Nostalgic 'Only Fools and Horses' stage show soothes divided Britain

LONDON (Reuters) - British comedy “Only Fools and Horses” ran for decades, drew the biggest home audience yet for a TV episode – and has smashed box office records with a West End musical version that resonates in a nation riven by Brexit and yearning for simpler times.

Much has changed in Britain since Derek “Del Boy” Trotter and his younger brother Rodney eked out a living in the 1980s and 1990s in the mean streets of Peckham, southeast London, selling whatever dubious goods they could lay their hands on.

“We’re in an incredibly polarized situation, so it’s quite nice sometimes to go back and look at things with rose-tinted glasses,” Tom Bennett, who plays Del Boy in the musical, told Reuters.

“Simplistically you could say they were simpler, much better times. That’s not the case at all. But it’s fun. It’s a musical. It’s based on one of the best comedies ever written.”

The original was the creation of John Sullivan whose ability to portray loveable underdogs was rooted in his experience of growing up in a working class family in south London.

He took a job behind the scenes at the BBC and got his scripts noticed after years of rejections.

In 1996, one episode of “Only Fools and Horses” drew a record British television audience of more than 24 million and by the time he died in 2011, Sullivan’s quintessentially British humor had generated laughter across the globe.

Jeff Nicholson, who in the musical plays Boycie, a businessman more financially successful but shadier than Del Boy, sums up Sullivan’s skill.

“He hit some really heavy subjects but then brought you out of that emotional moment with a cutting gag,” he said.

Residents of today’s gentrified Peckham are among those packing the Theatre Royal Haymarket, one of the West End’s oldest theaters.

The musical is the work of Sullivan’s son Jim, who teamed up with actor and writer Paul Whitehouse, and developed ideas left by his father.

It is taking bookings until the end of August. Since opening last month, it has made more than 8 million pounds ($10.52 million) and sold 150,000 seats, making it the fastest selling show in the theater’s history.

Last year musicals drove record West End box office revenues of more than 765 million pounds, the Society of London Theatre said.

Reporting by Barbara Lewis; Editing by Alexandra Hudson