John Sullivan (writer)

John Richard Thomas Sullivan OBE (23 December 1946 – 22 April 2011) was an English television scriptwriter responsible for several British sitcoms, including Only Fools and Horses, Citizen Smith and Just Good Friends.

John Sullivan
Sullivan in 2010.
BornJohn Richard Thomas Sullivan
(1946-12-23)23 December 1946[1]
Balham, South London, England[1]
Died22 April 2011(2011-04-22) (aged 64)
Surrey, England
Notable works
SpouseSharon Usher (m. 1974–2011; his death)

John Sullivan was born at 35 Zennor Road, Balham, London, on 23 December 1946. His Irish-born father was John Patrick Sullivan, (17 March 1908 – September 1993), a plumber, and his mother was Hilda Clara May, née Parker (23 December 1907 – December 1992), a cleaner.[2]

From working-class South London, Sullivan worked in a variety of low-paid jobs for 15 years before getting his first break writing the sitcom Citizen Smith (1977–1980). However, it was the sitcom Only Fools and Horses (1981–2003) that he is best known for. Other sitcoms include Dear John, Just Good Friends, Sitting Pretty, Roger Roger, and The Green Green Grass.[1] In addition, he wrote the comedy drama serial Over Here and the drama series Micawber for ITV, and co-wrote the comedy Heartburn Hotel. His work won him a number of comedy awards, including the BAFTA for best sitcom on three occasions, and he was made an OBE in 2005. His last work was Rock & Chips, a comedy drama prequel to Only Fools and Horses. The final episode of Sullivan's last comedy series aired five days after his death from pneumonia on 22 April 2011.[3]

To remember Sullivan's work, the BBC broadcast "A Touch of Glass", the episode of Only Fools and Horses in which the Trotters drop a chandelier while cleaning it for an upper-class family. They also showed "Top 40 Only Fools and Horses Moments". The episode, "A Touch of Glass", was voted number 2, losing to when Del Boy (David Jason) falls through an open bar in "Yuppy Love".

Early life

Sullivan was from a working-class background,[4] and grew up in Balham, South London.[5] His father, John, Sr., was a plumber and his mother, Hilda, occasionally worked as a charwoman.[6] It was in Balham where he observed the sort of market trader that would later appear in Only Fools and Horses. He failed his eleven-plus and attended Telferscot Secondary Modern School, where he had an inspirational English teacher named Jim Trowers, who sparked an interest in reading the novels of Charles Dickens and discovered his talent for writing stories.[7] Sullivan left the school at Christmas 1961 with no qualifications. He did, however, attend evening classes in German and English, and read Teach Yourself books after leaving school.[8] His first paid employment was as a messenger boy for Reuters. He then worked in the second-hand car trade, in a brewery, as a window cleaner and as a carpet layer in the House of Commons.[9][1][10]


During this time, Sullivan continued to submit scripts to the BBC. Sullivan admired Steptoe and Son, Till Death us do Part and Phil Silvers' US show, Bilko, and "anything by Neil Simon"[9] before in November 1974[11] getting a job in the BBC props department. He was warned not to pester or approach the stars of the corporation.[1] He eventually approached television producer Dennis Main Wilson with a script about a young Marxist. This led to a pilot for Comedy Special in 1977 which, following a positive reaction, was commissioned for a full series, Citizen Smith (1977–80).[1] Citizen Smith ran for four series, after which Sullivan was asked to submit another idea. An initial idea for a comedy set in the world of football was rejected, so he proposed an alternative idea for a sitcom centring on a cockney market trader in working-class, modern-day London called Readies.[12]

Through Ray Butt, a BBC producer and director whom Sullivan had met and befriended when they were working on Citizen Smith, a draft script was shown to the Corporation's Head of Comedy, John Howard Davies. Davies commissioned Sullivan to write a full series under an alternative title Only Fools and Horses, which had also been the name of a Citizen Smith episode. Sullivan believed the key factor in it being accepted was the success of ITV's new drama Minder, a series with a similar premise and also set in modern-day London.[13]

Much of Sullivan's material for Only Fools and Horses scripts came from his real-life experiences; falling through a raised bar flap,[14] the chandelier falling, his father's poker sessions, his niece working in the police force, and his grandfather falling down holes to claim money. It is arguable that the poverty of the Trotter family, and their eventual rise to wealth, is based on Sullivan's background. He grew up in a poor household and noted in an interview that he and his friends seemingly had no opportunities after leaving school apart from becoming, as Sullivan put it, "factory fodder". The success of Only Fools and Horses made him very rich.[4]

With the success of Only Fools..., at the suggestion of his wife he decided to write a romantic comedy series featuring a strong female lead character. His source of inspiration was a letter in a magazine read to him by his wife, written by a woman who had been jilted by her fiancé on the day of her wedding.[15] Just Good Friends ran for three series and a feature-length special between 1983 and 1986. Other sitcoms included Dear John (1986–1987) and Sitting Pretty (1992–1993).[1] Later in his career, he moved towards writing comedy drama series such as Over Here (1996), Roger Roger (1996) and Micawber (2001). His last work, Rock and Chips (2010), was the second spin-off of Only Fools....[1]

Awards and honours

Only Fools and Horses won the BAFTA award for best comedy series in 1986, 1989 and 1997, as well as the RTS best comedy award in 1997, best sitcom at the 1990 British Comedy Awards, and two Television and Radio Industries Club Awards for comedy programme of the year in 1984 and 1997. Sullivan won the Writers' Guild of Great Britain comedy award for the 1996 Only Fools and Horses Christmas trilogy and another from the Heritage Foundation in 2001.

