Many of the Only Fools and Horses stars have risen to be some of the most recognisable and loved actors in British TV history, but as famous and successful as they have become, most of them had humble beginnings.
From the bottom, to the top, here are the stories behind the childhoods of the stars of Only Fools and Horses.
We did an article recently about Nicholas Lyndhurst’s son, Archie, who wanted to go into acting just like his dad. Though Nicholas said that he wouldn’t stand in the way of his son’s career choices, he wouldn’t necessarily encourage it either. But Nicholas Lyndhurst’s childhood was decidedly different. His mother was a dancer, and his father left the family for the first time when he was a baby.
Speaking about his dad and how it has affected who he is, Lyndhurst said: “I don’t know if I’m like my father, but there are qualities I hope I have and others I hope I haven’t got. I inherited his manners. He was charming – a chivalrous, well-mannered man … considering he buggered off and started another family.
“My parents, Joe and Liz, separated when I was very young, got back together and separated permanently when I was a bit older. By the time I was eight, he’d begun an affair and had children with another woman.”
After his father left, the family endured financial troubles and were “very poor” in Lyndhurst’s words. He continued: “Not just hiding from the gas man – poverty-stricken. Beachcombing to find food. We ate a lot of mussels. I thought it was fun. I wasn’t told that if you didn’t forage you weren’t going to eat. I had the happiest childhood, I really did. Mum had stresses, but I never knew.”
But despite the poverty the family endured, a young Nicholas knew he wanted to be an actor by the time he was eight. After two years of badgering his mother to send him to a drama boarding school, she finally agreed, though the idea of wanting to be an actor was so far removed from his small Sussex hometown, was about as outlandish as outlandish could be.
Finally, his mother agreed, and managed to scrape together enough to send him there – which was about half a term’s fees – in an effort to get it out of his system. But as we all know by now, that never happened. He stayed there for the remainder of his education and even while studying he became a professional child actor.
In a short space of time, he appeared in an assortment of television series, including Anne of Avonlea, Heidi, and Peter Pan, before landing a part in the sitcom Butterflies in 1978.
And before long, he was starring in Only Fools and Horses, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sir David Jason
Sir David needs to introduction, and if you’re reading this, then you know all about him and what he’s done in his career. But something you may not know is the story of his upbringing.
David Jason was actually born David John White in February of 1940, and tragedy struck his family almost immediately as soon as he was born. David actually had a twin brother, who was never named, that died during childbirth, which makes Jason one of a very few people in show business who know the melancholy of being a twinless twin.
Sir David was born in the midst of the war, and explained how that affected his formative years. He explained: “I was born in 1940 and growing up in Finchley, North London, during the war we got used to that being normal terrain. Our playground was a bombsite. We didn’t comprehend that people had once lived there, and almost certainly died there too. It was just where my friends and I went to hang out. “
During his childhood, Jason was part of a small gang, known as The Lodge Laners. He continued: “It was named after the road where we lived. We were very inventive with our “play” down at the bombsite. The wooden posts from the gate of the demolished house were still standing, and someone thought it would be fun to strap an inner tube across the posts to make a catapult.
“With military organisation and at great speed we proceeded to fire half-bricks at any advancing kids who dared to try and raid our site. How terrifying must that have been? We could have killed someone!”
Upon leaving school, Sir David Jason wanted to follow in his older brother, Arthur White’s footsteps and become an actor. However, his father was less willing to give his blessing to Jason’s career path, and insisted that Jason get a trade. So that was what he did, as he spent the next six years training as an electrician.
But the seeds of his future career were set early on, as he explained in an interview with Reader’s Digest: “After Wayside War, my friend Micky and I were approached and asked if we wanted to join the local amateur theatre group, Incognito. We were dismissive until we were told, ‘There are 20 girls and no boys.’
