Today on his Facebook page Steve Clark, who literally wrote the book on Only Fools and Horses, wrote about this remarkable episode and what made it, and the show, so great:
There's an episode of Only Fools and Horses on Gold tonight which exemplifies writer John Sullivan's brilliance. It's Strained Relations, the episode in which we see Grandad's funeral, following the death in real life of actor Lennard Pearce who played him.
“It was a terrifying idea,” said producer Ray Butt. “To open a comedy show with a funeral would normally, to use a terrible pun, be death. But John was brilliant. He engineered it so well.”
With consummate skill Sullivan wrote a superb script, which I believe is one of his finest ever. Not surprisingly the funeral scene wasn’t littered with jokes. It was dark and gloomy, much as the cast and crew felt at the time.
But Sullivan knew he couldn't make the whole script downbeat, so he broke the mood with a gag which was a master stroke. Rodney drops Grandad’s trilby hat into the grave before it’s filled in by gravediggers.
As far as Del and Rodney and the viewer is concerned that’s that - until the vicar sets off for home and asks if anyone has seen his hat. This was a typical Sullivan twist which lightened the moment completely and lifted the gloom.
“You had all the pathos and all the sadness which is an important element of comedy and then he pricked it by the fact that Del and Rodney had thrown the wrong hat into the grave,” said Ray Butt.
“It was a brilliant idea by John and he engineered it so well and put it in exactly the right position and it lifted the whole episode.”
David Jason agreed: “It was a brilliant way of lightening the scene. And I have to say it’s a tribute to the brilliance of John Sullivan’s writing that he could handle something as delicate as a death in the family with such skill that one minute you are laughing and the next minute you are crying.”
The episode also featured an exchange between Del and Rodney that must be one of the best sitcom scenes ever. It comes when grief-stricken Rodney asks Del how he can have got over Grandad’s death so quickly. Of course he hasn’t:
“Get over it? What a plonker you really are, Rodney. Get over it? I haven’t even started yet, I ain’t even started bruv. And do you know why? Because I don’t know how to. That’s why. I’ve survived all my life with a smile and a prayer. I’m Del Boy ain’t I. Good old Del Boy, he’s got more bounce than Zebedee. ‘Ere pal what you drinkin’? Go on darlin’ you ‘ave one for luck. That’s me, that’s Del Boy isn’t it. Nothing ever upsets Del Boy. I’ve always played the tough guy. I didn’t want to but I had to and I’ve played it for so long now that I don’t know how to be anything else. I don’t even know how to….oh it don’t matter. Bloody families, I’m finished with them. What do they do to you, eh? They drag you down and then they break your bloody heart.”
“John Sullivan wrote so many great scenes in Only Fools and Horses,” said David Jason. “But that is certainly one of the best as far as I’m concerned."Here's the episode, the above scene starts around the 21:30 mark.
Only Fools And Horses - S04E02 - Strained... by SevenBiLiR-