John Challis

Interview with John Challis of Only Fools and Horses

by Karen Shaw

Only Fools & Boycie

ChallisExclusive Interview by Karen Shaw

Famed for playing Boycie in one of the UK’s finest comedies, Only Fools and Horses, John Challis has been treading the boards for more than 50 years. When I catch up with him he’s just finished playing King Rat in Dick  Whittingham in Stockport. After taking a well-earned break, he was relaxing at his beautiful home, Wigmore Abbey, in Herefordshire. Fifty years in the business has certainly paid dividends for John, but as the old saying  goes ‘There’s no rest for the wicked’, and at the end of March John will visit Blackburn with his one-man show, where he invites you to ‘Enjoy an intimate evening with John Challis’.

An intimate evening with John eh? Whatever would Marlene say? Well his co-star Sue Holderness, unfortunately won’t be there, but in this one-off show the national treasure will reveal secrets from the set with stories and anecdotes from his dazzling career. Having worked with some of the biggest names in show business, he’ll be spilling the beans about Only Fools and Horses, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Oliver Reed, George Best, Dr Who and Coronation Street.

“Everywhere I go people always want to talk about the shows and have their picture taken. I find it immensely flattering being involved with something that means so much to people. It’s thanks to the people that I’m where I am today.

“So many people ask me how it all began. I started telling the stories and found a way of presenting them on stage and I felt it really worked for people. I’ve plenty of tales to tell from my time on Only Fools and Horses and The Green, Green Grass…

John has recently written two autobiographies Being Boycie and Boycie and Beyond, and now has tried his hand at writing fiction with A Stag at Bay.

“This is my first stab at a novel. It was completely different to writing the previous two books. It was very difficult. It’s one thing writing about your life but it’s another thing inventing a completely different character. It’s not about me or Boycie but there are shades of me in it. John is obviously a man who enjoys a challenge and after careful consideration launched his own publishing company, Wigmore Books, which produces his books. He laughs when I (in a Yorkshire accent) tell him: “If tha wants a job doing, do it yer sen!”

“It’s bloody hard work but at least I have control over it,” he replies.

Despite his southern well-bred tones, John’s grandad was a northerner from Sheffield and worked at Fox’s Steel Mill in Stocksbridge as a wire drawer. His job was to get great big tubes of steel and make them thinner and thinner until they became wire. He worked there for more than 40 years.

As a child, John spent many a school holiday in Sheffield with his grandparents and over Christmas he visited his Aunt Enid. “It’s terrific countryside there.”

In his 50 years’ experience, John has travelled the length and breadth of the UK and believes that the northern-based audiences tend to be more enthusiastic as opposed to their southern counterparts who tend to be more laid-back. Only Fools and Horses went right across the social scale and across generations too.

Like me, John was an only child and spent a lot of his time playing on his own. “In retrospect I would have liked an older sister,” he says.

For some reason many folk view only children as being spoilt so I was curious to learn if John was spoilt…

“Not at all,” answers John. “Quite the opposite, I had a very strict and disciplined upbringing. My father indulged in a bit of corporal punishment, but that’s how it was in my day. That’s also how my father was brought up. When I went to preparatory school it was the same you got your punishment and it hurt and you wouldn’t do it again. That was the norm.”

When at the age of 18, John decided to take up acting, his parents thought it was another fad.

“But when they realised it was what I wanted to do they became more supportive, especially my mother who had a bit of a background in theatre as an amateur actress.

My father indulged in a bit of corporal punishment, but that’s how it was in my day “My father was always suspicious of it, and would always ask ‘When are you getting a proper job?’ but he was from a different part of the world. He grew up in a very poor family and was a real hard worker. And there was I, as he saw it, a rather feckless youth, wearing colourful clothes and projecting his voice everywhere.

“My father was brought up in Sheffield and despite his upbringing made it into grammar school. He was a very clever man. He worked incredibly hard and left Sheffield for London, beginning at the bottom of the ladder in the civil service and ended up being the secretary to the minister of energy. I found a diary of his after he died and there was an entry that said ‘Learn to speak English’. He was trying to lose his Yorkshire accent. In those days people defined you by your accent. In the sixties it was fashionable to speak with a northern gritty accent, but back in his day the accent would have been frowned upon. He went to elocution lessons and he eventually lost his Yorkshire accent.

“I’ve always been fascinated on how people speak. I’m like a sponge wherever I am I tend to pick the accent up,” and with that off he goes: “Aye I’m fromt Narth and I talk like this,” he laughs. Not bad for a southern-born lad.

“Everyone from my head teacher to my dad tried to put me off acting, saying what a dodgy profession it was. They thought I wouldn’t be strong enough to suffer the rejection. So I got a job at an estate agent’s office. I lacked concentration, got bored and started mucking about and eventually got sacked! But fate stepped in and guided me into acting.”

