Last night, John Sullivan’s long-awaited prequel to Only Fools and Horses was shown on BBC One. Originally titled “Sex, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Chips”, this 90-minute special takes us back to the early 1960s, when Del Boy and friends were teenagers.
The programme tells the story of safecracker Freddy “The Frog” Robdal, who viewers might remember as Rodney’s real father, after his release from prison. Taking us through his first meeting with Joan Trotter through to the family moving into Nelson Mandela House and Rodney’s birth, it’s sprinkled with references to events and characters mentioned in episodes of the original series.
Inbetweeners star James Buckley was very good as a young Derek Trotter, as are the rest of the cast playing younger versions of Trigger, Boycie and Denzil, who’d just arrived from Liverpool. Phil Daniels did perfectly well as a (slightly) younger Granddad, although of course it’d be impossible for anyone to live up to the performance of Leonard Pearce, and Shaun Dingwall (Rose Tyler’s dad in Doctor Who) gives us an interesting first glimpse of the often-mentioned Reg Trotter. Nicholas Lyndhurst plays Freddie, of course, showing the rougish charm that made Joan fall for him, but it’s Kellie Bright as Del Boy’s mother who is the centre of attention throughout
Unfortunately, where Rock and Chips fails is with the humour. Considering this is spin-off of one of the most popular and funniest situation comedies in British television history, laughs were really thin on the ground, with the over-the-top Cinema manager in particular being very unfunny, looking like something from a CBBC comedy (if they were allowed to do premature ejaculation gags on CBBC, which thankfully they’re not) . What makes it worse is that for the few times where there are potentially funny moments, such as some of Trigger’s lines or Freddy’s line about the death of his cousin in a vat of coffee (“It was instant”), the lack of a studio audience holds the moment back and makes it seem awkward. Many comedy series, as well as “dramadies”, work perfectly well without a laugh track, perhaps because it’s something we’re so used to hearing in the original series, it seems wrong without one.
An interesting choice was made for the look of the programme, using ungraded HD video, rather than the film or filmic effects we’re used to seeing on most drama series these days. It gives it an unfinished, slightly cheap feel, making the experience less immersive and reminding us that we’re watching actors in a studio set. Still, the attention to detail is excellent, from the earlier versions of recognisable locations to the period advertising and packaging used in the background.
Rock and Chips would have been a real disappointment for anyone looking for the laughs of Only Fools and Horses, but as a nostalgic trip back to the early lives of some much-loved characters, I think it just about worked.