When one thinks of a canon, it may be a reference to the biblical canon encompassing all the books considered to be authoritative scripture or a literary canon delineating the authoritative works of an author which then provide the basis for judgment and scholarship. Aficionados of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will be more than familiar with what is termed the Holmes canon, comprising the 56 short stories and 4 novels written about The Great Detective.
Whilst normally I would abide by the canonical rules, such as Sherlock Holmes above where the sixty stories mark the ones actually written by Sir Arthur there is one particular body of work in which I have marked out what I personally consider to be the canon. It is the work of the late John Sullivan and, to be more specific, his epic comedy series Only Fools and Horses. If you are considering why such a series needs any form of such classification, I shall elucidate. The starting point is thankfully straightforward. The travails of the Trotter family began with the screening of “Big Brother” (in the literal as opposed to Orwellian sense) on 8 September 1981. If one were being pedantic, it ended with “Sleepless in Peckham” which aired on Christmas Day 2003. Except, it didn’t. For me, the canon ends with the 1996 trilogy which concluded the saga and in which, after watching Del Boy, Rodney, Grandad and Uncle Albert through births, deaths and marriages over the course of 25 years, they finally become millionaires. The long cherished goal finally achieved. The final episode “Time on our Hands” still holds the record for the highest number of viewers to this day: 24.3 million viewers. The three subsequent specials are so poor in terms of plot, dialogue and comedy that they disgrace and I do not use that word lightly, the previous 59 episodes. On this interpretation, the Holmes Canon and the Trotter Cannon would both be three score.
Incidentally, the reason it was called “Time on our Hands” is because they make their fortune when Del’s father-in-law notices that the old, dirty pocket watch laying on top of a gas stove is the fabled “Lesser Watch” by John Harrison who “was just about the most famous watchmaker of his time, of any time”. Considering Only Fools and Horses was such a critical part of my childhood and that I know nearly every episode verbatim, John Harrison has retained a particular place in my memory.
Therefore, when in my most recent incarnation I worked at the law firm Mishcon de Reya in a striking art-deco building in Red Lion Square in London, I was genuinely thrilled to learn that the John Harrison had lived in a house built on the site of our offices. Yet, it wasn’t one of my colleagues that imparted this information, it was the discreet blue plaque on the side of the building that noted “John Harrison, 1693 – 1776, inventor of the Marine Chronometer lived and died in a house on this site”. So unobtrusive and yet so iconic and whilst perhaps no one else in the building cared or does care that it has this particular historical link, it would make me smile every time I walked past.
The announcement today that English Heritage, which has run the Blue Plaque scheme since 1986 (the actual history of the blue plaques dates back to 1866 making it one of the oldest of its kind in the world) was suspending its approval scheme due to cash shortages appalled me. Not only are plaques iconic but they need a body such as English Heritage to administer it so that there is a judgment made and it doesn’t become a free for all. As the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones said in his blog today:
“London is at a turning point in its history. The nation’s capital is about to see its skyline become a jumble of badly designed skyscrapers, in an amnesiac destruction of its architectural identity. Do we want this city to lose all sense of its past? Blue plaques are one of the most charming ways a capital has ever found to preserve historical memory.”
Tucked away in a side street in Holborn, there will always be one that remains especially in my memory.