Thank goodness fate stepped in because the world of acting has supplied him with a wealth of experiences. When he first met John, Paul and Ringo from The Beatles, John’s agent sent him to audition for a role on The Magical Mystery Tour. He hit it off with them straight away and when Lennon asked him if he liked The  Beatles, he replied: “Yeah, but I prefer The Rolling Stones!”

“When that popped out of my mouth I thought I’d blown it. And then Lennon said ‘Yeah, I think you’re right, I prefer them sometimes too!’”

Luckily for John, he was offered the job, but unfortunately he was unable to accept it as he was contracted for the BBC on The Newcomers and they wouldn’t release him as it clashed by just two days. “It was one of the great disappointments in my life,” he says.

There are rumours a-plenty about the nation’s best loved comedy Only Fools and Horses returning to our screens “I’ve not heard anything,” says John “although David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst are doing a five-minute sketch for Sport Relief. I believe it’s an idea that the writer John Sullivan had before he passed away. People love Only Fools and Horses and would love it to return, so maybe it will.

“John Sullivan left a lot of sketches and ideas for Only Fools and Horses before he died. He had two sons who hopefully will pick up his ideas and run with them. One of his sons, Jim, assisted him when writing The Green, Green Grass. It’s one thing writing a scene but another to write the extraordinary plotting that went into John’s work.

“I grew up in the theatre, that’s where I cut my teeth. The first job I got acting was in a children’s pop- up theatre. We would tour schools. I did a couple of years in rep and then ended up at the RSC in Stratford upon Avon.

“The first thing I saw as a child was Peter Pan at the age of six,” he says. “I was hooked! The stage is at the heart of the business is. Most actors will say they prefer to work in TV so they can afford to work in the theatre.”

While on the subject of work, I ask John “Is it true that only fools and horses work?” Laughing he replies: “Completely. I’ve always been workshy. When people used to try and put me off acting they would say ‘You do know you’ll spend half your working time out of work?’ and I thought ‘that sounds great!’ I don’t have a big work ethic at all.”

There was an entry that said ‘Learn to speak English’, he was trying to lose Yorkshire accent”

John made a real impression with his portrayal of Boycie in Only Fools and Horses, and I was curious to discover if Boycie was someone John wuld go out for a beer with.

“Probably not, no. But he’s based on a character I knew in a pub back in the seventies. He was an extraordinary character. He had the thickest skin, he had this way about him, and so I stole a few of his mannerisms.

When I tell John that his co-star David Jason appeared in the last edition of Northern Life magazine, he reminds me that it was on the set of Open All Hours when he first met David. John was playing the role of ‘Formula One Breadman’, as he was a mad driver.

Challis2When I ask him if there was any other character he would like to have played from Only Fools and Horses, his reply is dusted with sad undertones. “It would have to be Trigger. He was a great character.”

Unfortunately, Roger Lloyd-Pack, who played Trigger died of pancreatic cancer recently.

John said: “I spoke to Roger recently. It is very sad and very distressing. My thoughts are with his family. He was a remarkable man and he’ll be missed. Roger is irreplaceable.”

“Trigger was quite sharp early on in very beginning and as time went on he became an extraordinary character from another planet. There’s one scene that I always makes me smile.

He goes on to say, in one of the episodes of Only Fools and Horses “Someone said ‘I’ve just had a thought,’ and Boycie said: ‘Lend it to Trigger!”’

Another of John’s memorable scenes is prior to the introduction of his on-screen wife Marlene…“I said to Marlene the other day…, you remember Marlene don’t you?” and Del Boy answers “Oh yeah, all the lads remember Marlene!”

John recalls: “Marlene joined the cast in the fourth series. Actually we’re the longest running marriage on television. We’ve lasted even longer than Terry and June!”

I’m currently in the market for a new motor so with John’s wealth of car experience I wondered if he could suggest a little runabout for me. Immediately he goes into Boycie mood and replies: “Well, I’ve got a nice little Skoda, it’s got a clean ashtray and it comes with free bricks as it has no wheels!” SOLD!

John believes that the face of comedy has changed quite dramatically over the years, and finds that a lot of ‘comedies’ are cruel but try and pass it off as ironic.

“The humour has changed enormously, and I think it’s no coincidence that all these well-loved shows are coming back. Birds of a Feather has just returned to our screens but it’s a gentler type of humour.

Just before the interview ends I ask John a favour. Throughout the interview he has mentioned ‘Green, Green Grass’ on a few occasions, and each time he has pronounced it ‘Green, Green Graarss’, in a very plummy style. At the end of the day this lad is half Yorkshire, so I politely request that he pronounces it in a Yorkshire accent.

“Green, Green Grass,” he replies, in a convincing Northern tone. At last John is returning to his grass roots!