It’s one of the least-liked episodes of the much-loved Only Fools And Horses – but the feature-length A Royal Flush had problems behind the scenes.

The final Only Fools And Horses Christmas special aired almost 20 years ago. Nevertheless, les spéciaux de Noël de la famille Trotter, as Del would never say, remain as much a part of the festive season as new socks, mountains of leftovers, and bulk-buying Rennie. David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Buster Merryfield have become extended Christmas family members for millions of people.

In all, 18 Only Fools… Christmas specials were broadcast between 1981 and 2003. They were appointment-to-view seasonal telly, and became a ratings bonanza for the BBC. On Christmas Day in 1985, the episode To Hull and Back pulled in 16.9m viewers. Four years later, The Jolly Boys’ Outing drew over 20m viewers. On 29th December 1996, 24.3m tuned into Time on Our Hands to watch the Trotters become millionaires, still the highest viewing figure for a comedy in the UK.

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But, there was one Only Fools And Horses Christmas special that didn’t quite get the ingredients right, and came out both overcooked and underdone. This was 1986’s A Royal Flush, the second feature length episode after To Hull and Back, and on paper a surefire knockout.

Inspired by accounts of younger nobility moving (presumably briefly) into working class professions, plus stories of Special Branch being employed to protect younger royals from kidnapping, the late John Sullivan wrote a tale that had the Trotters rubbing shoulders with aristocracy.

In the episode, Rodney meets sweet-natured artist Vicky in Peckham market, only to discover she is actually Lady Victoria Marsham-Hales, her father being the (fictional) Duke of Maylebury, second cousin to the Queen.

Where Rodney sees friendship, Del smells opportunity. Declaring that every few hundred years the aristocracy have “gotta bring in some of the common stock to water the old blue blood down a bit,” he believes marriage could be on the cards for Rodney. Finally, they will be millionaires. Del goes about ensuring his baby brother makes the right impression, while also getting himself noticed.

A night at the opera becomes a night to remember for all the wrong reasons. A clay pigeon shoot sees some sawn-off shotgun action. A formal dinner at Vicky’s country home becomes an ordeal for Rodney as Del’s tongue is loosened by quality vin rouge.

Prime Only Fools And Horses territory then. But, various events and some bad luck resulted in a special that even series creator Sullivan couldn’t love. In 2004 he would return to A Royal Flush and oversee a re-edit that shortened the episode by 18 minutes. “Crudités a la plat!” as Del would say…

APRÈS MOI, LE DÉLUGE

So what went wrong? As it turned out, many things. One of which, ironically, was a royal appointment.

That year, Only Fools And Horses was invited to appear in a sketch at the Royal Variety Performance. This was to be recorded on 24th November, midway through A Royal Flush’s six week shooting schedule. Doubly ironic is that the performance was held at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, a location used in the episode too.

Only Fools And Horses

David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Buster Merryfield rehearsed in the evening after the day’s shoot was done, and the break in filming to perform at the Theatre Royal was brief. But, as Graham McCann writes in his book Only Fools And Horses: The Story of Britain’s Favourite Comedy, “the cast and crew began to rue the disruption the royal show had caused.”

A now worryingly tight schedule was made worse when Jason lost his voice for three days. Then Lyndhurst was knocked out with flu. Plus, while A Royal Flush was on a smaller scale than To Hull and Back (no shooting at sea, no location filming outside the UK), it was still a grand production.

Steve Clark, author of two books on the series, says, “A Royal Flush was far more complex than a normal Only Fools… episode. The script necessitated filming at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Opera House in Buxton, plus shooting at a stately home in Wiltshire.”

This complexity, coupled with filming delays, meant that A Royal Flush could not be completed in time to be screened for a studio audience, so would air without a laugh track. It was so close to the wire the team briefly considered filming Rodney’s climactic outburst at Del live on Christmas Day. But against the odds, by early Christmas morning editing was completed for broadcast that night.

Despite making its deadline, a major problem was baked into the special. Del Boy was… off. Much more aggressive than normal, he threatens to beat up a busybody heckling him in the market, along with various members of the opera audience when they complain about his constant disruptions.

During the formal dinner, Del becomes outright mean-spirited and cruel. Drunkenly insulting other guests and shaming Rodney by revealing Rodders’ previous drug conviction, he caps it all off by telling a “killer” skiing holiday joke, despite knowing Vicky’s mum perished in a skiing accident.

