Why did immigrant families like mine see so much of ourselves in Only Fools and Horses?

As part of our 90s comedy week, we look at why the story of a white working-class family was so popular among those who – on the surface – had nothing to relate to. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Some people might think it strange that I was named after Del Boy Trotter.

Like David Jason's Del I was raised in Peckham, but unlike him I was the son of Sri Lankan immigrants. How could a show centered around a white British family be so relatable to an immigrant one that they named their firstborn after the lead actor?

My family was no exception either. I don’t think there has been a show with which the British Asian community has identified more. 

Sure, there was Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42, but sketch shows can never truly capture the heart like a sitcom, and as countless Channel 4 “Greatest TV Shows of All Time” programmes have tediously droned on about, Only Fools and Horses did so like no other.

And yes, I know this is 90s TV week, and the original series only just scrapes into the decade – but Christmas specials and reruns were ubiquitous during my 90s childhood, and what we watched as a family was familiar. 

Cramped apartments, hideous furniture, tacky wallpaper, makeshift dining tables and elder statesmen occupying dusty armchairs. The Trotters’ flat in Nelson Mandela House looked like all the homes of my relatives.

Whereas other hit shows of the 90s, such as Seinfeld and Friends, revolved around a group of self-obsessed characters who were all affluent, white and attractive, Only Fools employed a cavalcade of characters which were true to our lives. Del Boy’s circle of friends looked like my dad’s. They were electricians, shop owners, and street cleaners. People who weren’t always comfortable, but were doing all right.

There have been other more recent British sitcoms I have also enjoyed, but the likes of Miranda, Outnumbered and Fleabag are centered around a lifestyle that is ultimately foreign to me. Considering the lack of Asian and black shows on British TV right now, a similarly pertinent question must be asked as to why there are still so few comedies set among the working class. 

Re-watching the show now, you are hyper-aware of the laugh track and its reliance on catch phrases. This was a show created in an era before the cringe comedy of The Office, or the blink-and-you-miss-it pace of jokes in Arrested Development. The show’s plainness, however, is central to its success.

Immigrants understood when Del mispronounced words and used fancy phrases he didn’t know the meaning of. As Del’s Reliant Robin, which proudly proclaimed that he did business in “New York – Paris – Peckham” made evident, this was a man who didn’t fit into the aspirational lifestyle of the 90s, though one who desperately wanted to belong. Del Boy was like all the immigrants who laughed at his antics. They related to him even if he was a middle-aged white man.

Del was not the perfect man by any means. He could be inconsiderate, ignorant and conniving. He often took advantage of his younger brother Rodney. And not everyone will have been comfortable with how he made his money, or his smoking and drinking habit. But when push came to shove, Del always did the right thing. He was fiercely loyal to both friends and family. He was an everyman in the truest sense of the word. 

Though it was a very simple set-up in many ways, Only Fools and Horses should be heralded for the risks it took. This was the sitcom that discussed Cassandra’s miscarriage in a Christmas special. Where else would you find such heartbreaking scenes in a show so funny? John Sullivan was a writer who had the country’s attention every Christmas, and delivered every time.

It may not have, and could not have, spoken to every immigrant experience. But for swathes of immigrants who had moved to south-east London in the 70s and 80s, like my father, Only Fools and Horses was the first show they fell in love with. More significantly, it was the first show that made them feel welcome and in that vein, the theme song is positively utopian – “black or white, rich or poor”. 

After years of watching Del Boy failing again and again, the regular series ends with the birth of the character's son. As Del looks out of the hospital window, he gives a moving monologue to his newborn:

"I wanted to do things, be someone, but I never had what it took. But you, you're different. You're gonna live my dreams for me. You're gonna do all the things I wanted to do, and you're gonna come back and tell me if they're as good as I thought they would be..."

Del's speech could have been given by so many immigrants who took countless risks to provide their families with a brighter future. He wasn't an immigrant. But my name is Jason because David Jason's character made families like mine feel at home.

So in a society that seems to be more unsympathetic to the immigrant's plight every day, maybe we should all be watching more reruns.

This is part of the New Statesman's look back at classic sitcoms from the 90s. You can find our takes on Alan Partridge here, and Brass Eye here.

Jason Murugesu is a postgraduate student in science communication at Imperial College London, and a former Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman.

Free trial CSS