John Challis AKA Boycie from Only Fools and Horses talks to ZANI

Written by Matteo Sedazzari
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Remember Carlsberg’s slogan ‘Probably the best beer in the world’ which, over the years, their catchphrase has been debunked, due to sales, taste and such like.

Therefore to state Only Fools and Horses is ‘probably the best sitcom in the world’, may spawn similar responses, as comedy is down to personal taste, yet you can’t argue Only Fools and Horses (1981 to 2004) is a hugely popular sitcom, not just in the UK but the world.

The exploits of Peckham wheeler-dealer the loud and cheeky Derek Edward Trotter (David Jason), and his naive and sensitive younger brother Rodney Charlton Trotter (Nicholas Lyndhurst) affectionately known around ‘the manor’ as Del Boy and Rodders.

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Whatever the escapade Del Boy or his brother Rodney got themselves into, be it an heirloom chandelier (A Touch of Glass 2nd December 1982) crashing down in a stately home or the Peckham duo in fancy dress as the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, (Heroes and Villains, Christmas Day 1996) inadvertently chasing off two muggers, many across the world laughed out loud, and still do today with The Trotters.

Besides the Trotter brothers, are a collection of characters, Mike Fisher (Kenneth MacDonald), the caring landlord of their local pub, The Nags Head. Their loyal friend, road sweeper and occasional petty criminal, Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack), Del Boy’s loving and strong-minded partner Raquel Turner (Tessa Peake-Jones). The list is long of curious and colourful characters, portrayed by seasoned actors, like John Challis (16th Aug 1942), as the conceited and boisterous second-hand car salesman, Boycie.

Boycie moved out of Peckham and to nearby Lewisham, Kings Avenue, a fictional street, like the Trotters’ abode, Nelson Mandela House, Nyerere Estate, Peckham.

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Boycie, (John Challis) made his debut in the second episode of series one, Go West Young Man, 15th Sept 1981. Moreover, by series three, Boycie was a prominent part of Only Fools and Horses, appearing in 33 episodes out of 64. So Boycie was a popular character, yet what would John Challis put the overall popularity of the show down to?

‘Only Fools and Horses is about never giving up hope, Del Boy never gives up, always looking to get ahead, he won’t be beaten by circumstances, and people can relate to that. Del Boy will never surrender. He’s a hero to the common man’.

Cheering on the underdog is an essential ingredient in comedy, from Laurel and Hardy to David Brent in The Office, and as pointed out by John Challis, in reference to Del Boy, we can relate to these characters, because they refuse to let circumstances dictate their life or the ‘establishment’ telling them who they should or shouldn’t be. OK we may not be as foolish as Stan Laurel, as arrogant as David Brent or as wide as wideboy Derrick Trotter, but they are ‘us’ against ‘them’ in a realistic situation, with a humorous outcome, hence the term situation comedy.

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The origin of Sitcom derives from Italy and Commedia dell'arte, an improvised, physical and comedy theatrical movement that was popular throughout Europe from 16th to 18th Century. Scenes (scenarios), that either reflected everyday life or borrowed from then-contemporary fiction were played out by actors, often in colourful and spectacular masks, to represent different social types, known as stock characters, and the principal four are The Old Men (Vecchi), the Young Lovers (Innamorati), the Captains (Capitani) and the Servants (Zanni, yes the name did inspire us!).

Yet it was the servant that produced the legendary comical characters Arlecchino (Harlequin) and Pulcinella (Punch), that symbolised the struggle of the common man in an amusing manner, that refused to be daunted by an unfavourable situation, and always looked for a positive alternative, just like Peckham’s Del Boy, Slade Prison’s inmate Norman Stanley Fletcher, the accident-prone Frank Spencer, the warrior pensioner Victor Meldew, and so on and so forth.


