'It’s been a remarkable career': John Challis talks Only Fools and Horses, Beatles encounters, and his upcoming tour
He’d be forgiven for moving down a gear. After all, comedy actor John Challis is rapidly approaching his 78th year.
Though in his case, that’s 77-years-young, rather than 77-years-old. The sports-loving comedy actor who wanted to be a cricketer and has a passion for Arsenal, might be easily mistaken for a man 15 years his junior.
He’s enjoyed a remarkable career that included a leading role in Britain’s favourite comedy of all time, Only Fools And Horses. Starring as Boycie, the dodgy used car dealer, he became a mainstay of the show, alongside David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst, aka Del Boy and Rodney. Boycie provided much of the show’s comedy value – along with the brilliant Trigger, played by Roger Lloyd Pack, and it was no surprise that he earned his own spin-off show, The Green Green Grass of Home, with his on-screen-wife, Marlene, played by Sue Holderness.
But while Only Fools and Horses changed the life of John Challis and all of its other cast members, his career has not been defined by one hit show. More recently, he was watched by an audience of millions in ITV’s hit sitcom Benidorm, which fans hope will return to the small screen, or, perhaps, to our cinemas. Playing Monty Staines since 2015, Challis has earned himself the status National Treasure.
And now he’s taking his stories and jokes on the road with a tour that plays in Shropshire and the Black Country later this year. Challis will star in Only Fools and Boycie, a show that features previously-untold stories from the set of Only Fools and Horses, provides comedy episodes from Benidorm and also sheds a light into his remarkable career, which has included stints in Coronation Street and Doctor Who, brushes with The Beatles, George Best and Oliver Reed and much, much more.
“It’s been a remarkable career,” says Challis, from the comfort of his Grade I listed home, near to the south Shropshire border. “When I started out, I didn’t for one minute imagine that I’d still be in work more than 50 years later. Everybody told me that acting was a very precarious profession and that I’d spend most of my time out of work – and to be honest, being out of work and having not very much to do was one of the things that attracted me to it.
“But I found it quite easy. I’d always enjoyed doing funny voices and impersonations; that’s something I’d done as a kid. So it seemed as natural as breathing to be on the stage, doing funny voices, making people laugh or pretending to be different characters.”
There were times when he might have become schizophrenic, so often was he pretending to be someone other than himself. On one occasion, he remembers rehearsing to play Jack The Ripper while later the same day he was the Archangel Gabriel.
He started his career during a golden age for television, when producers were crying out for high quality actors who could nail a character. And so he found himself in Z Cars and Coronation Street, where he played a villain who nicked Ena Sharples’ handbag. His characters were so convincing that people often imagined they were real, mistaking him for the people he was portraying on TV. So on one occasion he was buying cigarettes in a small shop when a little old lady bashed him across the backside and told him to stop being so mean. He had no idea who she was – but she was convinced he was the real life character she’d seen on the telly.
Challis found himself flying around the world; over a period of time, he played in the West End and Off Broadway. But it was during the early part of his career, in the 1960s, that he made it to the stage of the RSC, in Stratford-Upon-Avon. There, he found himself on the greatest stage of all. There was just one problem – a matinee performance clashed with the final of the World Cup in 1966, when England were playing Germany. “We all wanted to watch the match but had to be on stage for a performance of Twelfth Night. So an electrician wired up a little TV set using a chicken wire aerial that he attached to the side of the building; I’m sure it was completely illegal.
“Then we crammed ourselves into this tiny little band room beneath the stage so that we could watch the match during the moments we weren’t appearing on stage.”
Extra time loomed and the Germans equalised. Challis and the rest of the cast were on stage. “There then followed the fastest ever scene in the history of Shakespeare.” They dashed off the stage and just managed to watch England winning their first and only World Cup Final.
Challis lived through the Swinging Sixties and came to the attention of The Beatles. They were looking for a guy to cast in the Magical Mystery Tour as their coach driver. His agent sent him to meet them and he enjoyed an extraordinary meeting with them, finding immediate chemistry with John Lennon.
“I went into the room and there was John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. George Harrison wasn’t there, so I asked where he was. Lennon told me he was just a cardboard cut out and had been sacked years ago.”
They asked him what he thought of their music – and he told them he was a fan of the Rolling Stones.
“It was one of those moments where you wish the ground would open up and swallow you whole. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I’d been getting along with them so well and suddenly I was sure I’d blown it. But then Lennon looked me straight in the eye and told me: “Actually, you’re right. I quite like them too.”
