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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stuart Jeffries

From Only Fools to Frasier: how Nicholas Lyndhurst became the sidekick king

Buster Merryfield, Nicholas Lyndhurst and David Jason in Only Fools and Horses.
Lyndhurst is best known to many in the UK as Rodney Trotter from Only Fools and Horses. Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

On Peep Show, Super Hans once asked a question from a quiz book. “I have a mouth, but do not speak. I have a bed, but never sleep. What am I?” “A river,” said Mark. “Nicholas Lyndhurst,” corrected Super Hans. Mark was doubtful: “I think that’s the wrong answer section.”

Such, you might think, is Lyndhurst’s fate – to be the punchline to another’s joke, the foil in someone else’s comedy. His most celebrated role was wide-boy Derek Trotter’s sidekick of brother Rodney from 1981 to 2003 in the BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses. “Sit down, Rodney, and keep your brains warm,” said David Jason’s Del Boy to Lyndhurst’s Rodney Charlton Trotter. In another episode, Rodney, worried about his complexion, asked his brother Del how he looked. Del Boy, looking the dozy twonk up and down, finally replied: “You look like a blood donor who couldn’t say no.”

His latest turn will be as Kelsey Grammer’s tweedy English friend Prof Alan Cornwall in the 10-episode reboot of Frasier on Paramount+. Ever the sidekick. In the trailer, we see the pair having a pint in a Boston bar, our hero having foregone the fermented grape on his return from Seattle. “Sitting here with a cold brew in my hand I feel amalgamated with the hoi polloi,” says snobbish Frasier. “You are the classic everyman,” quips Prof Cornwall sarcastically. “Quips” may be overstating it. The script, if not the performances, needs work.

Toks Olagundoye as Olivia, Kelsey Grammer as Frasier and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Alan in the reboot
Toks Olagundoye, Kelsey Grammer and Lyndhurst in the Frasier reboot. Photograph: Chris Haston/Paramount+/PA

Lyndhurst might seem to be the eternal stupid boy, the perma-plonker with a beanpole physique, who, had Ian Lavender never existed, should have played Private Pike in Dad’s Army.

He found fame in Carla Lane’s 1978 sitcom Butterflies as Adam Parkinson, one of two teenage sons to Wendy Craig’s housewife Ria as she weekly contemplated, but didn’t, committing adultery with someone who wasn’t her repressed lepidopterist-dentist husband.

“Oh, thank heavens, there’s Adam,” Ria said in one episode. “As long as I have Adam, I can avoid Valium.” Which, if you think about it, isn’t much of a compliment. In Butterflies, Lyndhurst and the late Andrew Hall, who played his brother, Russell, did their best with a script apparently written in an argot that was current 10 years before the show was set. “I guess I’ll just have to marry some rich chick,” says Russell in one scene. “Don’t marry her,” replied Lyndhurst, sporting the kind of hair-helmet that was permissible for men in the late 1970s. “Just live with her until the bread runs out.” Chick? Bread?

Cast in character around breakfast table
Lyndhurst, right, in the 1978 sitcom Butterflies. Photograph: AA Film Archive/Alamy

How Lyndhurst survived Butterflies to become a comic actor for nearly a half century, culminating, if that’s the right word, in his performance in Frasier, is anybody’s guess: Ria’s cooking was a daily near-death experience.

“He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with,” says Grammer of Lyndhurst. The actor met Lyndhurst while the pair starred in the English National Opera’s production of Man of La Mancha in London in 2019. The Guardian’s Michael Billington gave the show two stars, writing of Grammer, who played Don Quixote: “In the TV show Frasier, he played a man who couldn’t make up his mind. Here, as the Don’s fake chin hair suddenly came off, he seemed like a man who couldn’t make up his beard,” while he wrote that “Nicholas Lyndhurst spins out his tenuous role as a drunken innkeeper … It says much that only a giant staircase, constantly lowered in James Noone’s metallic design, was moving.”

Oh dear. Hopefully the pair’s reunion in Frasier will be more successful. Grammer describes the Englishman as his “co-lead” in the Frasier reboot. “I warned them in America. I said: ‘Wait until this guy gets here. You’ll be doing a scene with him and suddenly you realise he’s just run off with it.’”

Grammer and Lyndhurst laugh as they read through a script
Kelsey Grammer describes Lyndhurst as his ‘co-lead’ on the Frasier reboot. Photograph: Chris Haston/Paramount+

Let’s hope: the critics have so far been cool about the reboot, and there is a lot riding on Lyndhurst’s role. His character, Frasier’s old Oxford friend turned university professor, essentially replaces David Hyde Pierce’s Niles Crane as the titular shrink’s sidekick, who weekly in the original stole the show.

