TV’s Greatest Hits: The BBC’s revolutionary sitcom Citizen Smith

Written by John Sullivan

What was it all about?
The adventures of Wolfie Smith, self-elected leader of the revolutionary Tooting Popular Front, and his inept band of disciples.

When was it on?
From 1977 to 1980 on BBC1 – a pilot episode, four series and two specials, a total of 30 shows in all.

Who were the principal characters?
Wolfie Smith, a work-shy layabout and committed Marxist who dreamed of toppling the government and anyone who beat his favourite club, Fulham. He tried to look the part in his afghan coat and Che Guevara beret (on loan from Frank Spencer) and visualised the glorious day when 40,000 people would come marching over the Cotswolds to help the Tooting Popular Front seize power.

But it’s hard to be taken seriously when your girlfriend’s parents give you a hard time and you’re trying to conduct the revolution on a battered old scooter.

Wolfie’s comrades were his girlfriend Shirley Johnson; his quietly-spoken best friend Ken who really wanted to be a Buddhist monk; the beleaguered Tucker who had nine kids to support; and Speed, the local psychopath. Even Fulham had more followers than Wolfie.

Neither of Shirley’s parents understood Wolfie. Her dotty mum thought he was quite sweet (the ultimate insult for a revolutionary) but kept calling him ‘Foxy’ while her acidic father referred to him disparagingly as ‘the Yeti’.
Wolfie’s financial problems were not helped by his uneasy relationship with pub owner and Tooting’s Mr. Big of the underworld, Harry Fenning. Harry was not a man to cross or even to breathe near.

Who were the star turns?
Robert Lindsay played Wolfie with Lindsay’s then wife Cheryl Hall as Shirley, Mike Grady as Ken, Tony Millan as Tucker, George Sweeney as Speed, Stephen Greif as Harry Fenning and Hilda Braid as Shirley’s mum. Shirley’s dad was played by Artro Morris in the pilot show, Peter Vaughan in the first two series and Tony Steedman in the last two.

Who wrote it?
‘Citizen Smith’ marked the writing debut of John Sullivan who went on to create ‘Only Fools And Horses’, ‘Just Good Friends’, ‘Dear John’ etc.

How did it come about?
Working as a scenery shifter at the BBC, Sullivan had become depressed by the quality of the Corporation’s comedy output. Like most scenery shifters and prop guys, he thought he could do better. The difference was, he was right.

He began frequenting the BBC bar — a favourite haunt of producers and directors — and introduced himself to veteran comedy producer Dennis Main Wilson. He told Wilson that he’d got an idea for a script about an urban guerilla. Taken aback, Wilson asked to see it and Sullivan took two weeks off to pen ‘Citizen Smith’.

Wilson was pleasantly surprised by Sullivan’s script and recommended its inclusion in ‘Comedy Special’, a new showcase for possible series. The pilot show was well received and a full series followed.

Any catchphrases?
Wolfie’s rallying cry: ‘Power to the people!’

Who watched it?
Prospective revolutionaries and refugees from ‘Terry and June’.

Any real-life resonance?
John Sullivan grew up in Balham and Tooting and remembered men selling Soviet Weekly and The Morning Star outside the local Wimpy Bar. In 1968 he met his role model for Wolfie in a pub called the Nelson Arms. Sullivan said: ‘Suddenly from the depths of the bar came the strains of a geriatric guitar accompanied by a voice that sounded not unlike a cow in labour. The sound came from a gangling hippie. He was a Master Dreamer in an age of fantasy and his outrageous claims became more colourful and absurd as each cadged pint was sunk.’

Any distant cousins?
John Sullivan suggested casting Robert Lindsay as Wolfie after seeing him play ex-teddy boy Jakey Smith in the national service sit-com ‘Get Some In!’ Jakey and Wolfie not only shared a surname and a first name that ended in ‘ee’ but they both had the gift of the gab. Both were also destined to be losers.

An episode in the third series of ‘Citizen Smith’ was called ‘Only Fools And Horses’ – a title Sullivan would soon return to.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.