‘The Jolly Boys’ Outing’ was screened for the first time 30 years ago in December 1989, but people still recognise my mug in the street and at book-signings, and most of them weren’t even born when that special came out!
The fact that so many of today’s youngsters are fans says a lot about the quality of John Sullivan’s writing and the undeniable talent of the ‘Only Fools and Horses’ cast.
Of course, I’m talking about the show’s core players led by the excellent David Jason; expert at whatever he does. My role was very small as The Great Ramondo and my pristinely Brylcreemed hair only popped up in two scenes. In spite of the fact that I had a tiny part to play, I think the Jolly Boys episode is one of the best in the series, and I’m not surprised it gets re-shown again and again.
I think viewers mostly remember my face, though, because the second of the scenes I appeared in was the climax of the story where gallant Del, hell-bent on playing Raquel’s romantic hero and rescuing her, gets to give me a hefty smack in the chops.
But before we get to that scene, the earlier one, where Del spots Raquel on stage as The Great Ramondo’s lovely assistant, the script (obviously) called for me to perform magic tricks, the most demanding of which, as you’d guess, was the production of white doves out of coloured handkerchiefs. Having never in my life attempted a simple card trick, I was in much need of professional help.
To that end, I was given the famous Ali Bongo, aka William Oliver Wallace, as my teacher. William was an incredibly skilful and well- loved comedy magician and long-time president of the ‘Magic Circle’. I couldn’t have asked for a better coach. Ali spent a day or so teaching me magic tricks; the linked rings routine, producing stuff out of a hat etc. but, most importantly, was the producing of doves out of thin air. Never having been a member of ‘The Magic Circle’, I’m breaking no solemn oaths when I tell you how it’s done.
But I ain’t tellin’ ya. After time, Ali had me producing doves out of hankies, burst balloons and more, and I was really chuffed that I’d be performing such cool stuff. On the day, I looked the part in tail-coat, white bib and bowtie with a plastic end of the pier smile stretched across my purposefully over-made-up face.
The tricks with the doves went well during filming and I was looking forward to seeing how it looked on TV. The night Jolly Boys’ was aired, I had friends round to watch with my family. I’d told everyone about Ali Bongo, the crash-course in magic and how good I’d got at it. I was set to impress, of course.
But, hilariously, when it came to it, I was never seen actually doing a trick. Out came the coloured handkerchief with a flourish; me grinning like a mad person – then the shot cuts to something more important – then back to me and, voila, a dove is already perched on my finger. Of the conjuring genius bestowed upon me by the great Ai Bongo, there was absolutely zilch. But I thought, oh well, it can’t always be about me, can it?
A couple of weeks later, I remember stepping onto the studio set the morning of the episode’s dress rehearsal. The script directed that, at the height of Del Boy’s row with the magician, Ramondo follows him into a bedroom, we hear a SMACK! and the magician flies out backwards across the room and through a doorway opposite, where I’d envisaged a nice soft mattress waiting for me to land on.
Easy enough, you’d think. It wasn’t the mattress that was the problem; it was that the two doorways were set at 45% degree angles from one another – they sort of fanned out from the hall entrance so, rather than there being a standard 2½ foot gap for my body to fly backwards through, it had narrowed to about 1½.
Careering backwards, unable to see where I was going, I was sure to smash my shoulder into one of the door jams and be maimed and out of work for the rest of my life. Not to mention the mental trauma.
I was getting more than a bit hot under the collar and feeling queasy about the simple stunt and said so out loud. To which a less than amused David Jason piped up, “Well, son, you signed the contract.” He was perfectly right, of course, I had, but I wasn’t anticipating the goalposts being moved on the day or, more accurately, the bleedin’ door jams.
Luckily, I was rescued by the show’s stunt coordinator who showed me a trick of the trade which saved me a trip to the local A & E and a lot of egg on my face. Hidden beyond the doorway I was to follow Del through, the stunt guy had placed two vertical, white poles the size of broomsticks. They stood one behind the other about 5 feet apart.
Later, when the studio audience had taken their seats, and the moment had come, David smacked a fist into the palm of his hand and I went flying backwards at speed, eyes fixed on those poles, keeping them perfectly aligned, and shot through the opposite doorway without touching the sides. Job done. Cushty.
So relieved I’d survived a potentially fatal disaster, weeks of trauma counselling at least, I went on to fluff a line I’d kept fluffing so often in rehearsals. So, I slouched off home, egg on my face after all.
That night, though, I was lucky enough to watch a scene that wasn’t included in the final program. It may well have been edited out due to time restraints. Whatever, it contained a gag that makes me laugh every time I think about it.
The scene was where Mrs. Creswell, the landlady of the B & B, played by Rosalind Knight, showed Rodney and Del to their room. It was the dreariest and most depressing place you could imagine. The woman finally left the boys to it, Rodney sitting gloomily on the end of his single bed. Then there was a long pause before he piped up:
“This reminds me of the kind of room where Kamikaze pilots filled-out their timesheets.”
Now, I realise this page is going on a bit but, before I go, here’s a juicy snippet that most of you won’t have heard before. I forget how John Sullivan’s script actually involved the coach at the end of the show, but I was in director Tony Dow’s trailer when his production manager came in:
“Tony, you wanted to know how much they want for the coach.”
So the guy told him. Tony had a long think before saying: “Oh, sod it. Let’s just blow it up.”
Brilliant. That episode is one of my all-time favourites, and it’s great to read about what went on behind the scenes. No wonder you were anxious about that doorway stunt – I would have been a nervous wreck. Thank you for these super stories of working on such an iconic programme.