As his one-man show heads towards Yorkshire, John Challis tells Gabrielle Fagan how he faced his toughest times personally as Only Fools and Horses’ ratings were flying high.
John Challis is happy to accept he’ll always be best known for playing Only Fools And Horses’ cigar-chomping wide boy Boycie.
The iconic BBC sitcom, which ran from 1981-1999, with a string of one-off specials until 2003, catapulted him to fame – and who could forget Herman Terrance Aubrey ‘Boycie’ Boyce, with his cackling laugh and signature cry of ‘Marleeeene!’
Challis’ career has spanned 50 years and a huge variety of roles. He played Monty Staines in ITV’s hit comedy Benidorm, with parts in Coronation Street, Last Of The Summer Wine and Heartbeat too.
The Bristol-born actor, 77, who’s written two autobiographies, Being Boycie and Boycie & Beyond, is now touring with his one-man show, Only Fools And Boycie: An Evening With John Challis.
“Boycie’s always with me,” Challis says. “He’s like my shadow, really. People literally come up to me every day when I’m out and about – even when I’m abroad – and say how much they enjoyed him and want to reminisce about him. Often they don’t know my name, so they just greet me as ‘Boycie’. As a young actor, you dream of being in something that catches on with people, and when it does, it’s extraordinary.
“A lot of people expect me to be like the character but I’m honestly not. I based him on a man I once met in pub who had this very pedantic way of speaking. Also, he’s quite pompous, arrogant and snobbish, which isn’t me.”
Challis says the hardest time in his life was actually when the show was enjoying its biggest success, as his third marriage broke down while his mother had cancer and his father Alzheimer’s.
“My parents weren’t living together and I was an only child, so I was rushing between the two and trying to sort out care, and at that time not so much was known about Alzheimer’s. Eventually it got to a stage where my father was a danger to himself and other people and I had to section him and have him taken into care, which was absolutely the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.
“I had a difficult relationship with my father. I craved his approval but don’t remember ever receiving any sort of affection or praise from him as a child. He was a very clever, self-made man, who was in the civil service, but he was always very critical of everything I did.
“He didn’t want me to go into acting and claimed he’d never watched me in anything, although I once found out from a friend of his that he was secretly proud of me and had watched me act. He died two years after my mother in 1990. I remember when I buried him, I cried like a baby for about two days. I wasn’t really close to him but I think that was part of the reason – I started trying to get to know him too late.”
He says meeting his fourth wife Carol was a turning point in his life.
“I’d pretty well resigned myself to being single because I was convinced I was hopeless at relationships after having three failed marriages behind me. She believed in me, grounded me, and was such a steadying influence and we’ve been married 25 years.
“I’m a very up and down sort of person and quite moody and mercurial.
“Performing is my best tonic. I can feel 100 years old sometimes, but then I’ll go out on the road with my show, tell my stories and entertain people, and feel young again and totally energised.
“By the time I come off stage, anything that’s been bothering me is in perspective and I feel brilliant.
“People often will come up and tell me how Only Fools And Horses helped them through their difficult times by making them laugh and distracting them from their problems. It’s quite humbling, really.”
John Challis will be appearing at Dewsbury Town Hall on May 16 and Hull City Hall on May 18. For more information, visit wigmorebooks.com/events.php.