Life on the road with my friend, Only Fools and Horses favourite John Challis

We knew it was coming. He’d been poorly for a while. Though he’d dealt with his illness with typical elan. No fuss and always a smile. Let’s not talk about that, unless we absolutely have to. Besides, there’s cricket and football, shows and laughter, fun times still to be had.

John Challis, for ever known as Boycie from Only Fools & Horses
John Challis, for ever known as Boycie from Only Fools & Horses

John Challis was a gorgeous, charming, man who left us on Sunday. He was warm. He was sweet. And, yes, he was funny – though not all of the time. There were times when he’d be reflective or still, enjoying the tranquility of his home near the south Shropshire border where he and his beloved wife, Carol, were able to relax. During the final chapter of his life, he spent time there, surrounded by the beautiful garden that he’d always wanted to create while enjoying views across centuries-olds fields. He was content and happy with the woman he loved and with time to pause following the fullest of lives. He had lived his dreams. He’d created the most remarkable life.

He’d been looking forward to touring his one-man-show, Only Fools and Boycie, hosted by his close friend, Carl Jones, throughout this autumn. I’d started that show a decade ago, I think, when I’d asked him if I could interview him on stage.

John Challis with his fourth wife, Carol, whom he married two decades ago.

“What, for a paying audience?” he’d probably said, and I nodded.

We scheduled performances in Shrewsbury, at the Walker Theatre, then at Telford’s Oakengates Theatre and finally at Hereford’s Courtyard. The idea was simple: I’d be a poor version of Michael Parkinson and he’d be himself. The audiences loved it and soon we were travelling around the UK, visiting dozens of venues each year. At 11.30pm, in some dark corner of the UK, I’d text him: ‘That line was brilliant.’ He’d respond with a smile. He was ever charming, ever grateful that people loved the characters he’d created for TV and theatre, ever pleased that he’d been able to avoid having a proper job or working a nine-to-five.

Seven years ago, the baton had been passed. This interviewer stepped down to work with people he liked far less, as Carl took up the challenge. Instead, I took care of business, promoting shows in England, Wales and Scotland. A planned Irish tour was cancelled due to John’s ill health.

We met this summer, in Ludlow. John had self-isolated throughout the pandemic, sitting on his terrace, watching the world go by. After more than 50 years on the road, he’d deserved a decent rest. Though he’d been poorly for a while, the sparkle hadn’t left his eye. He was determined to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Only Fools And Horses by touring the UK. With a punishing schedule that might have daunted someone 30 years younger, he was good to go.

John Challis, front row, middle, wanted to tour to celebrate Only Fools and Horses' 40th anniversary

At his first show, in Stourport, John courageously ploughed on. Though within 24 hours, a collective decision had been taken that enough was enough. He’d enjoyed his final curtain call, his final round of applause. His audience had been unaware that he’d been poorly. It was time to call a halt.

‘Tipton Man’ was what he’d called me. And in our last conversation we didn’t talk about ill health at all. Why bother? England were playing a test match and there was Root’s batting to marvel at, as well as the poor form of his beloved Arsenal Football Club.

A gregarious man always willing to greet fans with a smile, he was devastated that he might be letting people down. ‘You’re not,’ I told him, about six times. ‘But I don’t want people to be disappointed…’ ‘John, please…’

The tour he was supposed to be on now had been his best-selling yet. In one town, 500 people were due to watch. From Stafford to Telford and via all points in between, large audiences were due to gather.

A country squire . . . John Challis with Sue Holderness in Boycie's spin-off series, The Green Green Grass

He loved to perform. He was intoxicated by the applause. He loved the lifestyle, too, of being a gypsy on the road with Carol, of visiting far flung parts of the UK and meeting people for whom his work had meant so much.

He didn’t tire of his Boycie laugh, nor of calling out ‘Marlene’. His was a people pleaser, a man who wanted his audience to laugh, who hoped to send people home happy.

There’s great comfort in knowing that he’d been so happy and content during the final part of his life. Spending quality time with his adorable wife, watching the flowers grow, having time to stop and smell the roses. John was content, looking ahead to what might come next, hopeful for the future.

The end came quickly and peacefully, though his work will live on. He made millions and millions laugh – something that gave him the greatest joy.

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