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Sullivan, John (1946-2011)

Writer, Producer

Main image of Sullivan, John (1946-2011)

Leaving school at the age of 15 with a determination to become a writer of comedy, John Sullivan (born in Balham, south London, on 23 December 1946) was to strive unsuccessfully for a further 15 years before finally achieving his goal. Submitting scripts as he moved between numerous dead-end jobs in his native south London, he was unconsciously absorbing the ambience of the region's street life that would eventually form the core of his most successful creation: Only Fools and Horses.

Once he had a foothold in the BBC (albeit in the props department), Sullivan approached the esteemed comedy producer Dennis Main Wilson with one of his scripts. Greeted with remarkable enthusiasm considering it was the work of a novice, the submitted script became the basis of an episode (tx. 12/4/1977) of the anthology series Comedy Special (BBC, 1972-77). The public reaction was sufficiently encouraging for a full series to be commissioned. The result was Citizen Smith (BBC, 1977-80), with Robert Lindsay as aspiring Marxist revolutionary Wolfie Smith (based on a character Sullivan had once met), luckless figurehead of the Tooting Popular Front party (total membership: four).

Maintaining a south London setting, but moving from Tooting to Peckham, Sullivan's next series, Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981- ), remains his finest achievement to date. His vivid evocation of south London working-class life through an array of finely-drawn characters and, above all, brilliantly witty dialogue eventually won viewers over following a hesitant start, turning the series into one of British television's most popular sitcoms. It is certainly one of the best, despite showing signs of weariness in its later years, winning BAFTA awards for best comedy series in 1986, 1989 and 1997.

The essential ingredient behind the success of these two series, particularly Only Fools and Horses, was their grounding in the characters and vernacular of the south London milieu in which Sullivan was steeped. Conscious, however, that he was becoming perceived solely as a chronicler of south London working-class life (and male-centred with it), he took steps to broaden both subject matter and character types in his subsequent work.

Just Good Friends (BBC, 1983-86) depicted the on/off romance of a thirtysomething couple, played by Paul Nicholas and Jan Francis, and won a BAFTA award for best comedy series in 1987. Dear John (BBC, 1986-87) featured the travails of a timorous divorcé, a character superbly brought to life by Ralph Bates in arguably that actor's finest role. Sitting Pretty (BBC, 1992-93), the story of a wayward daughter (Diane Bull) returning to live on the family farm in Kent, was the first Sullivan sitcom to feature a female lead (although originally written for a male), but it was also the writer's first notable failure, with Sullivan having possibly strayed too far from his natural territory.

With Over Here (BBC, 1996), on which he also served as executive producer, Sullivan ventured away from sitcom and into comedy-drama, with a story of conflict between the RAF and the recently arrived US Air Force on an English air base in 1942. Roger, Roger (BBC, tx. 26/08/1996) was a similar comedy-drama mix, but saw Sullivan closer to his roots with a story of London cabbies. Both ventures were generally viewed as uneven and unsatisfying, although Roger, Roger went on to achieve a degree of popularity when expanded into a series (BBC, 1998-2003).

While continuing to write Only Fools and Horses, Sullivan returned to more standard sitcom fare as executive producer and co-writer, with Steve Glover, of Heartburn Hotel (BBC, 1998-2000), focussing on two Falklands War veterans ensconced in a Birmingham hotel, one the owner (Tim Healy), the other a permanent guest (Clive Russell).

Micawber (ITV, 2001-02), featuring Only Fools and Horses star David Jason as Charles Dickens' creation from David Copperfield, saw Sullivan return again to comedy drama. Like earlier ventures in the field, the series was greeted with less enthusiasm than his sitcoms.

John Oliver

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Citizen Smith (1977-80)Citizen Smith (1977-80)

Robert Lindsay stars as Wolfie Smith, the Che Guevara of Tooting

Thumbnail image of Just Good Friends (1983-86)Just Good Friends (1983-86)

Popular sitcom about star-crossed lovers Vince and Penny

Thumbnail image of Only Fools and Horses (1981-96)Only Fools and Horses (1981-96)

Hugely popular comedy about Peckham wheeler-dealers

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