Review: Rock and Chips

Posted on January 29, 2010

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“It was a costume drama, it needed a costume drama budget, and it didn’t get that.”

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So says Rodney, I mean Nicholas Lyndhurst.

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It’s always been said that the BBC do costume dramas better than anyone in the TV industry, and it’s true enough – Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Much Ado… I could go on, but that’s generally what the costume dramas do. So naturally, when the prequel to Only Fools and Horses, spin-off Rock and Chips received less than the usual allocated budget, Lyndhurst wasn’t impressed.

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The feature length spin-off was shot in just 19 days after waiting months to get the green light. Of the show, Lyndhurst stated, “We thought, ‘we haven’t got the budget we want, we haven’t got the schedule we want, so we’re going to have to make it as brilliant as we can’”.

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And in terms of the production of the show, there really wasn’t any cause for concern because the 60s set prequel does look fantastic, from the replicated London streets to a very nostalgic scene in the Nelson Mandela flat towards the end. Clearly a lot of effort was made to make the show as authentic looking as possible.

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The performances too are excellent. Kellie Bright is the stand-out player as Joan, the Trotter matriarch, working two jobs to feed her extended family, which includes Ted Trotter, (Phil Daniels) whom we know better as Grandad. Nicholas Lyndhurst, cast as his original character’s father Freddie, is also excellent, exuding a sort of cockney charm but at the same time, always making an audience wary of his criminal background and intentions towards Joan. The young Del Trotter, played by James Buckly of The Inbetweeners is also a good choice. Though I don’t think anyone will ever picture anyone but David Jason in the role, Buckly does well in capturing the mannerisms and attitude of the character he would become.

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Plotwise, there isn’t really a lot going on in Rock and Chips. The story mainly revolves around the release of Freddie ‘the frog’ Robdal from prison and his subsequent pursuit of the seldom-happily married Joan Trotter. Amidst this main plotline, we see some early signs of Del’s wheeling and dealing. One amusing scene shows the various members of the Trotter house electrocuting themselves on door handles after Del installs a nylon carpet in the whole house. Elsewhere, Freddie returns to his safe-cracking routine but not enough time or plot is dedicated to this.

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At its simplest, the show is a tale of origin, the story of how Rodney came to be. And after watching ten minutes of Joan’s lacklustre relationship with her husband Reg (Shaun Dingwall, once again playing a cockney chancer – does he ever feel typecast, I wonder?) it becomes clear that her relationship with Freddie will be in the vein of a romance drama, which one might find a tad boring (or sickening) from the writer who wrote one of the BBC’s most popular comedies of all time.

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But it doesn’t turn out that way at all, though the lack of decent subplot does diminish the show a bit. With the scenes between Freddie and Joan effectively telling the only story of the piece, all other scenes between them are somewhat redundant. It’s almost like a fan film, focusing mostly on what could have been the schmaltzy stuff but throwing in a bit of the humour we saw in abundance in Only Fools.

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There’s no denying the charm in John Sullivan’s writing. Rock and Chips has two very important things going for it: the nostalgia and the writing. You probably would struggle to pick a selection of better loved characters than Del and Co, and this certainly helps to distract us from the giant holes where a subplot should sit. The writing similarly, though not dedicated in this case to an extravagant or original plot still exudes the charm that John Sullivan nailed in Only Fools. The trademark quirky dialogue might seem a bit like “Guess the catchphrase” but that never bothered us in the original series so it would seem petty to complain about it now.

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Rock and Chips is not great. But it’s by no means awful either. It’s almost difficult to register an opinion on it because in some ways you really like it but in other ways you wonder why it exists. Like the three very unnecessary Christmas specials from ‘01-‘03, we don’t really need this prequel. Then again, there is no need for a lot of the offerings currently on TV at the moment – Rock and Chips happens to be the lesser of all these evils.

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Rumours of a commissioned sitcom are abound but I’m hoping Sullivan adheres to the principle of quality over quantity. After all, do we really want the whole detailed story from 1960 to the present?

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Only Fools and Horses diehards will probably write pages on why this show was a travesty. But if you just want something light and unchallenging with an occasional laugh then you could do a lot worse than Rock and Chips.

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This review appeared as part of Totally Dublin’s Telly Thursday blog on 28th January 2010.

Posted in: Reviews