“You destroyed me in front of all them people,” Rodney tells Del in the episode’s final scene, and watching on Christmas Day in 1986 it was hard not to agree.

Of course, it was never intended that Del’s behaviour should land that way. Although Britain’s #1 sitcom, Only Fools And Horses always performed an impressive tightrope walk between comedy and pathos. But, in this dinner scene, comedy should have been king.

Taking blame for the muddled tone, producer/director Ray Butt told Steve Clark this scene was the one time he was unhappy with his work on the series. During the shoot, John Sullivan was in Paris working on the third series of Just Good Friends, the finale of which aired on Christmas Day before A Royal Flush. But Sullivan told Clark that with hindsight he wished he’d been there for the Only Fools… recording instead.

Of the dinner scene, Clark quotes Sullivan saying, “It was written for laughs, not drama, and I wanted David to be Del as a jolly drunk, rather than a morose drunk, which is what he ended up looking like.”

Only Fools And Horses is too good a show to have a rotten episode, and dusting off my old VHS of the original version, A Royal Flush is not bad. But, it clearly drifted off course. Alongside Del being uncharacteristically heartless, Rodney seems a victim of his relationship with his brother, while even Uncle Albert comes across as embittered.

Laughs are to be had, mainly during the clay pigeon shoot. Nicholas Lyndhurst, decked out in three-piece tweed and deerstalker cap, performs a masterclass in physical awkwardness. Del unleashing a sawn-off shotgun during his turn at the shoot is the episode’s comedy highlight.

Interestingly, the dinner scene is sometimes uneasily funny, inadvertently foreshadowing “the comedy of embarrassment” that The Office would make a mainstay 15 years later. But, 35 years ago the yellow three-wheeler was not the right comedy vehicle for this squirm-humour.

Early scenes with Rodney and Vicky are sweet, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Sarah Duncan sharing genuine onscreen chemistry. Yet for the typically well-plotted Only Fools And Horses, the mechanics of Del’s scheme to marry Rodney into aristocracy oddly become an afterthought.

Even more surprising is how A Royal Flush skates close to demonising the working class. During the opera scene, Del and his date June eat, drink and talk their way through the performance, while Del aggressively shouts down audience members asking him to be quiet. June ends up vomiting (offscreen) over the woman in front of her. This is after Del informs his date he hasn’t bought her a programme because she can’t read.

When the Duke of Maylebury throws the Trotters out of his home, Del tries to shake him down for £1000 so Rodney won’t bother Vicky anymore. In this distaste for the working class, coupled with an uncritical sympathy for landed gentry, the original version of A Royal Flush is the closest we’ll get to seeing a Guy Ritchie Only Fools And Horses. Thank God we never got closer.

Only Fools And Horses

A RIGHT ROYAL REVISIT

While A Royal Flush drew a Christmas Day audience of 18.8m viewers, John Sullivan was disappointed with the episode. In 2004 he oversaw a re-edit that is a salutary example of less is more. Cut down from the original 76-minutes, this 58-minute version goes a long way to fixing story, pacing and performance problems.

Del Boy is more his normal energetically overbearing self, and his aggression is dialled right back. Rodney seems far less the victim, and all three Trotters are generally less morose. The air of mean-spiritedness which dogged the original version is largely gone.

Both the opera and dinner party scenes are essentially chopped in half, softening that strange distaste for the working class in the former, and making Del much more the “happy drunk” of Sullivan’s intentions in the latter. By removing Del’s boorish behaviour, his plan to marry Rodney up the social ladder comes into sharper focus, although the finer points remain vague.

The addition of a laugh track (recorded when the re-edit was screened at 2004’s Only Fools And Horses convention), also provides more of an Only Fools… feel to what was originally a noticeably quiet episode.

Not that the re-edits resolve everything. Gone is Del’s skiing holiday joke, meaning the Duke’s (toned down) anger is now directed towards Rodney for having a drug conviction. As Rodney tells Del in the final scene that the Duke offered him money never to see Vicky again, Del’s attempted shakedown had to be kept in.

For many fans, A Royal Flush is the worst Only Fools… episode whatever version they are watching. But, its (now hard to obtain) original version is a fascinating example of what happens when a series fumbles its tone. In the re-edit it becomes an enjoyable second tier Trotter outing.

Not lovely jubbly then, but maybe bonnet de douche, as they say in the Dordogne.

With special thanks to Steve Clark, author of Only Fools And Horses: The Official Inside Story and The Only Fools And Horses Story: A Celebration of the Legendary Comedy Series

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