What strikes you first on speaking to John Challis is that accent. Here’s an actor born in Bristol and brought up in South East London, but … well, he’s no Boycie.
It makes sense of course, and while the role John will be forever associated with is that of a certain Terrance Aubrey Boyce that shot to fame in Only Fools and Horses, in real life they haven’t a lot in common.
If anything, John’s telephone voice is more refined Home Counties, as you might expect from the son of a civil servant who started out as an estate agent.
But that was never likely to be the full story for John, and soon acting paved the way forward for this amiable 71-year-old, currently doing the rounds promoting his books.
That tour reaches Lancashire later this March, and the number of sell-outs en route suggests a continued love for ‘Boycie’ out there.
“It’s amazing so many people want it, but I think word got around as I did quite a few shows last year.
“I’ve got together a nice package of silly stories and general showing off. You know us actors!
“I’ve always loved a live audience, which you don’t necessarily get on the telly.
“Having grown up in the theatre, it’s what I enjoy and just seemed the most natural thing to do.
“We started Only Fools and Horses back in 1981, so it’s extraordinary how many people it’s reached, from the young to very old people like myself! You expect your contemporaries to enjoy it, but the phenomenal thing is most generations latch on.”
It’s not just the quality of acting, but the quality of writing too. I take it you’re extremely proud to have been part of the UK’s most popular sitcom of all time?
“Yes, it’s just some kind of magic chemistry between the two. Why does one show work and another doesn’t? Difficult to say. Even very well written and acted shows don’t neccesarily catch the attention. But this one seems to have struck a chord, and continues to do so.”
I bet you’ve cringed at the sound of someone shouting ‘Boycie’ over the years though.
“It happens every day of my life. I was down my local post office this morning and someone stepped back and his mouth fell open. He said, ‘Are you who I think you are?’ I said (adopting Boycie’s accent) ‘I’m afraid I am. It’s a terrible disappointment, isn’t it?’ But he’s coming to see me in Ledbury now!
“A lot of people get terribly uptight getting called by a character’s name. It depends on the context. If you’re having a quiet drink and someone’s had a bit too much to drink and lurches up, it can be a nuisance. But generally it makes people happy.”
It’s been such a huge period of your life – 20 plus years, then the Green, Green Grass spin-off.
“Extraordinary. I thought it was the end of it all, then John Sullivan came to a party I had when I moved out of London to the Shropshire/Herefordshire border, and saw me completely out of context. He wondered what would have happened to my character if he’d done the same, and wondered why he’d have wanted to leave London. It took him about two years to find a reason.
“Both Sue Holderness, who plays Marlene, and myself were very excited, but also terrified. How do you follow a series like that? But we had four or five very good years, and you found out quite a bit more about the characters.”
Was it nice to do a show on your own patch?
“I couldn’t believe that. The location people couldn’t find a place for ages, but wanted to film it here because it’s such a photogenic part of the world. Eventually they said we’ve found exactly the right place and it’s a really spooky, tumbledown, neglected old grange. I said, where? And they said ‘Your place!’ It was a terrific bonus and involved the whole community, shops and pubs. Very convenient – I just had to get out of bed, walk out the back door, and there was the make-up truck.”
You were very close to Roger Lloyd-Pack (Trigger). Did his recent death hit you hard?
“A terrible shock. I knew he wasn’t well, as he hadn’t shown up at a couple of conventions and signings, and I phoned him just two days before. He wasn’t feeling great. He said he’d phone back and did, but it wasn’t the right time, so he said he’d phone back the next day. But he never did. I left a message, and the next day he’d gone. It just knocked me sideways. I had no idea about the extent of it. Quite rightly he kept it very secret. He didn’t want people to know, didn’t want the fuss and having to field calls every five minutes if it had got in the press. That would have been quite difficult for him and the family.
“But we were all at the memorial service, and it was very moving. It was full of laughter as well. There was so much to him, and you learned so much at that service.”
The loss of John Sullivan must have been a very sad loss too.
“A terrible loss to the nation. Again, it was a shock. He’d been very ill with viral pneumonia but was out of intensive care and looking forward to getting back in the swing of things, laughing and joking. When I got the call from our producers saying he’d passed away I couldn’t believe it, and still can’t get my head around John or Roger going. They were both such a part of my life, for over 30 years.
“John was going to write a special for us in 2011, for the 30th anniversary, and we were all up for that, but he never got there. But you just have to get on with it.”
What did you make of Stephen Lloyd as the younger you in the Rock & Chips prequel? Was there any advice from the older, wiser Boycie?
“I didn’t dare! He was understandably nervous about the whole thing. They all were. But he did a good job. I quite enjoyed it. It had legs and there was going to be more of it, I understand. John had this idea that eventually we’d all play our own dads, which Nicholas Lyndhurst was already doing.”
Did you base Boycie on anyone in particular?
“Yes, a regular in this London pub. He fascinated me, with such a self-inflated idea of his importance. He got sent up something rotten. But it all bounced off him – he had the thickest skin of anyone. A real Walter Mitty, with this curious, pedantic way of talking. I played a policeman in John’s first-hit series, Citizen Smith, and he really liked what I’d done and took that on.”
You’ve made a life out of playing coppers or loveable rogues, or somewhere between.
“Well, I was tall, with this physical presence, and dark face, I played a lot of villains, policemen or henchmen.”
Would you ever have been happy as an estate agent?
“No. I was hopeless. Everyone put me off being an actor because it was so insecure. I became articled to an estate agency in Surrey because I thought that was what I had to do. But I just couldn’t bear it. Eventually they sacked me, quite rightly.
“I remember going out one lunchtime in Leatherhead and seeing Sir Donald Wolfit walking up the high street, with his astrakhan coat, homburg hat and silver cane. He was appearing at Leatherhead Theatre. I thought, wow, I’d love to do that. I went to see the show and he knocked the theatre sideways with the power of his performance. That put me on the road really.”
You were in Dr Who in Tom Baker’s time.
“I was, and Tom’s a lot of people’s favourite. He loved a laugh. We had some great times, that was one of the happiest jobs I ever did.”
You came close to being on The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour too.
“I should have been. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my life.
“I met John, Paul and Ringo, who were looking for someone to be on the coach tour, and for some reason we hit it off, despite the fact I said I preferred the Rolling Stones. I was very cheeky in those days. John said (adopts his voice) ‘I think you’re right. I prefer them sometimes as well’. They said, ‘come on, let’s get you on the coach and have a blast. We start on Monday. We haven’t got a script or anything like that, but we’re looking for ideas’.
“It was chaos, but it was with The Beatles, so you can imagine. But I was contracted to do something else with the BBC, and they wouldn’t release me.”
You’re 71 now. Do you feel it?
“Touch wood, I’ve still got most of my health. It just gets a bit creakier, and you haven’t quite got the energy you used to.
“I’ve got quite a big garden I try to look after, and find it increasingly difficult to get around it all.
“But I’m also kept busy doing the shows and writing the books now. I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I was supposed to have retired six years ago!”
To find out about tickets for John’s show (Only Fools and Boycie: An Evening with John Challis, Blackburn Thwaites Empire Theatre, March 27, Box Office: 01254 685500), other tour details and how to get a book dedication, head to www.thwaitesempiretheatre.co.uk or John’s publishing company’s webpages via http://www.wigmorebooks.com/events.php