In the 2005 New Year Honours, Sullivan was appointed an OBE for services to drama.[16] On 2 September 2008, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship at Goldsmiths, University of London.[17]

On 22 July 2012 a blue plaque was unveiled by David Jason at Teddington Studios, Middlesex, England, to celebrate Sullivan's contribution to British comedy. Nicholas Lyndhurst and John Challis also attended among other cast members.[18]


Sullivan died on 22 April 2011, at the age of 64 in a private hospital in Surrey, after having viral pneumonia for six weeks.[3] BBC Director-General Mark Thompson paid tribute, saying: "John had a unique gift for turning everyday life and characters we all know into unforgettable comedy."[3]

Gareth Gwenlan, a producer of Only Fools and Horses and a close friend of Sullivan, paid tribute to the writer: "The sudden death of John Sullivan has deprived the world of television comedy of its greatest exponent. John was a writer of immense talent and he leaves behind him an extraordinary body of work which has entertained tens of millions of viewers and will continue to do so for many decades to come."[19] Sullivan is survived by his wife Sharon, whom he married on 23 February 1974, two sons Dan and Jim,[20] a daughter, Amy and three grandchildren.[3]

Writing credits

Production Notes Broadcaster
Citizen Smith
  • 30 episodes (1977–1980)
The Two Ronnies
  • 13 episodes (sketch contributor, 1977–1982)
Only Fools and Horses
  • 64 episodes (1981–2003)
Just Good Friends
  • 22 episodes (1983–1986)
Dear John
  • 14 episodes (1986–1987)
Dear John USA
  • 58 episodes (1988–1992)
Sitting Pretty
  • 13 episodes (1992–1993)
Over Here
  • Television film (1996)
Roger Roger
  • Television film (1996)
Roger Roger
  • 16 episodes (1998–1999, 2003)
Heartburn Hotel
  • 12 episodes (co-written with Steve Glover, 1998–2000)
  • 4 episodes (2001–2002)
The Green Green Grass
  • 32 episodes (wrote first series only, and select later episodes, 2005–2009)
Rock & Chips
  • 3 episodes (2010–2011)

Sullivan wrote (and in two cases sang) the theme tunes for Only Fools and Horses, Just Good Friends, Dear John and The Green Green Grass.

Awards and nominations

Year Award Work Category Result Reference
1989 British Academy Television Awards Only Fools and Horses Best Comedy Series (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Won
1990 British Academy Television Awards Best Comedy Series (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Nominated
1991 British Academy Television Awards Best Comedy Series (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Nominated
1991 ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards Dear John Top TV Series Won
1991 British Comedy Awards WGGB Top Comedy Writer Won
1992 British Academy Television Awards Only Fools and Horses Best Comedy (Programme or Series) (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Nominated
1997 British Academy Television Awards Best Comedy (Programme or Series) (with Gareth Gwenlan and Tony Dow) Won
1997 Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award TV – Situation Comedy Won


  1. "BFI Screenonline: Sullivan, John (1946–2011) Biography". Archived from the original on 22 February 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  3. "Comedy writer John Sullivan OBE dies" Archived 23 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine BBC News, 23 April 2011
  4. The Only Fools and Horses Story, ibid.
  5. "John Sullivan OBE". Archived from the original on 3 July 2009. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  6. The Only Fools and Horses Story by Steve Clark
  7. McCann, Graham (2011). Only Fools and Horses. The story of Britain's favourite comedy. Canongate. p. 13. ISBN 0-85786-054-2.
  8. "John Sullivan". 24 April 2011. Archived from the original on 31 July 2017. Retrieved 26 April 2018 via
  10. "JOHN SULLIVAN – A TELEVISION HEAVEN BIOGRAPHY". Archived from the original on 15 October 2012. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  11. Only Fools and Horses: The Story of Britain's Favourite Comedy – Graham McCann
  12. Clark, Steve (1998). The Only Fools and Horses Story. BBC Books. pp. 10–11. ISBN 0-563-38445-X.
  13. Clark (1998). Only Fools and Horses Story. p. 15.
  14. BBC Radio 4, Front Row interview, 30 December 2010 Archived 3 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  15. BBC Guide to Comedy Archived 14 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine by Mark Lewisohn, URL accessed 4 December 2006
  16. "No. 57509". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2004. p. 13.
  17. "Honorary Fellowship at Goldsmiths, University of London". Archived from the original on 28 September 2008. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
  18. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 24 July 2012. Retrieved 30 July 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) The Sun, 23 July 2012
  19. "Only Fools and Horses creator dies" Archived 28 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Yahoo News, 23 April 2011.
  20. "Only Fools and Horses Quiz Book". Archived from the original on 26 January 2018. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
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