Boycie, married to the beautiful and bubbly Marlene Boyce (née Lane) played to perfection by Sue Holderness, a hectic and entertaining marriage that when Only Fools and Horses ended in 2004, The Boycie’s would take centre stage in the spin-off show, The Green Green Grass, which ran for four series, from 2005 to 2009.

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Boycie, always impeccably dressed, with a well-groomed moustache, puffing on a handmade cigar, and if in The Nags Head, Boycie would be seen sipping a large Cognac.

The relationship between Del Boy and Boycie is not that of love and hate, but more of love and anger, as Boycie never deliberately tries to harm Del, yet at any given opportunity, he will try and openly mock Del, but seldom does his condescending approach flaw Peckham’s main ducker and diver. It would be fair to say, that their friendship is unpredictable, from trying to hustle Del Boy over a game of poker, in A Losing Streak, 4th Nov 1982 to showing genuine delight when Del and Rodney eventually became millionaires in Time on Our Hands 29th December 1996.

With such an on-off relationship, ZANI asks if Boycie was actually jealous of Del Boy? ‘Yes, I suppose Boycie was, he had left the council estate, and moved to an expensive part of South London. Boycie probably found it hard to fit in with his new neighbours, so he felt remote and would go back to The Nags Head, so he could flaunt his wealth and act superior, but would be jealous when he sees how popular and happy Del was’.

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Prior to becoming Boycie, John Challis was earning a respectable living as an actor, appearing in Dr Who, Z-Cars, Crossroads, and performing with the Royal Shakespeare company. ‘I was in a few productions, Hamlet, but I didn’t play the Dane (Hamlet) though. I was in The Murder of Gonzago, the play within the play, Hamlet’s attempt to expose his uncle as his father’s murderer, but I didn’t have any dialogue. Yet at least I can say I was in The Royal Shakespeare’s Company production of Hamlet’.

Another theatre company that John Challis worked with, The National Theatre, and it was that venue, at Upper Ground, London SE1 where he was playing a policeman, ‘I played a lot of policemen, due to my height and good looks, always nice ones though’, boasts John Challis, when the future writer of Only Fools and Horses, John Sullivan, was in attendance, in late 1979. At the time, John Sullivan was already an established sitcom writer, and his then-current show, Citizen Smith.

Citizen Smith was ‘Wolfie’ Smith (Robert Lindsay), a young Marxist, resident of Tooting and undisputed leader of The Tooting Popular Front, who along with peace-loving hippy best friend Ken (Mike Grady), local hard man Speed (George Sweeney) and the shy yet promiscuous Tucker (Tony Millan) tried to bring down capitalism and start a worker’s revolution, much to the amusement of Wolfie’s streetwise, hip and beautiful girlfriend Shirley (Cheryl Hall), and the BBC’s audiences. Citizen Smith ran for four series, from 1977 to 1980. Sullivan knew that John Challis would be ideal for a policeman that Sullivan had written for an up-and-coming episode.

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On 13th June 1980, John Challis appeared as Chief Inspector Humphreys in Citizen Smith, in an episode entitled The Letter of the Law. Yet unlike John Challis’ previous renditions of a nice policeman, Humphreys had an air of superiority, who enjoyed demeaning people. After filming, John Sullivan remarked to John Challis that he liked Challis’ portrayal and would use aspects of Chief Inspector Humphreys’ character at a later date for another sitcom. That day the concept of Boycie was forged by Sullivan and Challis.

Only Fools and Horses has gone from the status of a successful sitcom to that of a national treasure and institute. Like many of the show’s catchphrases, in particular from Del Boy, like ‘You know it makes sense’, ‘He who dares’ ‘This time next year we will be millionaires’, ‘Lovely jubbly’, are part of everyday language, from the playgrounds to the workplace. Furthermore, the traits of the show’s characters can be used to describe a personality, for instance, if someone is a wideboy, you may call them a ‘Del Boy’, if someone is a bit slow, you might call them a ‘Trigger’. If someone goes on about their past glories, you might call them an Uncle Albert, as Del Boy’s and Rodney’s uncle, more than often spoke about his experiences during the war and if someone is a sleazy salesman, you might call them a ‘Boycie’. So, I do believe it is true to say that Only Fools and Horses is entrenched in the British way of life, yet the show, along with the whole ideology, is not just limited to these shores, and recently it has been highlighted in Serbia, they are crazy for Only Fools and Horses.

