How Only Fools And Horses became Serbia's favourite show with murals on the streets and dodgy deals a 'business model'
INSIDE a packed Belgrade shopping centre, fans clamour to catch a glimpse of their hero.
But this Serbian love-in is not in aid of a chart superstar, movie icon or sporting great . . . it’s for Boycie from Only Fools And Horses.
The legendary sitcom has a cult following in the Balkans, which John Challis, who plays the dodgy car dealer, explores in new documentary Boycie In Belgrade.
Speaking to The Sun, John, 78, says: “I was told it was the only thing that made them laugh during the terrible wars in the Nineties. I suddenly had this picture of these poor beleaguered people in bombed-out buildings watching Del Boy and the rest of the gang and laughing their heads off. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous’.”
On his reception in the city, he said: “I felt like a pop star, it was extraordinary. They kept asking me where Marlene was.”
John first became aware of the country’s unlikely love for the classic comedy when a Serbian TV crew visited a book signing he was doing in Peterborough three years ago on the chance he might give them an interview.
That led to an appearance on Serbia’s version of The Graham Norton Show — which sparked Boycie-mania in the former Yugoslav republic. His popularity was so great that he was approached to star in a documentary by Serbian filmmaker Lazar Vukovic.
In doing so he visited some of the country’s most famous landmarks including the Royal Palace, the British Embassy — where a function was held in his honour — and the home of the country’s premiere football team Red Star Belgrade. And on his journey he discovered more about the country’s fascination with Only Fools.
The show is held in such high regard there are murals across the city, including one featuring Del Boy sipping one of his favourite cocktails from the Nags Head.
Del Boy and Boycie in particular have the most affiliation with Serbs because, as John puts it, they are a nation of wheeler dealers who “want to make money as quickly as possible and as much as possible”.
It is a fact backed up by Djordje Rasic, the director of Belgrade’s biggest hotel chain, which is owned by the country’s most successful businessman, Philip Zepter.
Djordje says: “Boycie is a great example to us in Serbia.
“When we grew up watching Only Fools And Horses he was always doing some business, and that’s what we’ve been doing in Serbia for the past 30 years.”
He even pinched one of the show’s famous catchphrases, adding: “All of us are thinking, ‘This time next year we’ll be millionaires’ — that’s the important thing for us.”
Explaining how he discovered the sitcom, Djordje added: “Before we had the internet, they repeated Only Fools And Horses on TV because they didn’t have anything else except news about bombing.
“So if you wanted to choose Only Fools And Horses or bombing, we would choose Only Fools And Horses to escape and to have a laugh during that period.”
In the documentary John visits the city’s motor museum, where it has a replica of Trotter’s Reliant Regal. He is later seen filming a sketch by the yellow three-wheeler van, in the character of Boycie, with two of Serbia’s leading comedians.
Manager of the Auto Museum Belgrade, Bratislav Petkovic, was almost in tears when describing his love for Only Fools. He says: “For my generation and my friends, Only Fools And Horses was some kind of festivity. We discussed it all week until the next episode came out. It’s a big part of our lives.”
He added: “The British nation is a great nation. They can laugh at themselves.”
The shopping centre scene sees John mobbed by fans desperate for him to sign books translating the Only Fools lingo into Serbian.
Not that they have trouble understanding the humour in the comedy.
John explains: “They get all the jokes and the catchphrases, I heard lots of ‘lovely jubbleys’ going on and humour about Trigger and Marlene.
“It’s all the usual stuff, but it’s all heightened because nobody has been there from the show so you are treated like a major celebrity because they have seen you on the telly. I kept being told we should make more shows.”
The last Only Fools And Horses special was in 2003 — 22 years after the first episode aired in 1981.
Sadly, the legendary sitcom has lost valuable stars and its writer and creator John Sullivan in 2011. But does John think the Serbs will ever get their wish of seeing David Jason, 80, and Nicholas Lyndhurst, 59, reprise their roles as Del Boy and Rodney alongside Boycie and Marlene?
Sadly not. He says: “I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I just think it should be left where it is because there are long gaps in between the last few specials and there’s a few of the family missing, Buster Merryfield (Uncle Albert), Roger Lloyd Pack (Trigger) and Ken MacDonald (Mike the barman), so I don’t think it will ever be the same.
“And of course, John Sullivan is no longer with us, tragically, and I think he’s the only one who could write it. But who knows what’s going to happen?”
So it looks like fans must make do with the repeats, though some millennials took offence to some of the gags when the comedy was first aired on Netflix in 2017.
John believes anyone offended by the script is “oversensitive”.
He adds: “It’s perfectly harmless as far as I’m concerned.
“There were some risqué moments and in these sensitive times, oversensitive, in my opinion, there might be references that upset one or two people here.
“But if you go round banning stuff because of that I think it’s an infringement of some sort of liberty.
“If you’ve got outwardly racist stuff going on, of course that should be banned and never heard again.
“But if I look back on it, there’s some topical jokes which are a bit dodgy to say the least, and also some references to this, that, or the other, but that’s what John Sullivan heard in South London when he grew up, and that’s what he wrote.
“I don’t see if there’s any great harm in it personally.”
The Serbians clearly think it’s still cushty.
- The documentary is released on DVD and Blu-ray on September 4.
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