Paul Whitehouse: ‘I don’t care what the critics say about Only Fools and Horses – it’s a hit’

The comedian’s West End stage version of the TV show got moderate reviews – but that doesn’t bother him now

In search of theatrical gold, London’s West End is busily strip-mining a string of screen hits, from all-singing, all-dancing versions of the popular films 9 to 5, Strictly Ballroom and School of Rock to upcoming musical adaptations of the sitcoms Father Ted and Goodnight Sweetheart. While these shows are rarely awarded top marks by the critics, some do occasionally strike a valuable seam, selling out and pulling in audiences from across the country.

One such hit is Only Fools and Horses, which in spite of half-hearted praise in early reviews is doing such a roaring trade that it is listed near the top on most ticket websites, alongside Les Misérables, Matilda and Hamilton.

For the comedian Paul Whitehouse, who co-wrote the show and appears in it as Grandad, the success is a joy, but also a source of wry amusement.

“I know that some people have been sneery,” he said this weekend. “But I have been around too long to care. It is not a ‘classic’, but it is not meant to be Sondheim – and in fact I would rather see this than Sondheim.”

Even the sniffier critics have agreed the cast is excellent and the mood infectious, but the show’s main victory has been at the box office. Whitehouse freely acknowledges this is largely down to the great love the public still feels for the original BBC sitcom, which ran for 20 years and was written by the late John Sullivan.

“Old neighbour of mine, a banker, saw it the other day and had a tear in his eye,” said Whitehouse. “People come with differing expectations. Some want to see the show they loved recreated and others just come out of curiosity. Audiences have lots of different motivations, but what they don’t realise till they are in the theatre is that they will be seeing a distillation of the whole of the Only Fools story. That is slightly unexpected, I think, and may be why some feel moved.”

Whitehouse said the comedian Ricky Gervais has even broken his rule of never seeing a musical – and liked it. And Whitehouse’s partner on the riverbank, fellow fishing enthusiast Bob Mortimer, also loved it. “I think at first he was secretly hoping my knees were going to give way during one of the dances, but then he enjoyed it.”

Paul Whitehouse as Grandad
Paul Whitehouse as Grandad: ‘It is not a classic, but it is not meant to be Sondheim – and in fact I would rather see this than Sondheim.’ Photograph: Johan Persson

On Friday, the strength of national feeling for the original show was underlined when a sale of TV props, including Del Boy’s flashy jewellery, drew unexpected interest. A script from Heroes and Villains, the episode in which Del Boy and Rodney dress up as Batman and Robin, went for more than £4,000.

But Whitehouse does not believe he was shooting at an open goal. He and Sullivan’s son, Jim, approached the project with caution, and he gives a lot of credit to “brilliant” music director Stuart Morley, who arranged the songs, which Whitehouse worked on with the late Chas Hodges of Chas & Dave. The director, CJ Ranger, also knocked the story into shape, he says.

“I genuinely don’t care what musical theatre critics on broadsheet papers say about it now. I don’t have to. Maybe I would if it had not been such a hit,” Whitehouse said. “I understand that theatre writers have to look at it from an esoteric point of view and don’t care so much about bums on seats, and that is fair enough. I also suppose I am viewed as a bit of a johnny-come-lately.”

When the notion of developing the show was put to Whitehouse, he was unsure. “I didn’t jump at it,” he said. “After all, this is a sitcom held in such affection I still sometimes wake up some nights in a cold sweat. I have conversations with myself asking why I’ve mucked it about. But the answer I give myself is a good one: I say that John Sullivan started this. He began writing it before he died.”

The writer’s son suggested using a favourite episode about a dating bureau as the heart of the plot, introducing Del Boy to his great love, Raquel. Whitehouse’s two first ideas were a song about the cockney exodus from London and a scene projecting into London’s future. “It was a good idea to set it back in 1989, but we needed to look forward as well. This was the way to make it more than an exercise in nostalgia.”

And there is little of the grandeur of a traditional musical experience: “Fairly early on, we break the ‘fourth wall’, as I believe theatre people call it, and talk to our audience. I want to do it all the time, of course, because of my comedy background. But we have to stick to the script because there are specific things that need to happen on time with the revolving stage. We wanted quick scene changes between the Trotters’ flat and the pub, so it keeps a bit of the feel of the television show.”

Most crucial for Whitehouse is the performance of Tom Bennett as Del Boy, which has to convey the burden of the sentiment. “I watch Tom every night in awe. There needs to be that heart. Under the veneer Del Boy has done quite a lot for his family. And Rodney is key – perhaps the more complex because he is the most grown-up.”

Rather like beloved music-hall turns, the Trotter brothers are welcomed with shrieks of appreciation each night as they deliver their catchphrases, newly polished up for resale.

Whitehouse is to step down from his role later in the run, but only temporarily. He wants to “rekindle” his relationships with his established comedy partners Harry Enfield and Charlie Higson, but promises to be back.

As for the lukewarm critical reception – well, as Del Boy says in the show, “that is all epidemic now”, because Whitehouse has helped Sullivan’s last wish come true.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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