 ‘The first time I went to Serbia, was only a few years ago to promote my one-man shows, an evening with Boycie, and I was asked to appear on a number of chat shows, I was treated like a real star. But I had no idea how popular the show was, they were, and they still are, fanatical about it. Along my travels, I met Lazar Vukovic, a London based Serbian, who suggested let’s make a documentary, and that’s how Boycie in Belgrade’ came about.’, says John Challis on discovering the popularity of Only Fools and Horses in Serbia.

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Boycie In Belgrade was released last year and is now available on DVD and digital, which leads to the question, why is Only Fools and Horses so popular in Serbia, ‘As you know Serbia was once part of Yugoslavia, and in the early 90s, there was a civil war, with many casualties and bombings. And a lot of the people we spoke to said that during this conflict, Only Fools and Horses was the only thing that made them smile.’

I bet that gives John Challis a warm feeling, ‘That goes without saying’, he adds.

So how did the boy who was born in Bristol, and grew up in Epsom, after the family moved to Surrey, begin his thespian journey, ‘When I was six, I went to see a production of Peter Pan, at a local theatre. I didn’t care too much for the boy who never grew up, it was Captain Hook, with his long beard, fancy coat and hook, that tickled my fancy. I wanted to be him, not as an actor but a real-life pirate, the captain of a ship. The magic of the story transported me to another world. So for a month or so, after the play, I drove my mother mad, as I went about the house, thinking I was Captain Hook’.

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So John Challis was a method actor at an early age, as many years later he would play Captain Hook in a Pantomime, ‘Yes, my dream did come true, but he’s not a pleasant chap ha! But it was wonderful to play the part that sewed the seed’.

Yet John Challis didn’t set out to be an actor, in fact, his first attempt at fame was being in a rock ‘n’ roll band in the 50s. ‘At school, I was bored, and rock ‘n’ roll appealed to me, so I formed a band called Johnny and the Bandits, I was the singer and guitarist, I wasn’t bad on the guitar, but there were better players out there than me. But everyone was forming a band, rock ‘n’ roll, as Elvis, Bill Haley or early Cliff Richard were huge. Kids like me back then formed bands to play at dance halls, summer fetes, youth clubs, it was DIY Culture. I haven’t played for years.’, reflects John Challis.

So Johnny and the Bandits never hit the big time, it happens. Yet as we know John Challis’s story, is not a tragic one. Yet before he entered showbiz, what jobs did John Challis do, ‘In the early 60s, I was an estate agent for about six months, I got a job to keep my parents happy, as they were worried about me not fitting in with society, but my mind kept drifting. I was bored’. I asked John, during this brief career, if he was slimy and judgemental like Boycie, ‘No (followed by a laugh), no my brief career as an estate agent, wasn’t the foundation for Boycie. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t bad either. But what I loved about showing potential buyers around a house, is that I met different people, from different walks of life, and from these brief encounters, I found I was able to mimic their mannerisms and voices. I found playing them came naturally to me, it was then I thought about becoming an actor. so I ran away to join the circus, well a theatre group, that toured schools across the countries. I was free, away from the nine to five, using my new and self-taught skills to perfection in productions of Pinocchio or Huckleberry Finn, magical times.’

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So at the start of the swinging sixties, John Challis was a jobbing actor, ‘People warned me about being an actor, that I would be out of work sometimes. But I liked the idea of a few weeks or even months off, then back to work’.

