Series 01.06 ‘The Russians are Coming’
TX: BBC-1, Tuesday 13/10/1981
Knowing our luck, there won’t even be a bloody war…
In 1981, Only Fools and Horses… wasn’t yet a “national institution”, or the “best-loved” British sitcom, as Samsung’s November 2017 poll indicated. (1) This first series of the sitcom averaged 7.7 million viewers and the audience’s Reaction Index had a mean of 70, increasing from the first episode’s 62: emphasising how John Sullivan’s sitcom was gradually finding its audience. (2) The finest episode of its first series was an unusually focused look at domestic implications of the Cold War.
The episode was shown in the midst of the ‘Second Cold War’; the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, while Reagan had been elected as a more bellicose US President in November 1980. In the same year, Cold War ‘doom’-pop had included Kate Bush’s ‘Breathing’, UB40′ and ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ and The Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)’ was due in November 1981. The BFI filmed a poetry performance at Chelsea Old Town Hall on 15th April 1981 named Poets Against the Bomb, capturing anti-nuclear poems from the likes of Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Judith Kazantzis, Harold Pinter and a drily humorous Ivor Cutler. Panorama had addressed the subject ‘If the Bomb Drops’ very early (TX: BBC-1, 10/03/1980).
Only Fools… got to the topic sooner than The Young Ones (‘Bomb’, TX: BBC-2, 30/11/1982), or, indeed, the science-fiction spin-off from Play for Today, Play for Tomorrow – Caryl Churchill’s opening episode ‘Crimes’ (TX: BBC-1, 13/04/1982) featured Dave Hill as a mendacious seller of nuclear shelters. It also got there sooner than Q.E.D.‘s ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ (TX: BBC-1, 26/05/1982), which was followed by The Underground Test (TX: BBC-2, 28/05/1982), where two London couples each volunteered to carry out a ten-day ‘consumer test’ – underground in a nuclear shelter. The programme showed the results of this experiment, which had taken place in the cold Winter of 1981/82.
In ‘The Russians Are Coming’, the Trotter household self-assemble a nuclear fall-out shelter – using stolen lead worth £1,000. The notably all-male family dramatise arguments about nuclear weapons, with Del the voice of complacency and Rodney articulating the explicit and bleak official ‘guidance’ people were being given, as in the public information film, Protect and Survive (1976).
As with Steptoe and Son (1962-74), the lack of women is tangibly felt. We are presented with now-retrograde, then-typical dialogue outlining sexual fantasies (leading to Del describing Rodders as a “sicko” and “pervo”) and nationality stereotyping (“Paddies”). It can be argued that this roots such a sitcom in the naturalistic flavour of its times.
Both Del and Rodney question how they’d know the “four minute warning” was starting, considering that no-one had been informed what the sound was. This reflects how much of the official advice and guidance on nuclear war seemed insufficient and even pointless, considering the cataclysmic main effects of such a war.
However, Del Boy argues for the character-building nature of war, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854): “Mine is not to reason why / Mine is but to sell and buy”. He argues that British youth have always needed “a decent war” and that the current younger generation are starved of a war, in this age of computerisation; “they’re doing their National Service on the Space Invaders!” Computer games provide a poor surrogate, in his view. He then speaks of “real war”, using wholly film examples: of Errol Flynn and Kenneth More.
Grandad responds to Del Boy’s claims of these film wars as “Glorious, valiant war, that!”: “Don’t talk like a berk, Del Boy”. He speaks of how, as a “nipper”, he saw soldiers marching off to serve in WW1 and how his brother George was at Passchendale. He brings in personal reminiscences and facts to challenge Del’s second-hand culturally-formed view of war: “Nigh on a half million allied troops died there all for five miles of mud”. He explains the reality of soldiers returning home as maimed, gassed victims.
They promised us homes fit for heroes…
They gave us heroes fit for homes…
Grandad is allowed ample time to make his points here: a sign that sitcoms were willing to countenance straight, serious monologues as part of their arsenal. At no point in Lennard Pearce’s long oration does he try to elicit a single laugh. This monologue is used as a centre-piece of the episode, stating harsh truths about war in the twentieth-century. The episode’s dominant mode of fatalistic gallows humour is immeasurably strengthened by Sullivan’s decision to make the episode just not funny for such a long stretch.
Rodney, who’d silenced Del to allow Grandad to speak, presses home the assault: “I’d never wear a British uniform on principle”. This elicits the first laugh for a while, as he explains the reason; not due to high ideals, but that he’d want to avoid being shot at by Russians. However, Rodney sports a UK Decay band t-shirt; his affinity for this Luton post-punk band, with links to the radical likes of the Dead Kennedys and Crass, does connote his broad sympathies for the counter-culture. He reels off knowledge of the scarcity of resources a nuclear war would bring, and shows awareness of the effects of Strontium 90 and of radiation: causing mutations.
Rodney and Del seem to take comfort in their alone being safe; a sense of exceptionalism that rings increasingly hollow as the final shot depicts the location of their nuclear shelter as directly annexed to their tower-block. The sense that Sullivan is aiming for Oh! What A Lovely War bleakness Grandad’s “War is Hell”. Jingoism is rooted in film representations indicated to be false; the Falklands War was still half a year away. Ironically, however, both Grandad and Rodney can only recall the “War is Hell” quote as being from cinema, speculating on whether it was Alan Ladd, Audie Murphy or Rock Hudson who said it.
(1) Anon. (2017) ‘Revealed: Britain’s favourite sitcom’, Mid Sussex Times, 21st November.
(2) Jan Hewson (1982) Audience Research Report: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES…, BBC WAC, VR/81/341, 22nd January