“As young lads, our imaginations and hormones went mad — we thought we’d be going out with all 20 as soon as they set eyes on us. Ha! But what did happen was that I discovered acting could be a joy and that to concentrate and improve at something was immensely rewarding.”
Buster Merryfield played the white heard bearded veteran of the seven seas Albert Trotter, who loved to regale anyone who would listen about his tales from his days in the Royal Navy, which always started with the catchphrase “Durin’ the war…”
Buster was brought in to the show during the fourth series when Lennard Pearce died at the age of 69. He was brought in to maintain the dynamic of the show, with the two younger characters Del and Rodney always at their best when bouncing off the elderly relative.
But Merryfield came into acting late after working for NatWest bank for 40 years, eventually working his way up to being bank manager before retiring. He was born Harry Merryfield in 1920 in Battersea, south-west London, but never revealed his real name.
“I have a real name,” he once said, “but I’ll never divulge it. I was Buster at school, Buster when I met my wife and all through our 56 years of marriage.”
Tessa Peake-Jones played Raquel in Only Fools and Horses, who is perhaps the most influential character on in the show’s history to have not been one of the Trotter clan. Tessa joined the show in 1988 when Raquel met Del through a dating agency in the Christmas special of that year – Dates.
After Del was unexpectedly arrested, the pair lost contact until they ran into each other again when Raquel was working as a magician’s assistant in a Margate nightclub that Del and the boys were frequenting. They made a connection once again, and the pair were together from then on, through thick and thin.
Tessa Peake-Jones was best known for playing Raquel in Only Fools and Horses, and she knew that she wanted to be an actress from an early age, but her original choice was in fact ballet.
Tessa wasn’t exactly an A student at school, as she explained in an interview: “At 11, I went to Downer Grammar, up the road, and discovered there were things about school I didn’t like. I was in the bottom set for maths and I was hopeless at science.
“I also dreaded PE because I was always the last person to be picked for a team and I trailed behind in every race.”
“I remember traipsing round muddy hockey fields using my stick to protect my ankles from the other girls’ violent swings. Every other week, I said it was my time of the month to get out of it.”
But school wasn’t all bad for her, as she continued: “On my tenth birthday, my class left for a fortnight’s cruise to Norway, Sweden and Holland. I’m an only child, so I loved being in a dormitory – I thought that’s what it must be like to have brothers and sisters.”
“In our last year at Kenmore, we put on a play. It was the first time I’d acted and I was playing a cook. Mum was ill and my dad wasn’t around – they were divorced – so no one at home could make me a costume. Miss Woolacott, one of the teachers, ended up making me one in her lunch breaks. I loved it all.”
She originally wanted to be a dancer, but found that her talents lied elsewhere, as she explained: “I wanted to be a dancer and I’d been going to dance class every evening since I was four, but when I was 14 I realised the other girls were much better at ballet than me.
“I had neither the figure nor the talent. So I turned to acting.
“When Mr Whittington, my English teacher, read Shakespeare, it came to life. He encouraged us to use our imaginations. I thought he was this wise old man because he had a beard. He was probably in his 30s. Once I got into drama, I was determined to be an actress.
“I had a crush on Christopher Neame, who was in Colditz, my favourite TV programme. I found out he went to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London and I didn’t know any other way into the profession, so I thought I had to go there. And because Mum didn’t have much money, I had to get a grant. I needed five O-levels. I worked my socks off and got eight.
“My headmistress was horrified when I said I was leaving at 16, but there was nothing she could do. I was incredibly single-minded – I never asked Mum, I just told her.
“She’d been in amateur productions so she was totally supportive. I left school and applied to Central. Who knows what I’d have done if I’d been rejected. Luckily, I got in and it all worked out.”
It did more than just work out, as besides her many and various roles on TV shows over the years such as Pride and Prejudice in 1980, Casualty, The Demon Headmaster and Grantchester, she will always be remembered as a core character of perhaps the best loved sitcom in the history of British TV.
