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Only Fools and Horses' Sue Holderness: ‘Politically correct people want a lot of comedy banned’

Sue Holderness fears comedy is trickier to make these days
Sue Holderness fears comedy is trickier to make these days - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

It is 32 years since the final series aired. Two decades since the sitcom’s last Christmas special. But Only Fools and Horses fans are a loyal bunch with long memories, and even today they still greet Sue Holderness by the name of her character in the show: Marlene. Or rather: “Maarleeene?”

Hard to convey the correct pronunciation through the written word. Suffice to say the trademark elongated vowels of Marlene’s on-screen husband Boycie (played by the late John Challis) are obligatory.

Even abroad, Holderness is still hailed as her Only Fools character. “We were in Dubrovnik and [a] local chap suddenly recognised me and said, ‘Oh, Marlene!’”

Does the actress, who has appeared in countless television shows since, mind her eternal association with the fictional creation she politely refers to as “a girl about town” (and less politely refers to as “a bit of a slag”)? Not in the least. “I love it!” she says.

It is perhaps trite to observe that Holderness – warm, engaging and brimming with conversation in her cosy book-lined sitting room in Windsor – sounds nothing like the cockney Marlene. Born in Hampstead and raised in Ruislip (now part of West London), she’s the privately educated second daughter of an airline pilot father and stay-at-home mother. Although she lost her younger brother when he suffered a brain clot at the age of three, hers was otherwise a “blissfully happy childhood”.

Her late father Tony’s story connects her to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, one of the charities The Telegraph is supporting in its annual Christmas appeal. Tony and his two brothers served in the RAF during the Second World War. John, the eldest, took part in the Battle of Britain. Against the odds, all three siblings survived, and Tony went on to fly for the state-owned British Overseas Airways Corporation and British European Airways.

He spoke little of his wartime exploits later, other than to remark that “you made very close friendships, went out on sorties, and you didn’t all come back.”

Sue's uncles and her father (on the right) in their RAF uniforms
Sue's uncles and her father (on the right) in their RAF uniforms - Andrew Crowley

But given the family history, Holderness’s work with the charity – which supports current and former RAF personnel and their families – feels personal. “The work they do is extraordinary,” she says. “You hear these profoundly moving stories about the terrible things people go through, the injuries they have and the impact it has on families, and I’ve met a lot of families who’ve been directly supported by [the charity] in all sorts of ways. The thing you want to try and get rid of is the feeling you can’t own up to needing help, because if you can own up, there is help of every sort.”

Help that includes counselling for post-traumatic stress, financial grants and mobility aids.

“It’s a charity that can dramatically change lives,” says Holderness. “If you’re part of the RAF family in any way, they will look after you.”

Coming from a flying family, Holderness was the first to go into acting. Her heart was set on the performing arts from the age of three, when she appeared in the annual show put on by the local dancing school her sister attended. Her turn as a tap-dancing doll culminated in “wonderful laughter and applause” – and also in her wetting herself on stage.

“It wasn’t a good start,” she admits. “It’s never happened again.”

Her parents were nervous about her going to drama school, “because everyone said ‘she’ll never work.’”

The theme tune lyrics may have it that “only fools and horses work”, but Holderness barely stopped doing so, and at 74 is busier with acting than ever. Her big break came courtesy of the late Only Fools writer John Sullivan. Marlene was meant to appear in the show only once, in a scene in series four where she and Boycie hand over their dog to Del Boy (Sir David Jason) and Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) to look after while they’re on holiday. It being 1985 and not the 2020s, Del Boy is what we might call a little “handsy” with his friend’s wife. “Suddenly I’m getting my bottom pinched and big snogs,” exclaims Holderness. “I just knew it was funny.”

That might have been the end of it. Except that two weeks later, Sullivan rang her up. “We like Marlene,” he told her. “She’s coming back.”