For British audiences, Lyndhurst’s incarnation in Frasier is discombobulating: the Peter Pan of British TV has turned éminence grise. But then Lyndhurst is 62, and it is a long time since the 1996 Only Fools and Horses Christmas special in which, for reasons too complicated to get into right now, pint-sized Del Boy was dressed as Batman and Lyndhurst’s rangy Rodney was the boy wonder Robin, looking like a caped ostrich in tights as he and Del chased down a gang of muggers through the streets of Peckham after their Reliant Regal van broke down.

Counterintuitively, Lyndhurst was not born in Nelson Mandela House in the non-gentrified bit of Peckham, but in the seaside village of Emsworth, Hampshire. He told the Guardian he thought he took after his father, Joe. “He was charming. A chivalrous, well-mannered man … considering he buggered off and started another family. By the time I was eight, he’d begun an affair and had children with another woman.”

Lyndhurst on stage with Kelsey Grammer in the ENO’s Man of La Mancha production
Lyndhurst on stage with Kelsey Grammer in the ENO’s Man of La Mancha production. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Little Nicholas badgered his mum, Liz, a former dancer, to send him to theatre school. He has told interviewers he doesn’t know where that ambition came from, but at the age of 10 he boarded at the Corona theatre school in London, his mum scrimping and saving to pay fees. It worked: while still a student, he started appearing in children’s TV dramas including Anne of Avonlea, Heidi and Peter Pan. His TV break came in 1978 as the son of ex-con Norman Stanley Fletcher in Going Straight, Ronnie Barker’s sequel to his hit prison sitcom Porridge.

Perhaps that’s a good omen: he started his TV celebrity in a beloved sitcom franchise; nearly half a century later, he’s tasked with reviving another.

He married Lucy Smith, a former ballet dancer, in 1999 and in 2000 they had a son, Archie. When Archie said he wanted to be an actor, Lyndhurst told him: “I can’t offer any advice other than please don’t do it.” Archie replied: “Daddy, I just want to entertain people.” So Lyndhurst agreed. Archie, like his father, trained at the Corona theatre school. The publicity-shy father had one condition: “I told Lucy: ‘If I ever hear him say the F-word – famous – the deal’s off.’”

Archie, presumably, never dropped that particular F-bomb. In 2015, Lyndhurst said: “He’s filming his second series for CBBC, So Awkward. I wish I’d been as good as him at his age.” In 2020, though, family tragedy struck when Archie, only 19, died of a brain haemorrhage.

Lest we forget, Lyndhurst is not just a comic actor. In 1999, he played Uriah Heep opposite Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Maggie Smith in a BBC adaptation of David Copperfield; in 2000, he played the amoral Dr Graham Moss in Thin Ice; in 2013 he joined the cast as a regular in the police procedural New Tricks. He has won Baftas not just for his role as Rodney Trotter, but for his performance in an advert for WH Smith in which he played all four members of the same family.

Julian Glover and Lyndhurst in The Dresser.
Julian Glover and Lyndhurst in The Dresser. Photograph: Alastair Muir/REX/Shutterstock

In 2004, he played the titular role in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, aiding Julian Glover’s actor-manager “Sir” as he prepares to give one last performance as King Lear. This time, the Guardian’s critic liked what he saw: “Lyndhurst, looking like a Dickensian Cruikshank sketch and commendably unafraid to bring out the waspish bitterness of this supposedly loyal servant, reminds us that theatre is often a refuge for the unhappy.”

Not everybody who saw the performance agreed. Lyndhurst was confronted by a theatregoer who was dismayed to discover the TV funnyman was playing a northern alcoholic gay man with mental health problems. “He said: ‘You’ve upset my wife. I brought her out for a good night because she likes your programmes and look what you’ve done! She’s in bits!’” Lyndhurst recalled. “Good,” Lyndhurst replied with understandable glee.

For many, not least the 21.3 million viewers who watched Only Fools and Horses in its pomp, Lyndhurst will always be the stupid boy, the nice-but-dim beanpole with self-esteem issues. “I’ve got this horrible feeling,” Rodney said once, “that if there is such a thing as reincarnation, knowing my luck I’ll come back as me.” For them, he will be forever the butt of another’s joke. Rodney: “I’ve been thinking …” Del Boy: “Oh, leave it out Rodney, we’re in enough trouble as it is.”

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