Just as John Challis was leading an actor’s life, four lads from Liverpool were just about to announce themselves to the world, and then in 1967, Boycie in waiting and The Fab Four met.

‘I auditioned for the Magical Mystery Tour film. John Lennon said the film will be improvised, with no script, just the actors and The Beatles on a bus with the camera rolling. I loved the concept. After the audition, John asked me what Beatles’ song I liked, and I replied, I actually prefer The Rolling Stones, well (John Challis starts to laugh, in his natural laugh, not the famous Boycie snide one), my jaw hit the floor the moment the words left my mouth. The room went silent, as you can imagine, you could hear a pin drop. Then John (Lennon) says “You know I do too sometimes”, (Challis says in a good impression of Lennon), everyone starts to laugh, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I got the job, but unfortunately, I was bound by contract, so I couldn’t work with The Beatles’. That is bad, yet Challis shared a memorable moment with a Beatle. From reading and seeing many John Lennon interviews over the years, my intuition tells me that John Lennon probably found John Challis’ honesty refreshing.

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Lennon and John Challis may have clicked, as they were both massive fans of The Goon Show, the BBC radio comedy programme, that ran from 1951 to 1960, which launched the careers of Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine, who was a Goon from 1951–1953. The Beatles, in particular John Lennon, often cited The Goons as an influence and favourite comedy show.

‘What I love about the Goons, is the surreal humour, it was madcap and new. Being a mimic myself, I loved the voices that Peter Sellers did, Hercules Grytpype-Thynne, the well-spoken villain, Henry Crun, the absent-minded old fella, Bluebottle, the kid from East Finchley with a squeaky voice, there were loads. Milligan was a good mimic too, yet Sellers had something magical, which influenced me as an actor. I am also a huge fan of the French comic actor and director Jacques Tati, again it was surreal, and like The Goon Show, experimental humour with a mixture of slapstick comedy, in contemporary settings, he was always having a dig at the pompous aspect of society.’

Speaking of The Goons, John Challis is a life-long Arsenal fan, a Gooner. The nickname given to Arsenal fans from 1980, Gooners being a variation of their traditional nickname The Gunners. ‘Yes, I am a Gooner and proud of it, favourite moment? The 1979 FA Cup final against Man Utd was good, the Cup Winners Cup in 1994 against Parma was a proud moment. But it’s got to be the 1989 league title, Liverpool away, last game of the season, we had to win by two clear goals, or Liverpool would have been league champions. Steve McMahon of Liverpool, signalling to his teammates and their fans, a minute to go, and the title was theirs, as we were only leading one-nil. Then bang Michael Thomas scored a goal in that ‘minute to go’, that was beautiful. That was a wonderful team, full of grass-root players, the likes we don’t see anymore. I still follow football, but there doesn’t seem to be the passion there once was. Favourite player? so many to choose from, Charlie George, Ian Wright, Tony Adams, David Seaman, Thierry Henry, but I am going with Dennis Bergkamp, graceful and skilful, a joy to watch.’

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A nice short summary of Arsenal’s success and key players. Has John Challis’ road to success, from supporting stage and TV actor to Comedy Icon, been a simple journey? ‘No, In the mid-seventies, I briefly gave up acting, to open a garden centre, I was and still am, a keen gardener, but a terrible businessman, the centre lost money’.

OK, now that John Challis is a household name and a successful actor, does he fancy opening another garden centre, so he can bring closure to a failed business venture from the 1970s? ‘Not on your nelly, as Boycie would say. But it was at the garden centre, that a friend of mine, introduced me to Philip Hinchcliffe, back then he was a producer for Dr Who. Philip told me to go for an audition for the show. Which I did, I got the job, appeared in six episodes. I played a character called Scorby in The Seeds of Doom with Tom Baker as the Dr.' I bet if Tom Baker had asked John Challis who is his favourite Dr Who, John Challis wouldn’t have said Jon Pertwee…. or maybe he would have, as John Challis does certainly have a devil-may-care attitude, about him.

