Anyone familiar with Uncle Albert will probably find it hard to imagine Buster Merryfield was ever anything but an actor. Despite his initial nerves upon joining the star-studded cast of Only Fools and Horses in 1985, Buster ended up playing the role of Del and Rodney’s long-lost seafaring relative so well, that he became a firm favourite of the show, and synonymous with his character.
This is why fans of the BBC sitcom are always surprised to learn that Buster Merryfield actually lived a totally ordinary life, working as a bank manager, before he landed the role of Uncle Albert aged 65. Incredibly, he had just a few years of acting experience when he got the part, having only discovered his passion for amateur acting and directing aged 57.
Buster joined Only Fools and Horses in the show’s fourth season. The opportunity arose after Lennard Pearce sadly died, leaving an empty role which had formerly been filled by Grandad. After putting a call-out for the role of Albert Trotter, producer Ray Butt reportedly received an influx of letters from unknown actors, many of which were simply full of “waffle.” But one letter caught his attention.
Buster Merryfield’s letter was so impressively concise that the day after Ray received it, the amateur acting enthusiast found himself in the BBC TV Centre in Wood Lane on New Year’s Day 1985, for an audition, and within months was filming his first scenes, including Uncle Albert’s character debut at Grandad’s funeral in West London.
Even Buster probably didn’t expect that he would go on to play Uncle Albert for 11 years, becoming a household name as he got repeatedly embroiled in the antics of his nephews, and coined his much-loved catchphrase: “During the war”. Particularly given that just a few years earlier he had been working as a bank manager with NatWest – for 40 years!
In an old interview, Buster admitted he was in “the enviable position of being an actor with a pension,” before going on to explain: “I worked in a bank before the war. By the time it finished – I was in the Army not the navy, by the way – I was married with a young daughter on the way. I would have been stupid to go into acting. So I settled back into banking.”
Buster had been born into a typical pre-WWII working-class British family; his mum had worked as a waitress and his father as a factory packer. Although his real name was Harry, his grandfather apparently gave him his lifelong nickname, Buster, when he was born, due to him weighing a hefty nine pounds.
The nickname suited him and he went on to become a child boxing star in the 1930s, before taking his meandering route into acting. But Buster never regretted coming late to the screen, as he once explained: “I’ve figured it out. I always said I wanted to do 40 years in a bank. A few years in the war. About 20 years as an actor. Five years to write a book and then another 10 years as a painter. By the time that’s all done I will be about 102.”
Sadly Buster didn’t get to live out the last few decades of his dream before he died, in 1999, aged 79, due to a brain tumour. Although he never became a painter, Buster did manage to write his autobiography, “During the War: And Other Encounters” before he died, and left an acting legacy that continues to be loved by Only Fools and Horses fans well into the 21st century.