The BBC certainly celebrates the success of Only Fools and Horses nowadays, as does the entire country, the appearance of Del and Rodney at the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony shows just how woven into the cultural fabric of this country the sitcom has become.
This is hardly surprising, with the show breaking records and garnering audiences of sometimes more than 20 million people for its most-watched episodes. The love shown today by the BBC hasn’t always been there though according to one of the show’s actors, and in the early days of Only Fools, one cast member claimed the attitude of higher-ups at the national broadcaster were frosty to say the least.
Speaking before his death aged 79 in September 2021, Boycie actor John Challis said it took a very long time to win over the suits at the top of the BBC, and even when success came to the show he felt they only celebrated it begrudgingly.
In an interview with the Radio Times, John explained how initially viewing figures for Only Fool’s first series had been underwhelming, and plans for a second series were touch and go. He recalled: “I never thought I’d say this, but luckily there was a strike at the BBC. They started repeating stuff and they put it out again, different time, different place, and word of mouth went around, and the figures went up by a couple of million.
“They thought, ‘oh, well maybe we’ll do a second series.’ So it could have been that there might never have been a second series, which is an extraordinary thought.
“There was sort of something about the BBC, Auntie BBC, who’s bigger than everything really, and it was sort of slightly embarrassing that this show had done so well. They begrudgingly said at the end of one particular series ‘oh yes, come and have a party here at the BBC. But can you bring your own wine?
“And Alan Yentob got up and made a speech, and pretended that he’d never seen the show. You know, at least go through the motions! Say ‘thanks guys for making this the most successful comedy the BBC’s ever seen, the country’s ever seen’. They didn’t want it to get bigger than the BBC itself, I suppose.”
Eventually,BBC bosses would have been unable to deny the genius of Only Fools and its enduring success with fans still watching repeats of the show on TV over 40 years after it was first shown and its stars becoming household names.