‘No income tax, no VAT, no money back, no guarantee’ are words from a tune that we all know and love; a song that asks the question, why do only fools and horses work? And up to now that song by legendary sitcom writer John Sullivan has been the only music to remind us of the show that defined Peckham and the dodgy market trader – Only Fools and Horses. That was until Paul Whitehouse and Sullivan’s son Jim joined forces to complete his late father’s wishes to write a musical about those rascally reprobates, the Trotters, writes Michael Holland.
Yes, Only Fools and Horses is back but this time on the West End stage and not on one of those TV repeat channels. Whitehouse and Sullivan have written the script and score, with additional music from late greats John Sullivan and Chas Hodges, to make this a big must-see in 2019. All the regulars will be there and several iconic scenes from the series will be resurrected in this new tale of the Trotters taking on the yuppie invasion while looking for love in Peckham.
Tom Bennett, who has been handed the big role of Del Boy spoke to us about: what this all means to the fans, the actors who originally turned the characters into working-class heroes, the big shoes he has to fill.
A big plus for all South London enthusiasts of OFAH will be that Tom is also a South Londoner, so we won’t have to worry about any fake London accents assaulting our earholes, and he’s a Crystal Palace fan. Cushty.
Tom has wanted to be an actor from the age of 10, and he claims with pride, ’Most kids at school wanted to become footballers, but I knew early on that I wanted to be an actor, and I liked it, so that was it.’ There is acting in the genes through both his parents, which means that he was always very aware of the pitfalls and uncertainties of that precarious profession. ‘I grew up intrinsically knowing it was a tough gig with no job security… And now, after many years, I can say I’m earning a living at it.’
Tom jokes that he hasn’t had to yet ‘find a proper job’ and that even though this is a dream role for him he doesn’t think ‘this time next year we’ll be millionaires’. But acting is a serious business, and comedy acting probably the most serious. Tom Bennett calls himself a ‘Telly comedy boy’ so going back to theatre will not be an easy move, but he realises this will be a good thing for his career if he can be seen as someone who can carry a West End musical, adding, with a laugh ‘But it still won’t add job security.’
He doesn’t know how many Del Boys were seen before he was offered the part, but he does remember there being an audible sigh of relief when they realised he could hold a note. Even now he says, ‘It still hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m playing Del Boy, but every time I put the costume on it begins to feel a little bit more real.’
Tom will not be doing an impression of David Jason’s version of Del Boy but bringing his own stamp on the character. He explains thus: ‘The problem with just doing an impression is that you’ll lose a lot of the heart, the sincerity and the fragility of Del Boy – the emotional aspects – and if you lose that then the audience are not willing to come with you.’ At the same time Tom understands that the audience will want to see a Del Boy they know and he will be giving them that, promising to work hard at getting this right.
Having seen the script, Tom believes this show is a winner. He revealed that woven into the new story are several of the nation’s top OFAH scenes. ‘Paul and Jim,’ he says, ‘have been able to take some of the best bits from all the series to use for their own purposes here, while it still plays as if it was by John Sullivan.’
But like all actors, Tom Bennett laughs as he predicts that when this show comes to an end he will once again be fretting that, ‘I’ll never work again’, but if we all, as OFAH fans, get behind this musical version and not spend energy comparing it negatively against the TV series, then a lot of fun can be shared and enjoyed. He says, ‘This musical is something John Sullivan planned before he sadly died, it is a cornerstone of British culture that everyone will have an opinion on, so we all want to do his work justice and want fans to think this musical is a good addition to the OFAH oeuvre.’
Theatre Royal Haymarket, 18 Suffolk Street, SW1Y 4HT From 9 February – 22 June 2019. Times: Mon – Sat 7.30pm. Wed & Sat matinees 2.30pm. Admission: £20 – £125. Phone: 020 7930 8800