Biography: John Sullivan

John Sullivan

As the writer of one of Britain's all-time favourite sitcoms, John Sullivan joined a unique group of scriptwriters, whose names became almost as well-known as their television creations.

John Sullivan was born in 1946 and grew up in the South London district of Balham. His father, John senior, worked as a plumber and his mother, Hilda, occasionally added to the family's income by working as a charlady. At school John Jnr was a reluctant pupil and showed little interest in any of the subjects being taught. Then, one day a new English teacher, Mr Trowers, arrived and rather than have the class sit and read in silence he actually read the books to them, acting it out and doing all the different character's voices too. As Sullivan was to later recall, Mr Trowers made the books "come alive." John became interested in English and in particular the work of Charles Dickens who's stories, more than any other author, seemed to be the inspiration for him to pick up a pen and start writing himself. However, by school-leaving age John was resigned -like most of his classmates- to getting out and finding a job as quickly as possible in order to earn money and help out the family. To this end he wasn't bothered about exams. "We knew we were going to be factory fodder so there seemed little point in trying."

Johnny Speight.Rather than ending up in a factory, John got a job as a messenger -firstly for Reuters and then for the advertising agency Collett, Dickinson and Pearce, who amongst others employed future filmmakers David Puttnam and Alan Parker. He was paid the princely sum of £3.50 a week. After a year with Collett, Dickinson and Pearce, John went to work for a second-hand motor trader cleaning vehicles and making them look attractive to prospective buyers, eventually progressing to salesman. His wages went up to a massive £20.00 a week and John was able to help out more at home enabling the family to have (amongst other things) a telephone installed for the first time. During this period in his life John's main interest outside of work was football and he regularly played for local team Southside Athletic. However, this soon changed when John went to work for Watney's Brewery, where he met with an ex-school friend, Paul Saunders. Paul showed John a newspaper article about TV scriptwriter Johnny Speight, which said that he earned £100.00 for each episode that he wrote of Till Death Us Do Part. Paul told John that he felt the two of them could come up with something and encouraged by his friends enthusiasm, John went out and purchased an old typewriter for about £2.00. For the next two months the pals developed an idea for a sitcom that they called Gentlemen, which was about an old soldier who ran an old fashioned gents toilet. The idea was rejected by the BBC and this put Paul off the idea of writing, but not so John. "I'd enjoyed the process of writing and developing characters so much that I carried on my own."

Regretting having not paid more attention at school, John bought himself a number of self-help books and began studying English and Maths. By 1972 he was working as a plumber, even though -by his own admission, he wasn't very good at it. It was around this time that he met a pretty secretary called Sharon. He continued to submit script ideas to the BBC and they continued to reject them. In 1974 John and Sharon were married and John decided to apply for a job at the BBC, his reasoning being that on the inside he may have more chance of making the right connection that could help him realise his dream of being a scriptwriter. He wrote to the BBC explaining why he wanted to work there and they agreed to give him a job on condition that he didn't make a nuisance of himself or pester any of the stars. By now he had developed an idea for a sitcom about a would-be revolutionary who lived in South London. John was employed by the BBC as a scenery shifter, but it didn't deter him from approaching veteran producer Denis Main Wilson with his idea. Wilson suggested that John go away and write some one-off comedy sketches for shows such as The Two Ronnies and Dave Allen. Breaking his promise not to pester the stars, John approached Ronnie Barker for advice. Ronnie asked to see samples of John's work which was duly delivered to the star a week later and Ronnie liked them enough to put John on a contract to continue writing for the show. John now went back to Denis Main Wilson and tried once more to sell his idea for the series about the revolutionary. Eventually Wilson agreed for John to go away and write a pilot episode. John took two weeks' leave and went to his in-laws home in Crystal Palace where he wrote the first episode of Citizen Smith.

Robert Lindsay as Citizen Smith.Having delivered the script to Wilson, John took another week off before phoning the producer for his verdict. Wilson, it seems, had been frantically trying to get in touch with John since reading the script. By the time that John got round to phoning him, Wilson was able to tell the writer that Citizen Smith was going to be included in the Comedy Special series, the successor to the immensely successful Comedy Playhouse series that had given rise to some of BBC television's all time comedy classics. The pilot was received well enough for a full series to go into production and this was aired from 3rd November to 15th December 1977. Three more series followed but by 1980 it became apparent that John had taken the characters as far as they could go, and he set about writing a new sitcom about a football manager. The series was called Over The Moon and was to star George (Inspector Wexford) Baker and Brian (Last of the Summer Wine, Porridge) Wilde as the manager of a down-on-its-luck club. The pilot was filmed at Television Centre on 30th November 1980 and the BBC were suitably impressed. Then disaster struck. Bill Cotton, who was BBC1 controller at the time, returned from a trip to the USA and, after viewing the pilot episode, decided to kill it off.

