If I was to tell you of an old sitcom starring David Jason about two working-class brothers living by their wits in a council flat in south-east London, one a wide-boy the other a bit simple, what do you immediately think of?
Only Fools And Horses, I presume.
The other day at my Dad’s house I came across a VHS with some episodes of a sitcom he wrote in 1975 called Lucky Feller. It was only ever broadcast once – on ITV in the autumn of 1976.
And, yes, it’s about the adventures of two working class lads from Lewisham. They live in a council flat. One’s a bit of wide-boy, the other’s a bit dim and drives a funny little car. And so on … The big difference is that David Jason played the slow one, not the wide boy.
I asked Dad, who celebrates his 80th in a month’s time, about it. “Oh, that”, he said. “The unknown comedy series.”
I know I’m biased because it’s my dad. But I watched the 3 episodes. They’re very much of the 70s, yes, but they’re funny. And David Jason was in it, for goodness sake, as was, in various episodes, Prunella Scales, Saeed Jaffrey and Burt Kwouk – of Cato fame. How could Lucky Feller be so unknown that even I, his flesh and blood, had barely heard of it? (I was only 5 when it was broadcast).
As any producer will tell you, there’s a lot more to a hit than having some halfway decent material.
Have you ever wondered why it is that the BBC made so many sitcoms that have since become classics and ITV so few? The pool of talent the two broadcasters were drawing on was pretty much the same. ITV actually paid better. The answer lies in the policy of the broadcasters towards repeats. The BBC used to put their stuff out in blocks of six or seven, often first on BBC2, then repeat them on BBC1, and then repeat them again, sometimes even a fourth time, as a warm-up for the next series. They could do this because they had control over their channels. ITV – or LWT – couldn’t, because different companies were vying with each other for the slots, so sitcoms and dramas were rarely repeated. About the only exception was (the wonderful) Rising Damp, but that only got repeats after years of single showings.
The BBC’s Fawlty Towers is widely regarded as the greatest British sitcom of all time. The first series (6 episodes) was broadcast in 1976 to 1.5 million viewers. The reviews weren’t great. Richard Ingrams described Cleese as, ‘Long John short on laughs’. The series was repeated and got 3 million viewers. It was repeated again and the number went up to 6 million. The fourth repeat got 12 million. Everybody in the country knew and had talked about the show for years yet there had only been six episodes. The second six episodes weren’t shown till 1979. If the BBC hadn’t repeated that first series, Fawlty Towers, may well have been forgotten and the second series never commissioned. Imagine that. A Britain with no Fawlty Towers, no ‘Don’t mention the war’ (from the last episode of the first series), no ‘He’s from Barcelona’, no ‘Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically …’ and all those other wonderful gags and phrases now in the national lexicon.
Something similar happened with The Office, which was nearly dropped after its first showing on BBC 2 back in 2001 so poor were the viewing figures.
I asked Dad about Lucky Feller.
“I wrote 13 episodes in 26 weeks and by the time I finished I think my brain had gone soft. LWT wanted to commission another series but I felt too wrung out to write any more unless they gave me the stimulus of repeating the first series – which they couldn’t do because of ITV’s system. There is a belief that LWT axed the show. They didn’t, it was their top show that year. It was me who axed it, unwillingly.
“LWT also put the show out at the wrong time. It should have been on after the watershed at 9.00pm – not at 7 – because of the content. But LWT’s fortunes were at a low ebb and to get and keep an audience when they took over the network for the weekend they put it out first. It certainly got their audience and their viewing figures went down from 7.30 on – after it finished.
“But 9pm is the best time to show sitcoms and, in spite of the viewing figures, it was barely noticed by the people I wanted to see it it. A few years later they found a slot and wanted to repeat it, but David Jason – who was a big star by then in Only Fools And Horses and had contractual right of veto – stopped them. I don’t know why. (There were a lot of actors less successful than David who were quite unhappy that he blocked it because they could have done with the repeat fees).
“I cannot think why TV contract departments gave that right of veto away. If I were a TV producer I would make sure that I kept that very valuable power, not give it to an actor with a totally different agenda from mine.
“It was uncannily similar to Fools And Horses: two brothers, living with their mum/grandad, surviving off their wits in council accommodation in south-east London, but the big difference was which brother David played. Only F and H was a brilliant sitcom with perfect casting and lovely writing. David was Delboy. He didn’t have to act him, he just was. He had matured perfectly into Only F and H and was huge, probably the biggest TV star in the country”.
So Lucky Feller was never shown again and it’s now forgotten. You can’t help wondering what other sitcoms have fallen through the cracks at ITV into oblivion.
I say forgotten. But not quite. Because here, in the interests of posterity, are the three episodes I found on his shelf. Essential viewing for any student of sitcom, I’d say.
My particular favourite is episode 12 (at the very bottom of the page) which guest-stars Prunella Scales as the farmer’s wife.
In order to fully appreciate the plot, here’s a bit of background: Shorty (David Jason) is about to marry Kath (Cheryl Hall), but they have never had sex. She has tried but Shorty was too innocent and accident-prone. However, Kath is already pregnant by Shorty’s brother Randolph (Peter Armitage), who she really loves – but he won’t marry her. Kath is desperate to get Shorty into bed before her pregnancy shows and the truth gets out. She has persuaded him to take her away for a weekend in Bournemouth. But Shorty, driving them in his bubble car, gets lost …
Episode 2 :