John Challis played one of the most loved characters (if sometimes it was a little difficult) on the show Boycie. Boycie was never shy about showcasing his flash lifestyle, and though he was always Del’s best friend – the two had their moments!
But the actor behind Boycie had a difficult upbringing that took its toll on him well into adulthood, and paired with his inability to have children due to a low sperm count, sometimes his character’s storylines on Only Fools struck a little too close to home.
But while Boycie’s low sperm count in the show was often played for laughs, what John Sullivan never knew when he wrote those lines was that John was hiding a similar and secret heartache that he carried through most of his adult life.
John Challis made no secret about the fact that he was desperate to have children, because he wanted to give them the sort of love that he never received as a child. John was an only child, and grew up in a household where parental love was seldom seen. Beatings at the hands of his father were regular occurrences during his childhood.
Speaking with The Daily Mail, John said he had had his doubts over his fertility ever since his teenage years when he had an operation to correct his undescended testes . He was overjoyed when his second wife alerted him to the news that she was pregnant, but those dreams were soon dashed when it turned out to be a phantom pregnancy. It was when the couple had conclusive tests that John had his fears confirmed.
He said: “I opened the letter and I felt like I had stepped on a rake.
“The tests revealed unequivocally that my sperm count was pathetic and that I’d never have kids of my own. This was more than 30 years ago and it hit me hard.
“I tried to be positive by telling myself that my acting commitments away from home would have made the role of father a difficult one.
“But it remains a matter of enduring regret that I’ll never know the joys of fatherhood, and that I’ll never have grandchildren of my own.
“I would loved to have shown them how a loving father behaved, not least because that was something I’d never known. I would have loved to have had a daughter, even though I’m sure I would have worried myself sick – well, I know what men are like.”
John had three unsuccessful marriages, partly caused by his own behaviour, but as he got older, he realised that his relationship failures had a lot to do with his cold, violent and lonely upbringing, during which, besides regularly beating him, his father expressed contempt at his decision to become an actor.
John continued: “I was a great disappointment to him. He wanted me to be heavily qualified, to extend his own achievements.”
John’s early childhood was one filled with fear: “Dad was tall and intense and had a temper. For no very good reason, he’d become monosyllabic for days on end. He’d beat me for what was not much more than boyish naughtiness.
“On one occasion, some friends and I went into his shed and caused a bit of a mess. I got slippered for that. Then there was the time I helped myself to an orange from the fruit bowl. My father suddenly appeared from behind a door – he’d been lying in wait – and went ballistic, accusing me of stealing from his own mother and father. It was an orange, for heaven’s sake!”
“I remember hearing my parents arguing about Dad beating me. My mother Joan would plead with him not to, but that had been the way he’d been brought up. As I got older, I’d be jealous seeing other people with their parents because of their obvious loving relationship.
“Our household was different. Other parents were proud and supportive of their children. Not mine.”
As John’s parents marriage began to fall apart, he said that his mother transferred the majority of her affections onto him.
“While she encouraged my career, my father couldn’t praise me – even when I had some success. ‘Oh, I don’t watch television,’ he’d say. ‘I haven’t got time for that rubbish.’
“And yet occasional remarks would sometimes be repeated to me. I acted abroad, in South Africa and America, and Dad once said to someone, ‘My son’s been halfway around the world, you know.’
“Then he came to see me in Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen, a very rare event for him. We sat at the table after Sunday lunch and he said, ‘That play… was so proud of you.’ He was quite drunk which may explain why he allowed his guard to drop. I burst into tears. He’d never, ever said anything like that. And as it turned out, he never did again.”
A cruel irony would befall the family when John’s father, Alec, started to develop Alzheimer’s disease. During the last years of his father’s life, before his death of a heart attack at the age of 72, John found himself caring for the man of whom he’d been afraid and had beaten him over the course of his childhood.
And for a bonus, here’s Gwyneth Strong (Cassandra) as a child