John Challis: Talented actor best known for his portrayal of ‘Boycie’ in Only Fools and Horses

·5 min read
Challis pictured in 2019 at the National Television Awards  (Getty)
Challis pictured in 2019 at the National Television Awards (Getty)

While many actors remain in constant fear of being typecast, John Challis, who has died aged 79, embraced it. Both on and off stage, he positively revelled in his long-running role as Herman Terrance Aubrey Boyce, known as “Boycie” – the shady Peckham second-hand car dealer whose character catapulted Challis to fame as one of the mainstays of John Sullivan’s hugely popular BBC sitcom, Only Fools and Horses. A fine character actor, who enjoyed a richly diverse roster of roles throughout the course of more than half a century in the business, Challis never ceased to find it immensely flattering that his version of the cigar-smoking businessman with the nasal twang and mocking machine-gun laugh meant so much to so many people worldwide.

Though born in Bristol, the only son of a high-flying civil servant and a drama teacher who regularly performed in amateur dramatics, John Spurley Challis spent his formative years at Tadworth in Surrey. He endured a difficult relationship with his father, who, while constantly critical of his son and reluctant to offer any praise, was never slow to administer corporal punishment. In later years, after his father and mother split, just as his mother struggled with cancer, his father began to display early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. With his father becoming a danger to himself as well as to others, Challis was forced to have him sectioned and taken into care.

Educated at Belmont Preparatory School, and then as a boarder at Ottershaw School in Surrey, Challis excelled at sport, particularly cricket and football. He left before his A-Levels – much to the horror of his father, who told him he should get a proper job – because he had fallen in love with the theatre. Initially he became a trainee estate agent, but found the job intensely tedious. A spell as a delivery driver followed. Having answered an advertisement in The Stage for the Argyle Theatre for Youth, he began his acting career touring schools, performing in Pinocchio. With no formal training, he then served his apprenticeship as a member of various repertory companies.

Challis’s career spanned more than half a century (PA)
Challis’s career spanned more than half a century (PA)

Challis made his West End stage debut at the Vaudeville Theatre in 1965, in Portrait of a Queen. The following summer was spent in Stratford playing any number of minor supporting roles at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, opposite the likes of David Warner and Ian Holm. Becoming a noted interpreter of the works of Tom Stoppard, in 1979 he toured America with Cahoot’s Macbeth, and later that year appeared at the National Theatre in On The Razzle. After an appearance in Rattle of a Simple Man, he returned to the National in 1983 for The Rivals. At Christmas he was, for many years, in high demand for pantomime, relishing his various roles as the villain of the piece.

After making his television debut in episodes of BBC soap opera The Newcomers in 1967, Challis soon found himself in increasing demand. While on the wrong side of the law in Dixon of Dock Green and The Sweeney, between 1972 and 1975, he had a recurring role as Sgt Culshaw in the pioneering BBC police drama Z Cars. In Coronation Street he initially played George Naylor, a rowdy football fan arrested alongside Annie Walker when a shop window was smashed, subsequently returning as Detective Constable Roberts. However, it was his appearance as yet another policeman, in an episode of Citizen Smith in 1980, which so pleased writer John Sullivan. It ultimately led to him being cast as “Boycie” in a subsequent Sullivan creation, Only Fools and Horses.

The ‘Only Fools and Horses’ cast in the ‘Nag’s Head’ (PA)
The ‘Only Fools and Horses’ cast in the ‘Nag’s Head’ (PA)

Building on the mannerisms of a character he used to know in the 1970s, Challis first joined the cast of Only Fools and Horses for the second episode in 1981. Though appearing a terrible snob, “Boycie” was never averse to buying dodgy goods from Derek “Del Boy” Trotter, played by (now Sir) David Jason. Regularly holding court in the Nag’s Head, among those alongside him was actor Sue Holderness, who played Marlene, his long-suffering wife with a taste for the finer things in life. Together they enjoyed the longest marriage on television, surpassing even Terry and June. Regularly attracting audiences of 24 million, the show ran over seven series from 1981 until 1999, with a later string of one-off specials. The actor was hugely popular in Serbia, and was later granted honorary citizenship of the country.

Both Challis and Holderness were subsequently spun off into their own sitcom, The Green Green Grass, in which writer John Sullivan transplanted them to a rambling Shropshire farmhouse to where Boycie had been forced to flee to escape retribution from a couple of gangsters, assuming the role of a gentleman farmer who looked down his nose at the locals. Many of the external shots used in the series – which ran for four series (and three Christmas specials) between 2005 and 2009 – were filmed at the 800-year-old former abbot’s lodge, Wigmore Abbey, on the north Herefordshire/south Shropshire border, which Challis had restored with his fourth wife, Carol. His later roles included Captain Peacock in a revival of Are You Being Served, Jeremy in Last of the Summer Wine, and Monty Staines in the ITV comedy Benidorm.

Challis’s one big regret involved The Beatles. Despite admitting his preference for the Rolling Stones, they chose him to appear as the coach driver in their made-for-tv-film Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Sadly, a clash of filming dates meant he had to turn the part down.

A tireless worker for many and varied charitable causes, always happy to keep in touch with fans, Challis was also an enthusiastic gardener, having briefly owned a garden centre. Until illness intervened, he toured regularly with his one-man show, Only Fools and Boycie.

Married four times, he is survived by his fourth wife, Carol.

John Challis, actor and writer, born 16 August 1942, died 19 September 2021

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