Sue Holderness as Marlene in Only Fools And Horses
Sue Holderness as Marlene in Only Fools And Horses - Radio Times

Holderness was thrilled. Not only did Marlene become a regular character, she also appeared in her own spin-off series with Boycie, The Green Green Grass, which ran from 2005 to 2009.

Other credits include Casualty, Still Open All Hours, Holby City and EastEnders. She currently plays a local gossip called Judith in The Madame Blanc Mysteries, a Channel 5 comedy drama.

We hear a lot about the golden age of television we’re apparently living through. But it’s typically US dramas that are celebrated. From The Sopranos to Succession, the small screen has enjoyed a stellar couple of decades or so. If there’s something missing, though, it is arguably the great British sitcom that had whole families in stitches. Where is today’s Only Fools?

“We had a knack,” agrees Holderness. “We don’t have them any more. Maybe it’s because people don’t watch television in the same way. Most kids don’t watch television at all and lots of people don’t have a licence. They’re glued to Netflix and YouTube. There’s no equivalent of Only Fools.”

Holderness was the first to go into acting from her family, with her father in the RAF
Holderness was the first to go into acting from her family, with her father in the RAF - Andrew Crowley

Comedy, she fears, is trickier to make these days. What was once considered fair game for jokes is often now seen as deeply problematic.

“I worry a bit about quite what comedy writers can write any more because there’s so much that can be taken as a terrible insult to somebody when it’s supposed to be a joke. We’re bemoaning the fact we don’t have sitcoms like we used to, but I think it is harder for writers to come up with stuff that is really acceptable and still funny, and still sort of naughty and cryptic and sardonic, and not offend people.”

Sweetened by nostalgia, Only Fools still holds a special place in the hearts not only of older viewers, but also of the millennials raised on its underdog humour. But it is, like much of our historic pop-cultural treasure, of its time. “Very politically correct people want quite a lot of it banned,” says Holderness.

And yet it has escaped cancellation. You can still see it all on streaming, without so much as a trigger warning. “I think because it’s so sweet, and people genuinely got to love the characters,” muses Holderness on its enduring appeal.

Still, if the show’s popularity has somehow survived intact, aspects of the industry have had their day. Sexism and sexual harassment in the acting world is by now well-charted. Holderness had her own method for dealing with unscripted wandering hands. “If anyone ever did anything to me, I would just say ‘f--- off’ and they would say ‘frigid cow’ and it would be over. I’d be quite strict in saying, ‘don’t do that again’ and they wouldn’t.”

Sue with John Challis in 2011
Sue with John Challis in 2011 - Jon Furniss/WireImage

As for being wolf-whistled when passing building sites, “I wouldn’t really mind because it was appreciation. If they shouted ‘get ‘em off, darling,’ you were used to it. I suppose now I would be offended.”

But given the more serious abuse some suffered, she is glad “it’s come out in the open,” she says. “It’s jolly good that people are much more aware.”

She met her husband, Mark Piper, at 31 when he was director at Harrogate Theatre and offered her a part in a play called Rose.

“He came to my house to meet me and I was terribly sniffy about him… I started thinking I’m not going to like him at all. It took about a week and then I suspected [he] was the one.”

Within a month, she knew for sure. “It was slightly complicated because he was already married, but we are all now terribly happy. His first wife and his daughter were here at the weekend. It’s nice when relationships split up and everyone’s happy.”

She and Piper have two children: Harriet, 38, a masseuse and yoga teacher who lives in Ibiza, and Freddie, 36, a teacher and father-of-three who lives in Sussex.

In another life, Holderness thinks she would have been a pilot. But then the world would have been deprived of her incarnation of Marlene. And she wouldn’t be forever joyfully associated with such a well-loved staple of British cultural life, nor the stars it produced. “It was huge fun,” she says. “I loved [Sir David] and [Lyndhurst] both deeply.”

The RAF Benevolent Fund is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Go Beyond, Race Against Dementia and Marie Curie. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2023appeal or call 0151 284 1927