 April 2011. The original stated that Del Boy conducted business from the back of his Robin Reliant. This has been corrected.


Michael Coveney

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sean Hughes obituary
Award-winning comedian who was a key figure in the evolution of modern standup and reached a wide TV audience on Never Mind the Buzzcocks

Bruce Dessau

16, Oct, 2017 @4:36 PM

Article image
John Fortune obituary

Comedian and actor best known for the satirical television show Bremner, Bird and Fortune

Michael Coveney

31, Dec, 2013 @6:47 PM

Article image
Felix Dexter obituary
Actor and standup comedian known for his roles in The Fast Show and Citizen Khan

Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse

21, Oct, 2013 @6:06 PM

Article image
Margaret John obituary
Welsh actor known for her role in the TV sitcom Gavin & Stacey

Anthony Hayward

06, Feb, 2011 @6:19 PM

Article image
Simon Brint obituary

Composer for many television comedy shows and half of the cult duo Raw Sex

Ade Edmondson

27, Jun, 2011 @5:08 PM

Article image
Bob Larbey obituary

Television sitcom and screenplay writer behind popular hits such as Please Sir!, The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles

Michael Coveney

06, Apr, 2014 @2:37 PM

Article image
John Howard Davies obituary

A child star as Oliver Twist, he became a key figure in epoch-making TV comedy

Matthew Sweet

24, Aug, 2011 @5:45 PM

Article image
Keith Harris obituary
Ventriloquist and comedian who found fame on stage and TV with Orville the duck. They also reached No 4 in the charts with Orville’s Song in 1982

Anthony Hayward

28, Apr, 2015 @5:15 PM

Article image
Sir Antony Jay obituary
Co-writer of Yes Minister, BBC TV’s satire on the mechanics of government

Stephen Bates

23, Aug, 2016 @5:44 PM

Mel Smith obituary

Comedian, actor, writer and director who came to prominence in satirical TV sketch show Not the Nine O'Clock News

Stuart Jeffries

21, Jul, 2013 @4:12 PM