The man who was to be in charge of Over the Moon was senior BBC producer and director Ray Butt. He and Sullivan got together for a lunchtime drink in order to drown their sorrows following the shows cancellation. During this meeting John told Ray of an earlier idea he'd had about a South London street trader, a wheeler-dealer, the type who would sell his own mother for the right price. Unfortunately he'd already suggested this idea to BBC Head of Light Entertainment, Jimmy Gilbert, a few years before and had been given a very firm no. Ray Butt thought it was a great idea. A few weeks after his conversation with Ray Butt, John delivered a draft script to his office for a pilot that was called Readies. Ray Butt took the script to Head of Comedy, John Howard Davis, and within weeks a full series was given the green light. John then dropped the working title of Readies and replaced it with Only Fools and Horses, (which had been the title of a 1979 Citizen Smith episode) because he felt that it summed up the character of Derek Trotter, the South London wide-boy, whose philosophy in life was reflected in the saying that "only fools and horses work". Butt set about casting the key characters for the show. The man he wanted for the part of Del-Boy was Enn Reital. However, Reital was unavailable so Ray then turned to Jim Broadbent, but he too was committed to work elsewhere. Finally, after watching an episode of Open All Hours, Ray decided to approach David Jason. Although the ratings for Only Fools and Horses were very modest at first (for the 1980s averaging just 7.7 million viewers was not seen as a great success), the series gradually picked up a following and a second series went into production in April 1982. Viewing figures were still not as high as the BBC had hoped for, picking up on average just one million more than the previous series. It was with the repeat run of series two that people began to sit up and take notice of Only Fools and Horses. Traditionally repeated shows didn't do too well during the summer months, but Only Fools managed to peak at a more-than-respectable 7.7 million. Within weeks the series began to climb the ratings and the BBC commissioned a third series.

Just Good Friends.The same year that the third series of Only Fools and Horses was being made John also found time to write another sitcom that became a firm favourite with viewers. Just Good Friends starred Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis as a pair of ex-lovers who meet up years after he had left her at the altar. Although Only Fools was becoming a runaway success in the UK, John was unable to sell the format to the USA. However, with Dear John, in 1986, he had more success. The series was set around a group of dysfunctional adults who joined a divorced and separated encounter group and starred Ralph Bates as its principle character. Like the early series' of 'Only Fools', Dear John only received modest ratings and after just two series it was taken off. Whether or not it may have resurfaced at some stage will never be known due to the premature death of Ralph Bates in 1991. But in 1988 NBC bought and adapted the series and cast Judd Hirsch in the Bates role. In 1992 John took the basic relationship of the Trotter brothers in 'Only Fools' and transferred them to female counterparts in the series Sitting Pretty. Dianne Bull starred as Annie Briggs, whose millionaire husband had died whilst having an extra-marital affair. Worse still (as far as Annie is concerned) he had left her penniless and she was forced to give up her jet-setting lifestyle to go and live with her parents and dowdy sister in a ramshackle house in Kent. Again the series was not perceived as a great success and only 13 episodes were filmed.

Rock and Chips.John bounced back with a two part comedy drama set during the Second World War called Over Here, which starred Martin Clunes and Only Fools and Horses started to pass into legend as the most successful British Sitcom of all time with over 21 million viewers tuning in for the last three episodes broadcast over Christmas 1996, and a record 24.35 million for the final outing. His later efforts for TV were not great successes, Roger, Roger starring Robert Daws was set around a mini-cab firm and Heartburn Hotel, which he co-wrote with Steve Glover, starred Tim Healy as a Falklands vet who runs a downmarket hotel. In 2005 the first of two Only Fools spin-offs was announced. The Green Green Grass followed the popular character of Boycie, the business man with questionable ethics and his wife Marlene and their son Tyler as they escape local villians the Driscoll brothers and attempt to live in the countryside of Shropshire. The first episode of The Green Green Grass attracted an average of 8.88 million viewers but it was unable to sustain a healthy audience. It did, however, survive for four seasons before being cancelled-the series closing to 4.38 million. Sullivan did not write all the episodes although he wrote all six episodes of the first series and an extended special. By series two he began co-writing but other writers were bought in to write individual episodes. In 2010 Sullivan returned to Only Fools and Horses for a prequel - Rock and Chips about Del Boy's early life. Although it was greeted with mixed reviews there were signs that the one-off comedy-dramas were beginning to establish themselves when Sullivan tragically died of a viral infection aged 64 years. The 'Daily Telegraph' quite rightly observed: "Although Sullivan was not always consistent - there were flops as well as hits - his sharp eye for character and acute ear for dialogue transcended the sitcom genre at every turn. Characters emerged fully-fledged from the page, shaped by deft observations about ordinary life. Moreover, he could move an audience and make them feel emotionally involved."

In common with such legendary British television comedy writers as Galton and Simpson, Clement and La Frenais and the late Johnny Speight, Sullivan's greatest asset apart from his genuinely sharp comedic imagination and brilliant use of sympathetic characters, is undoubtedly the strong undercurrent of social commentary which informs even his lesser works. (A trait, which it's not unreasonable to speculate, might well have been forged from his self-professed love of the writing of Dickens).

At a time when the once great British situational comedy institution was (arguably) languishing in the doldrums of creative stagnation and a crippling lack of inspiration, a writer of the insight, talent and consistent creativity of John Sullivan stood as one of the last true giants in a field which was once the undisputed domain of comedy titans.

Laurence Marcus. June 2011

for Television Heaven