From a jobbing actor to national treasure via his unforgettable portrayal of ‘Boycie’ in Only Fools and Horses.
John Challis was born in Clifton, Bristol, the son of Alec and Jean. There was no showbiz fame running in the family with his father a civil servant and his mother a drama teacher whose fame stretched as far as the local amateur theatre.
The only son of Alec and Jean the family relocated to Tadworth, Surrey, before his 1st birthday – the relocation due to Alec’s civil servant promotion taking him to offices in London. John was educated at Belmont School in Dorking and, later, Ottershaw boarding school. He wasn’t much interested in education opting to be ‘hands on’ in worth rather than study. This saw him not take his A-Levels and instead he opted to be a trainee estate agent, but he found he wasn’t a natural-born ‘sales man’ so moved into delivery work. It was at this time he made his moves into performing, first with a skiffle group this lead, with the help of his mother, a move into acting. He answered an advertisement in The Stage newspaper to join The Argyle Theatre’s Youth Performance Department which saw him appear in Pinocchio across schools in the area. This first foray into theatre saw him earn £11 a week.
Following this stint, he join the local Repertory Theatre which saw him performing in minor roles as well as backstage duties during productions. His first filmed part came in 1964 in the movie Where Has Poor Mickey Gone? while later big-screen roles included Say Hello To Yesterday (1971), Burning an Illusion (1981) and The Tichborne Claimant (1998)
In the West End he made his stage debut in 1965’s Portrait of a Queen at the Vaudeville Theatre. He then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company spending the summer in Stratford-upon-Avon playing parts in Hamlet, Henry V and Malvolio. He would return to Shakespeare in 1995 with open-air performances of Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged in Regents Park.
Other theatre roles included Dirty Linen (1977) Dogg’s Hamlet (1978), a 1979 stateside tour of Cahoot’s Macbeth and On the Razzle (1981). He was also a frequent performer in festive pantomimes.
He made his television debut BBC One ‘new town based’ soap opera The Newcomers (1967), this led to several small parts including in BBC One police drama Z Cars (1967) and Granada Television’s Coronation Street (1967). His ability to look menacing saw him cast in either police roles or criminal parts. In Corrie, he played football hooligan George Naylor while in Doctor Who (BBC, 1976) and The Sweeney (Thames TV, 1975) he played dubious henchman types and in Crossroads (1971) he played Jim Wright a ‘pervy photographer’ who liked scantly clad women and his foray in photography was female nudes.
Police roles saw him as regular Corporal Dupre in Beau Geste (1982), a recurring role in Coronation Street between 1974 and 1977 Det Sgt Norman Phillips and in 1980 Chief Inspector Humphreys in an episode of BBC One sitcom Citizen Smith. It was the latter role that saw him catch the eye of writer John Sullivan, creator of Citizen Smith. Sullivan was at the time working on a new show that would become Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003).
John used a smarmy type of persona for the Humphreys character, based on an acquaintance he’d known years earlier. Sullivan liked the portrayal and created used-car salesman Boycie for Challis to appear in Only Fools and Horses. The sitcom centred around the Trotter family led by ‘wheeler-dealer salesman’ Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter (Sir David Jason) with brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) and grandad (Lennard Pearce). Terrance Aubrey ‘Boycie’ Boyce, an old school chum of Del, was often at the end of his jokes, and sometimes dodgy gear. In return, Boycie was always more than happy to take great pleasure in the latest Trotter venture disaster.
The series became a hit, although not initially, as viewers warmed to the deluded but determined Peckham market trader ‘Del Boy’ and his money-making plots. Del ever the optimist always felt they were just around the corner from big success. ‘This time next year, we’ll be millionaires’. It captured the imagination of the public and by the late 1980s the show was pulling in massive ratings to BBC One.
It didn’t just make stars of Jason and Lyndhurst. The rest of the cast also became well-known faces, with the stand out supporting performer being John Challis thanks to his portrayal of Boycie.
The sneering nasal twang, acid put-downs, sarcastic asides and his trademark machine-gun laugh. Styled in true 1980s businessman gear a cognac and cigar were his temptations and his wife Marlene (Sue Holderness) his weak link in keeping up the facade of a successful, rich, entrepreneur. Marlene was loose with her tongue revealing far more about his life, business and their relationship than he ever wished his chums to know.
However, their on-screen chemistry led to a spin-off series in 2005 with The Green Green Grass which saw the Boyce family relocate to the countryside. The show ran until 2009.
As a writer, he wrote two autobiography’s, a book about his vast garden and in 1979 his experiences working at a Garden Centre between acting roles inspired him to pitch the idea for the sitcom Bloomers (BBC). He envisaged playing the lead part, however, that went to actor Richard Beckinsale who passed away five episodes into the six-episode series. While he didn’t manage to make the lead John did pop up as a policeman in one episode.
Later television roles included as Monty Stains in ITV’s hit sunshine sitcom Benidorm. (2015-18, Tiger Aspect) His partnership with Sherrie Hewson as Joyce Temple Savage was a high in the later years of the run, with eventually the characters marrying. The pair were reunited for a one-off tribute to Are You Being Served? (BBC, 2016) where Challis took on the role of Captain Peacock while Sherrie slipped into Betty Slocombe’s shoes complete with pussy.
Only Fools and Horses is massive in Serbia, John recently took a trip to Belgrade to find out why, in travelogue Boycie In Belgrade, which was released on DVD earlier this month.
Away from the screen and stage, John is a big supporter of charity, notably Alzheimer’s Research UK following his father suffering from the disease in his final years. Alec died with Alzheimer’s disease in 1990. It was 1990 he also found contentment, having had three previous failed marriages he found lasting happiness with the costumier and wardrobe mistress Carol Davies. The couple married in 1995.
A lifelong Arsenal fan, he decided to connect with fellow footie fans on social media in 2011, he also opened up his social presence to fans of his characters. And while it is Only Fools and Horses he is most associated with he has time for viewers of all the programme’s he’d appeared in. While some may have been snobby about past works, he embraced it all with enthusiasm.
For example, when discovering an old fan letter that praised his great acting in Crossroads, Z Cars and Wish Me Luck he promptly shared it with The Crossroads Fan Club on Twitter declaring “Look, I told you I was in Crossroads!” and while some self-absorbed types may have tried to hide the fact they’d been in a cheap daytime soap John promoted it – proud of it just as much as his most lavish role in wartime drama Wish Me Luck (LWT, 1988). That tells you what kind of man he is, a true gent.