John Sullivan OBE is the genius behind Only Fools and Horses, which hit television screens in 1981 and is probably the most loved sitcom of our time.
Not only did he create the show, but he also wrote the script penning some of British comedy’s most famous phrases including Del Boy’s: “This time next year we’ll be millionaires”, and “lovely jubbly”, and he even sang the show’s famous theme tune!
The Time On Our Hands episode in 1996 is the highest-ever-watched sitcom episode in the UK pulling in 24.35 million viewers when it debuted on the BBC.
But what was the secret to John Sullivan’s success? Let’s take a peek into the life of the late, and very great, sitcom writer
Sullivan was born on December 23, 1946, at 35 Zennor Road, in Balham, a council estate that was torn down in the 1970s to make way for industrial units that are still there today.
His father was a plumber and his mother a cleaner and growing up in a tight-knit community of working-class families living close to Clapham Common meant Sullivan really had a true grit of knowledge when it came to South Londoners that shined through in Only Fools characters and storylines.
He always did swear his secret to success was writing about what he knew. It’s widely known Del Boy was an amalgam of many characters he came across throughout his life.
Rodney Trotter, the dopey younger brother to Del Boy, was even based on Sullivan’s older sibling who John claims possess many of the same traits.
Sullivan attended Telferscot Secondary Modern School and left with no qualifications before working in the second-hand car trade, amongst other things. Luckily, at the age of 16, he landed his first job at BBC’s Television Centre, and during his spare time, he wrote sketches after being inspired by the work of Charles Dickens.
Sullivan approached Dennis Main Wilson, the renowned BBC comedy producer, who commissioned him to work on the series that became Citizen Smith, which ran from 1977 to 1980.
The plot revolved around a young man with Marxist leanings and the scrapes he got into. The show ran for four series and established Sullivan’s reputation as a talented scriptwriter and he also worked on The Two Ronnies.
But it was his idea for a sitcom called Readies based on a cockney market trader that propelled Sullivan to fame as this idea soon became Only Fools and Horses.
Between 1981 and 2003, there was a total of 64 episodes following the trials and tribulations of the Trotter family living in Peckham, South London, trying desperately to become millionaires.
Although, despite the show’s success it nearly got cancelled after the first series due to poor viewing figures. But thanks to striking action at the Beeb, and subsequent repeats of the show, it was, very thankfully, recommissioned.
Sullivan also went on to write Only Fools’ spin-off Green Green Grass and prequal Rock & Chips, plus he worked on other popular shows including The Vanishing Man, Just Good Friends, Sitting Pretty, Heartburn Hotel, and Roger Roger. And in 2005, the television icon was awarded an OBE for his services to drama.
John Sullivan died on April 22, 2011, at a private hospital in Surrey after having viral pneumonia for six weeks. He was just 64 years old and left behind his wife Sharron, two sons, a daughter, and grandchildren.
At the time, Mark Freeland, who headed BBC’s comedy, called Sullivan “the Dickens of our generation”, adding: “No one understood what made us laugh and cry better than John Sullivan… Simply the best, most natural, most heartfelt comedy writer of our time.”
Sir David Jason, who played Del Boy Trotter in the sitcom, was “devastated” at the loss of his friend and said: “We have lost our country’s greatest comedy writer but he leaves us a great legacy, the gift of laughter. My thoughts at this time are with his lovely family.”