Challis found himself at a loose end during the 1970s and opened a garden centre, to follow his love of horticulture. The only trouble was, it was 1976 – the year of the great drought. All of his plants died, he lost a small fortune and he had to call it quits. At a low ebb, he wasn’t sure whether he’d return to the acting profession. But then he got a call from a director with whom he’d once worked who asked him to feature in a six-part Doctor Who, called The Seeds of Doom. He got on brilliantly with the then Doctor, Tom Baker, and he was back in the game.
An up-and-coming writer, John Sullivan, later cast him in a show called Citizen Smith. He liked the way Challis acted and told him he’d find him more work in future. Sullivan was as good as his word and when he started making a new show, called Only Fools and Horses, he sent a script to Challis and asked him to feature as a used car dealer, Boycie. It was a life-changing moment, though Challis didn’t realise that at the time. Not long after, Sullivan introduced Challis’s on-screen wife, Marlene, and the double act went on to become the best-loved and longest-lasting couple in TV history.
Only Fools was initially a cult hit. But soon the numbers started to swell and it eventually became the best-watched and most popular British TV sitcom of all time. Drawing huge crowds, it captured the zeitgeist and became part of the nation’s cultural fabric.
Challis could not walk down the street without people yelling out: ‘Oi, Boycie’, wherever he went. “We all got used to that,” he says. “The one I felt sorry for was Nick Lyndhurst. He couldn’t go anywhere without people shouting ‘Oi, Rodney, you plonker’. And that’s not what you want to hear when you’re buying a pint of milk from Tesco.”
The cast of Only Fools and Horses became as close as a family. They’d look forward to seeing one another when they were back on set and the camaraderie between them blossomed. They’d laugh as much on set as the audiences did at home, sometimes having to shoot scenes countless times because they’d all make one another chuckle when they were supposed to be acting. “Only Fools and Horses was a remarkable period of my life and it opened more doors than I might ever have imagined. It made us household names and changed our lives forever.
“I can’t really grumble at being recognised. We all wanted to have a hit show and it was an incredibly special period of our lives. We all knew it was something special and we also knew that Only Fools and Horses would be the show that would define our careers. When you have something that good, it’s like gold. It all came down to John Sullivan and his brilliant writing – though when I said that to John, he’d always say it came down to the actors and our great chemistry.”
Perhaps it was a mixture of the two.
Challis decided to leave London when the show was at its height. He’d had enough of city living and with his beloved wife, Carol, wanted to have more space so that he could create a garden and enjoy life more. They found a property near to the south Shropshire border, which, unbeknown to either of them, had an ancestral connection to Mrs Challis. They decided that fate had taken them to the property and moved in. And then they got the call asking if they’d let the BBC use their home as the backdrop to The Green Green Grass. TV crews moved into Ludlow and Leintwardine and Challis enjoyed a happy few years as the show became a hit.
“Sue (Holderness) and I were worried about following-up Only Fools and Horses because spin-offs didn’t have a great track record. But it became an instant hit and we had some of the happiest days of our lives.”
Challis remained much in-demand. Featuring in a remake of Are You Being Served?, becoming a leading light on ITV’s Benidorm and scaring a generation of kids by making annual appearances in pantomimes, he found himself busier than ever before. He also wrote his life story – Being Boycie – across two volumes, before successfully turning his hand to novel writing. “Writing was something I’d always done, so it was a real treat to write my memoirs.”
He took the books out on the road as he devised his own one-man show, Only Fools and Boycie, which has played to arts centres and provincial theatres during the past seven years.
“I’ve had great enjoyment playing the theatres with my own show. It’s basically an opportunity to look back on my life and reminisce with the audiences about the things that we’ve all enjoyed – from Dr Who and Corrie to Only Fools and The Green Green Grass.
“I take to the stage with my host, a friend and journalist called Carl, and we have a great few hours each evening. We meet fans after the show, pose for selfies and sign a few books. It’s all good fun.”
He doesn’t miss Only Fools, nor does he think it should be remade. “No, definitely not. We’ve lost too many members of the family. Our writer, John Sullivan, is no longer with us and quite a few of the cast have passed away. You never say never, but people have such a fondness for it that I’m not sure it would ever happen.”
He enjoys being busy and is thrilled each time he hears the roar of the crowd.
“Well, it’s something I’ve always done, I suppose. As a child, I had a very vivid imagination – I distinctly remember playing cricket in my parents’ back garden and making a century at Lord’s – and I still love creating other characters and making people laugh.”
Challis is one of life’s lucky ones. For the fans have enjoyed his work as much as he’s enjoyed creating it. And he has many years to come of creating – and sharing – that enjoyment.
Only Fools and Boycie plays Much Wenlock’s Edge Arts Centre on October 11 and Bilston’s Robin 2 on November 11. John Challis also headlines The Place, at Telford, on April 30.