It may come as no surprise to some that Only Fools and Horses is consistently voted Britain’s most popular comedy series, what might be more of a surprise is the show’s popularity in a once war-torn area of South-Eastern Europe. It is so popular in the former Yugoslavia that the late John Challis, who played the character of Boycie, actually when to Serbia and made a documentary about why the show is so beloved.
Boycie in Belgrade revealed just how revered actors in the show are in the Serbian capital, with the actor being treated more like a foreign dignitary than a celebrity. John also made his own shock at the show’s popularity in the former Yugoslavia, which includes Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Slovenia.
Speaking about the show’s global success John admits that he thought it would only really appeal to Londoners: “I thought, yeah, this is funny, but it was very London-centric, the language and everything,” he told The Big Issue.
“Pretty soon we started getting letters from all over the place – I mean even as far away as Scotland! You suddenly realise the appeal of it, that these characters John Sullivan had written were completely universal.”
Del Boy’s adventure through Peckham as a wheeler-dealer trying to get by through hair-brained schemes, shady dealings, and under-the-table shenanigans was relatable to the often ragtag lifestyle that many in the former Yugoslavia had, particularly during the wars that would tear the country apart.
John himself didn’t realise the show’s popularity in South-Eastern Europe until he was tracked down by a Serbian camera crew while doing a book signing in Peterborough.
“It fascinates me why they liked it so much,” John explained in an interview in 2020. “I know nothing about this part of the world apart from the horrible wars they had but I like history so I started finding out more about it.”
Eventually, the Boycie actor decided he go to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and find out why the show was so popular and explore the city for himself. On his arrival, he was treated like royalty, everything from being mobbed by crowds of fans, to tours of distilleries to even meeting the Serbian Health Minister.
The documentary itself is an exploration of how people can be united through humour. “There is something about laughter that unites people,” John adds, “If only we could bottle it, share it, a lot of problems would be over.”
After his trip, the actor said that he felt like he understood the show’s appeal more: “I realised they’re exactly the same, all those characters exist in that part of the world.” Indeed, you can see a similar character across the former Yugoslavia.
Bosnians are also massive fans of the show. “Only Fools and Horses was on all the time. Bosnians could identify, I guess,” says Aldin Kameric, “Peckham looks like a random commie hood in Bosnia, with working-class people struggling to survive by petty tricks and smuggling and stuff.”
Somehow, despite Only Fools and Horses being a quintessentially British comedy, it is relatable to a wide variety of people because of its characters, who struggle but continue to dream big, who will attempt survive and thrive any way they can. John summarises it best when he says: “There’s a bit of Del Boy in everybody. The aspiration, ‘Next time this year Rodders, we’ll be millionaires’. He probably doesn’t believe it deep down but he hopes it will happen. It actually sums up what that country and its people are about.”