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Great moments in television #1: Only Fools and Horses – Del Boy's 'tough guy' speech

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After an unspectacular start (averaging 7.7 million viewers per episode for its first series), by 1984 John Sullivan's Only Fools and Horses was well on its way to becoming Britain's most beloved sitcom. The adventures of Peckham market trader Derek 'Del Boy' Trotter (David Jason) and his dopey younger brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) had captured viewers' hearts. Living in a tower-block flat cluttered with not-quite-kosher stock and a grimy three-wheeled Reliant Regal Supervan III for transport, Del Boy and Rodney were a Steptoe and Son for the 1980s. The main cast was completed by Grandad ("About as useful as a pair of sunglasses on a bloke with one ear"), played by Lennard Pearce.

In December 1984, filming began on 'Hole in One', the first episode of series four. During a week-long break in filming, Pearce had a heart attack and was hospitalised. On December 15, after suffering another cardiac arrest, the man known to the cast, crew and their families as 'Grandad' died at the age of 69. Producer Ray Butt broke the news to a devastated Jason and Lyndhurst, while Sullivan had to decide how to continue with the series. At one point he flirted with the idea of replacing Grandad with an aunt, but the idea of shoving an old woman into the back of a van and calling her a "stupid old git" didn't seem right. Some bright spark in the upper echelons of the BBC suggested keeping the Grandad character by replacing Pearce with a lookalike, but this idea was treated with the contempt it deserved by the cast and crew. In the end, Sullivan decided to introduce a new character, Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield), but first had to say goodbye to Grandad.

The scenes Pearce had already filmed for 'Hole in One' were re-shot with Merryfield but Sullivan had the dilemma of wanting to properly introduce Uncle Albert whilst not beginning the series with a funeral. With filming due to begin immediately after Christmas, Sullivan hastily wrote a new episode called 'Happy Returns' and made it the series opener.

After a funeral scene in a freezing, snowy cemetery, Del Boy's upbeat behaviour at the wake disgusts Rodney, who the next day accuses his older brother of getting over Grandad's death already. Del Boy's response sees Jason at his very best:

Del Boy: Get over it? What a plonker you really are Rodney! Get over it? I ain't even started yet! Ain't even started, bruv. And do you know why? Because I don't know how to. That's why I've survived all my life with a smile and a prayer! I'm Del Boy, ain't I? Good old Del Boy – he's got more bounce than Zebedee! "Here you are pal, what you drinking? Go on! Hello darling, you have one for luck." That's me, that's Del Boy innit? Nothing ever upsets Del Boy. I've always played the tough guy – I didn't want to, but I had to and I've played it for so long now, I don't know how to be anything else. I don't even know how to… oh it don't matter. Bloody families! I've finished with 'em! What do they do to you, eh? They hold you back, drag you down and then they break your bloody heart.

Rodney: I'm sorry. 

Grandad's send-off came in the second episode 'Strained Relations', another new script. With the crew committed to transmission dates, Sullivan was under enormous pressure and responded with the finest work of his career – a script that blended humour and pathos in a way that was sensitive, funny and hugely emotional.

Del sits next to Grandad's old armchair and looks to be on the verge of tears. He then rouses himself and turns on Grandad's second TV, biting his lip in defiance. Very few sitcom writers would be brave enough to write a scene like this, but this is one of many reasons Only Fools and Horses stands out from the rest. Del Boy's loneliness and fears would be explored further in future episodes but for sheer emotion this moment is unbeatable.

To complement the previous scene perfectly, we next see Del Boy strolls into the Nag's Head pub, draw a wad of notes and say to an unseen patron "Alright pal, what you drinking?" before telling the barmaid to "Have one for luck." This is the Del Boy we're used to, the difference now being that we know it's a front – his way of getting through life.

Only Fools and Horses / 'Strained Relations' / First aired: February 28, 1985. 

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