The kick start to John Challis’ career was in 1976, and four years later, he would land the role of Boycie, which has changed his life forever and for the better. It is obvious that John Challis is proud of Boycie, and he has every right to be, he has made us laugh and in return he has forged a successful career. Outside of acting, John Challis does a one-man show, an Evening with Boycie, where he interacts with the audience, and for a low fee, John Challis will record video messages for fans, as Boycie of course. He has penned two autobiographies Being Boycie, Boycie & Beyond, a non-fiction book, Wigmore Abbey, The Treasure of Mortimer and two novels Reggie: A Stag at Bay and Reggie: In The Frame. Is John Challis likely to start writing again soon? ‘Oh yes, I have got the urge to write again. But I do find it hard sometimes to get motivated, and some days are better than others. Someone said to me, keep writing, and something will always pop up, and that is true'. I can’t argue with that.

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Only Fools and Horses is not the only comedy John Challis has been predominant in. In 2015 John Challis made his debut as Monty Staines in Benidorm, the classic comedy about British holidaymakers and the staff at the Solana hotel in the town. Monty Staines soon became a major character in Benidorm, and one of his highlights was marrying Joyce Temple Savage (Sherrie Hewson), the Hotel Manager, with Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet as the singer at their wedding, nice.

To me, Benidorm is a modern-day Carry-On film, but not so crude, and Only Fools and Horses, a modern-day Ealing comedy, but a tad more brutal, what does John Challis think? ‘I would drink to that, a good comparison.’ Furthermore, both sitcoms are written by two talented writers, Only Fools and Horses, John Sullivan, who sadly passed away on 22nd April 2011, aged 64 and Benidorm, Derren Litten (21st December 1970). How do Litten and Sullivan differ or compare in terms of writing and approach?

‘Litten is inspired by Sullivan, the working-class humour, both are good at developing characters and plots, which relates to everyday people, with madcap scenarios. There was no competition, both good writers, that I was blessed to work with’.

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Agreed, Only Fools and Horses and Benidorm could be seen as distant cousins, as you can envisage Derrick Trotter holding court in Neptune’s, the bar featured in Benidorm. In fact, that would make a great one-off comedy show…

Derrick Trotter otherwise known as Del Boy was based on a real-life East London wide boy, from the 60s, called Derek Hockley, who David Jason knew, and was clearly inspired by him. We know that Boycie wasn’t based on John Challis’ brief and previous career as an estate agent, so who was Boycie based on?

‘There was a man called Gordon, can’t remember his surname. I knew him from around, and down the pub. He would act superior to everyone else, be condescending, rude, arrogant and laugh at other people’s misfortunes. Not a pleasant fellow, no, I never told him that Boycie was based on him, because I never saw him again once things started taking off’. That is the sweet revenge of an artist, meet someone you don’t like, yet use their unpleasant character traits to further your career.

As the scheduled time is coming to an end, it dawns on me, would John Challis buy a second-hand car from his alter ego, Boycie? ‘Yes probably, as I am quite naïve, I like cars, but I don’t know much about them. So Boycie would notice that, be my friend and get me to sign on the dotted line’.

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So even John Challis would fall foul to Boycie of Southeast London.

John Challis is a warm and intelligent man, carefree yet focused. Yes, John Challis has had personal issues, over the years, haven’t we all, yet I could feel genuine happiness in speaking to him, no regret or such like whatsoever, just joy and laughter.

John Challis’s desire to become an actor came from daydreaming and being bored, he wasn’t being rebellious or awkward, he wanted something more than a nine to five. So John Challis went on a nice and long soul-searching journey, and the final destination, well we all know what that is.

Boycie in Belgrade Available Now

 

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Read 471 times Last modified on Thursday, 10 June 2021 17:16
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Matteo Sedazzari

Matteo Sedazzari

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ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..

 

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