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Obituary: John Sullivan OBE, television scriptwriter

Creator of television sitcoms such as Only Fools and Horses

John Sullivan OBE, television scriptwriter.

Born: 23 December, 1946, in Balham.

Died: 23 April, 2011, in Surrey, aged 64.

JOHN Sullivan was responsible for two of the most popular comedy sitcoms on BBC television: Only Fools and Horses about a fly-by-night market trader and Citizen Smith, the life of a hectoring, nave young communist.

John Sullivan had the knack of making his characters real and recognisable and then putting them in everyday situations that maximised the humour.

His scripts reflected the change in society and were based on situations and people he had known. To that, Sullivan added something dramatically special: such as when Sir David Jason's Del Boy and Trigger fail to impress two ladies in the pub. Del Boy then leans nonchantly on the open bar-hatch, which has been raised by the barman, and collapses. That scene has been voted one of the funniest on television.

Only Fools and Horses - starring Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst as the two south London brothers out to make a quick buck - won Sullivan worldwide fame. The show ran for ten years on BBC from 1981 and is often repeated on the digital channels. There were also Christmas specials that have taken on cult status. The 1996 special, Time On Our Hands, was the final episode and Del Boy at last made a killing. It was watched by more than 24 million people, a record for a sitcom in the UK.

Not surprisingly, Only Fools and Horses was regularly voted the greatest British sitcom, but Sullivan always found a way to inject social realism and add brilliant one-liners and unforgettable situation gags (undoing a chandelier with infinite care and then finding it was the wrong chandelier) or catchphrases (Lovely-Jubbly and Plonker) or Trigger's priceless, "If it's a girl they're calling her Sigourney after an actress, and if it's a boy they're naming him Rodney after Dave."

Sullivan's incisive writing subtly mixed pathos with comedy. The episode when Cassandra lost her baby was typical. Del Boy gives Rodney a lecture that he must be strong and not cry. When they go into the hospital Del Boy bursts into tears. Beautifully handled and capturing the sadness of the moment with absolute discretion.

John Richard Thomas Sullivan's father was an Irish plumber in south London and his mother was a charlady. He did not enjoy his schooling until an English master read some books out loud in class. "He made the stories come alive," Sullivan recalled later. He left school at 15, but maintained a love of literature - especially Charles Dickens - all his life. At 16. he got a job as a scene shifter at the BBC, on condition "that he didn't make a nuisance of himself or pester any of the stars."

He started sketching out a sitcom about a communist in south London. The BBC suggested, instead, that he submit ideas for The Two Ronnies and the Dave Allen Show, and Sullivan asked Ronnie Barker for advice.

He was sufficiently impressed to offer Sullivan an immediate contract.

The BBC commissioned Sullivan to write a pilot of Citizen Smith in 1977. It ran for three years and introduced Robert Lindsay as loveable revolutionary rogue "Wolfie" Smith who, in Che Guevara beret, was forever giving revolutionary salutes. "Wolfie" was summed up by one of Sullivan's memorable lines, "As soon as the pub closes, he is going to start the revolution."

His next project about a football club (Over The Moon) never got past the first pilot stage. Undeterred, Sullivan developed the idea of Only Fools and Horses and within two weeks had a script at the BBC. It was initially titled Readies, but that was soon replaced. The central role was first offered to Jim Broadbent, but he was busy, so the part went to Jason, who made it his own and for whom Sullivan greatly enjoyed writing.

Sullivan admitted the character was based on an amalgam of many people he had known while working in the second-hand car trade in the 1970s.

Jason and Lyndhurst encouraged Sullivan to explore the darker side of life in Peckham. The dodgy deals, the materialism and chauvinism were balanced by the genuine nature of the characters - set against gloriously outrageous situations and many ribald comments about the Reliant Regal van.

Sir David said of Sullivany: "We have lost one of our greatest comedy writers He has left us a great legacy: the gift of laughter."

While he was writing the second series, Sullivan wrote Just Good Friends, which starred Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis as a pair of ex-lovers who meet up years after he had jilted her at the altar. It was a popular success, but his Dear John in 1991 about elderly couples was not recommissioned. Other recent dramas (Roger, Roger and Heartburn Hotel) did not prove so popular. The Green Green Grass was successful. Sullivan's latest work, Rock & Chips, a comedy drama prequel to Only Fools … is transmitted on Thursday.

Only Fools and Horses won the Bafta for best comedy series in 1986, 1989 and 1997, and Sullivan was made an OBE in 2005. He is survived by his wife Sharon and two sons and a daughter.

 
 
 

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