Who is the real John Challis?
The man known as the UK’s most famous dodgy car-dealer speaks lucidly, quickly and relishes talking about the many achievements in his long career. To millions of people he is Boycie, a regular in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses and its successor The Green, Green Grass. But John Challis is far more than a character in a long-running comedy series.
The 70-year-old has drunk with the Rolling Stones and hell-raising actor Oliver Reed; he has been married four times; and he is now on tour with his show Only Fools And Boycie in which he tells stories from his remarkable life. So who is the real John Challis?
“I’ve no idea really,” he tells me from his home at Wigmore, Herefordshire. “I’m a man who needs an audience.”
About his new show he says: “I find it exciting being on stage. I enjoy telling my story and I’ve found a way to tell it that people seem to like. It’s a thrill.”
One of the anecdotes he tells is how the Beatles wanted him for a part in their fantasy adventure Magical Mystery Tour only for the dates to clash with his first television role. That will no doubt form part of his show in the Darwin Suite at Derby’s Assembly Rooms this month.
“It all started when someone suggested that I do a little show on cruise ships. It just seems to work – it’s like a conversation really. It generally works well in an intimate atmosphere, so that’s why we’re going to smaller venues.”
John Challis was born in Bristol but was brought up in south east London. His father was a civil servant and did not encourage John to tread the boards. That came from his mother who had been involved in amateur dramatics.
“I think in retrospect my father was more worried than anything because it’s an insecure profession and he was very much a hard-working, self-made man. He never saw acting as a proper job.
“Mind you, he was forced by my mother to come along and see a couple of shows I did and I think he quite enjoyed them.
“One of them, Dirty Linen, was a Tom Stoppard play I did in the West End for over a year. My father found that hilarious. But he thought all the restoration comedy that I found myself doing was entirely frivolous.”
John reveals the desire to take on another persona was with him from a very early age.
“I was fascinated by copying things, particularly people, much to my mother’s annoyance. She was always telling me off for staring at people and copying them. I don’t know why but I could always do it. I suppose it’s showing off really. I was interested in being other people.
Working with the RSC
“I found it a good way to get through school because I could make people laugh. The only other thing I was good at was sport. That’s all I did at school – impersonated the masters, I was in all the school plays, played a lot of sport and did no work whatsoever really.”
The RSC came calling and in the mid-1960s John appeared in a number of plays including Hamlet which starred award-winning actor David Warner and was directed by Sir Peter Hall.
He would have liked to play Doctor Who although he was never offered the part. But he did appear in a story called The Seeds of Doom alongside Tom Baker.
“I went around being nasty and threatening people with my gun which I never got to fire. I was quite good at looking threatening because I’ve got a big, dark face and I’m quite tall, so I played a lot of villains.
“But comedy was never far from the surface really and I always found some sense of humour somewhere. It was invaluable later because I do pantomime every year and I play the villain – but always with a sense of humour, I hope.”
John has been in Coronation Street twice, as a football hooligan who threw Ena Sharples’ handbag through a shop window and later a policeman who gave Len Fairclough a really hard time when he was “accused of murdering his fancy woman at the time”.
He describes not being in Magical Mystery Tour as a “terrible disappointment”.
His agent sent him to meet John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. John Challis was offered the part as a courier on the Beatles’ coach.
“I couldn’t believe I was going to work with the Beatles. But I was already contracted to the BBC to do a new soap opera called The Newcomers. In my naivety I thought they would release me. The dates only clashed by a couple of days. But they refused.”
However, one date he could make was his debut as Terrance Aubrey “Boycie” Boyce in Only Fools And Horses. One episode attracted a record audience for a sitcom – more than 24million viewers.
John had been trying to make it in America – “it was a fantasy really if I look back on it” – and flew back for only one day to film his scenes.
“I just liked it immediately. It sounds odd but some things you do you’re not sure about, particularly in comedy. But that just made me laugh out loud as soon as I got the script.”
So what is it about Boycie that makes him such a great character to play?
“I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me because he’s such an unattractive character really, so pompous and full of his own self-importance.
“I started in about the fourth series in the mid ‘80s. We were all getting letters from people who said ‘I love that character’ and you think: why? He’s awful.
“But I suppose I’ve just got that quality as a performer that makes people smile.
“Boycie represented the slightly less attractive side of the society in the Nag’s Head but he needed to be there really for Del to bounce off because that was what Del aspired to be, a man who always had money.
“Boycie was a pompous figure to be knocked down, so that was his value in the series.”
Many people will always remember John Challis as Boycie despite all his other roles. He acknowledges that in the titles of the two parts of his autobiography as well as his stage show.
He even set up his own publishing company, Wigmore Books, with a friend to bring out the first volume of his story.
“It’s been very exciting. I’m not a natural writer but I can write – I just need organising. I’m completely chaotic about things. But it’s been great going out selling it.
“I do book signings all over the place. Every time I do a show I take my books with me and it’s quite fun to do. It’s back to the old days when I used to charge around the country doing a show in a different town every day. I’ve always quite enjoyed that gypsy existence.”
Half an hour after we first started chatting, John Challis tells me he has no plans next year to celebrate 50 years in showbusiness. No doubt he will still be telling stories about his sparkling career and showing off to an appreciative audience.
* This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Country Images magazine.