My Favourite Christmas Special: Only Fools and Horses (Heroes and Villains)
In April of this year, one of the true greats of British TV comedy died - John Sullivan OBE. He was responsible for several of my favourite comic creations - Wolfie, from Citizen Smith, Penny & Vince from Just Good Friends for starters - but surely his finest creation, and a worthy legacy is the neo-Dickensian Peckham wide-boy Del Trotter, who with his spectacularly gormless brother Rodney and a varied cast of grotesque supporting characters bestrode late twentieth-century telly in the peerless Only Fools and Horses. No list of beloved Christmas specials would be complete without one (of the many) example of his work and I’ve chosen as my particular favourite the first part of the 1996 triple-hander, Heroes & Villains.
This episode is stellar from the go-get. It opens with Del and Raquel’s grown-up offspring Damien essentially ruling the world and Rodney still the downtrodden, clueless packhorse. Most entertaining of all is the preserved body of Uncle Albert and his constantly-repeated, “During the war” mantra. Cue the trademark Carmina Burana cantata (emphatically not from The Omen) before Rodney thankfully awakens from his nightmare.
Skipping over several quick-fire gags (Del giving Rodney an identity bracelet engraved “Rooney”, which is even funnier now than it was then), we arrive at the local cafe and Trigger talking about his road sweeper’s broom that he’s had for twenty years - and in that time he’s only had 15 new heads and 16 new handles (or something like that) in a gag that’s since become Standard Operating Procedure for the Sugababes.
And then it gets really funny. Del and Rodney are going to a fancy dress party, so they dress up as Batman & Robin. Their van breaks down and they have to foot it, preventing a mugging en route. I swear that the first time I saw them running out of the mist, I suffered a (minor) bladder malfunction. If you’ve never seen it, get sight of it somehow - GO ON: DO IT NOW!
Arriving at the venue they find that the host of the party has died and that the fancy dress party has mutated into a sombre wake (funny how no-one thought to tell them). It appears that they are the only visitors unaware of this fact as everyone else is in dark suits/dresses until Trigger (he of the everlasting broom) breezes up, and confesses his embarrassment at standing out like a butchered penguin in a snowbank, despite being dressed very formally. When Del points this out, Trigger tells him that he didn’t know the fancy dress was cancelled and that he’d come as a chauffeur.
The final set piece is in the market the next day, where the not-so-caped crusaders spot the same gang of muggers attacking an old lady. Rodney chases one of the gang and corners him at which point the mugger realises that Rodney is a card-carrying wimp and chases Rodney back along the route they’ve just followed. Del to the rescue; stepping out from behind a corner to cold-cock the bad guy (KAPOW) with his trusty suitcase (BIFF).
Del then gets a civic medal for his bravery. Turns out the woman they rescued when in costume is a local councillor, who greets him at the ceremony with the words, “Bleeding ‘ell; it’s Batman”. And the exquisitely delayed punchline to the earlier identity-bracelet gag, “Mr. Trotter was aided in the capture of the muggers by his younger brother Rooney”.
There’s a subplot about Del getting a grant to do up his kitchen (yeah, right), and another about Rodney and Cassandra trying for a baby (which leads to Albert drinking a urine sample thinking it to be apple juice) but these are secondary to the sheer joyous harmony of a great writer and a formidable cast all at full throttle - for arguably the final time. The third part of this trilogy was the equally-fabulous “Time on Our Hands” episode in which the Trotters sold “The Lesser Harrison Watch” and became rich - was it ever as good again after that?