Thanet Writers Spotlight John Sullivan

Luke Edley highlights the life, works and legacy of sitcom writer John Sullivan, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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One of the finest television scriptwriters of the 20th century, John Sullivan was best known for penning the classic British sitcom Only Fools and Horses and creating the iconic comedy duo of Del Boy and Rodney. His connection to Margate may be slightly tenuous—after all, he never actually lived in Thanet—but his writing in the much-remembered 1989 episode ‘The Jolly Boys’ Outing’ has left a lasting legacy on the local area which we have much to be thankful for.

Born in South London in 1946, John Sullivan grew up in the working-class heartlands of the big city, full of cockney wideboys and salt of the earth bounders. At school, thanks to his English teacher, Mr. Trowers, Sullivan’s creativity was piqued by discovering the works of Charles Dickens and he began writing stories from an early age. Even back then, Sullivan recognised in Dickens someone who brought everyday characters to life through the mere act of comic portrayal.

“You were almost frightened of English classes at school. Then we got a teacher who, instead of making us just read and answer questions, actually read Copperfield to us. All of a sudden the whole thing became Technicolor and I understood what I’d been missing. It released this imagination within.”

Independent, 1999

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However, escaping the trappings of working-class life wasn’t easy for John Sullivan. He left school with zero qualifications to his name and entered the world of low-paid employment—experiences which would later inspire Only Fools and Horses—taking jobs such as working as a second-hand car salesman, lugging barrels in a brewery and, later, as a window cleaner. At the same time, Sullivan continued to write in his spare time, no doubt hoping one day to make good of his innate comic talent.

Inspired by the darkly comedic realism of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson (Steptoe and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour) and Johnny Speight (Till Death Us Do Part), Sullivan knew if he wanted to break into script writing, he would need to get close to those in the television industry. Getting himself a job as a scene shifter at the BBC, Sullivan soon found himself on the set of Porridge, rubbing shoulders with comedian Ronnie Barker, and it was only by thrusting a script into Barker’s hands that he got his first break.

Sullivan’s career may have began writing comedy sketches for The Two Ronnies, but it was clear from the very start his ambition was to write his own sitcom. Eventually, his dream became reality when the script for his first comedy show, Citizen Smith, was commissioned by the BBC in 1977. Citizen Smith had all the ingredients of what would later make Only Fools and Horses such a success—a funny and timely sitcom, the show parodied the 1970s militant tendency through Robert Lindsay’s satirical portrayal of a feckless Marxist revolutionary from Tooting.

John Sullivan’s writing was already showing distinct hallmarks—rich with colourful dialogue, each project he undertook was rooted in the working class experience and celebrated ordinary characters, with all their eagerness and struggles. His idea behind Only Fools and Horses, however, was even more ambitious—Sullivan aimed to paint a vivid picture of London life, almost Dickensian in scope, through larger-than-life characters inspired by his real-life experiences and observations.

It wasn’t until 1981, however, that the first episode of Only Fools and Horses made it to our TV screens. Although not an immediate success with audiences, central to its long-lasting appeal were the characters of Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter and his brother Rodney, both working class market traders living in Peckham, toughing it out on the streets of London by wheeler-dealing and aspiring to get rich (“This time next year we’ll be millionaires!”). Nowadays, with popular catchphrases such as ‘Luvvly jubbly’ and ‘You plonker,’ Only Fools and Horses is regarded as a national institution, and is popularly considered to be John Sullivan’s crowning achievement as a writer.

Like many Londoners of his generation, Sullivan was very familiar with Thanet through seaside bus jaunts down to Margate, which he even alluded to in the prequel Rock and Chips. Concocting this rich backstory about Margate was no mere accident—after all, it was Sullivan who had originally intended for the Only Fools and Horses TV theme tune to be sung by Chas and Dave, who had a hit single of their own (‘Margate’) which is also much-cherished by local residents.

As with Chas and Dave’s famous song, John Sullivan’s idea behind ‘The Jolly Boys’ Outing’ was based, in part, on a real-life rite of passage many Londoners of that period shared when visiting Margate’s shores. Del Boy’s teenage years, after all, would have been in the 1960s, a time when Mods and Rockers got into scraps on the beach before getting arrested by the police, so John Sullivan would’ve been all too aware of this reality.

His 1989 episode ‘The Jolly Boys’ Outing’—a feature-length Christmas special—saw Del Boy rally together all the regulars from The Nag’s Head pub (Trigger, Boycie, Jevon, Mickey Pearce, et al) to set off on a trip to Margate where they go on the rollercoaster rides at Dreamland theme park, visit the penny arcades and eat one too many jellied eels. There is also a scene in which Del Boy and Rodney have a heart-to-heart on the Margate Harbour Arm, with the local landmark Arlington House looming in the distance.

Recently voted by GOLD as the UK’s favourite Only Fools and Horses episode, a reason ‘The Jolly Boys’ Outing’ stirs up so much nostalgia among those who live in Margate is due, in part, to the seaside resort’s slow decline in the 1990s, in particular the subsequent closure of Dreamland. For many years, while Margate was experiencing a prolonged downturn, this famous Only Fools and Horses episode became a cultural touchstone celebrated by local activists campaigning for the town’s regeneration, and was held up as an example which helped demonstrate Margate’s iconic status.

Sadly, John Sullivan died in 2011 at the age of 64, yet the legacy of his work—not just on Only Fools and Horses as a whole, but also on the affections Margate residents have for this episode in particular—still lives on. It is no coincidence that when Dreamland was finally reopened to much fanfare in 2015, it was the character of Boycie (a.k.a. John Challis) who was invited back to join in the celebration. Later, in the documentary ‘My Life on Screen,’ David Jason himself returned to Margate with John Challis, even posing for pictures by a mural of Del Boy, Rodney and Uncle Albert painted by a graffiti artist not far from Dreamland’s cinema.

As for the late John Sullivan himself, his important role in writing such an iconic TV show, and his decision to feature Thanet in one of its most famous episodes, cements his standing as a legendary writer who, perhaps unwittingly, championed our seaside when no-one else would. His gift for characterisation and dialogue ran so incredibly deep it inspired laughter in millions, arguably changing the face of British culture as we know it. Without a doubt, John Sullivan’s legacy will forever be appreciated by those who live in Margate, as well as those who respect the outstanding contributions he made to British comedy.

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Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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