Why Boycie was big in the Balkans

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John Challis meeting his Serbian fans in the documentary Boycie in Belgrade - Wolf Entertainment
John Challis meeting his Serbian fans in the documentary Boycie in Belgrade - Wolf Entertainment

“Only Fools and Horses is number one in Serbia.” Those were among the many, many words of adulation that met Only Fools star John Challis in the Balkans nation.

Challis – best known as Boycie, Peckham’s biggest snob and dodgiest second-hand car dealer – travelled there for a 2020 documentary, Boycie in Belgrade. It’s a curious, strangely calming watch – Boycie’s very own Serbian film.

Challis, who has passed away aged 79, became aware of Only Fools and Horses’ popularity in Serbia when a film crew came to one of his book signings. The show became a hit with Serbs in the Nineties, while the region was hit by the Yugoslav Wars.

Challis set out to discover just why Only Fools and Horses (known as “Mucke” to the Serbs) is so popular there, while doubling up as the lead for a bizarre tourism film concept: watching Boycie from Only Fools and Horses go on guided tours of the Serbian Royal Palace, the football stadium, and a plum brandy distillery.

There’s further adulation along the way: an actor who describes meeting Boycie as “one of my childhood dreams come true”, and a student who tells Challis that her father “will die from happiness” when he receives a signed copy of Challis’s book, Being Boycie. Indeed, Challis received a hero’s welcome wherever he went.

The film begins with an invite to the British Embassy, where the British ambassador marks his arrival by sticking on the Only Fools and Horses theme tune – a song which Challis had almost certainly heard enough times by that point.

Fans have to admire Challis’s enthusiasm for Only Fools and Horses. Boycie debuted in the first series, back in 1981, and the character defined the rest of his career.

It’s fair to say that Only Fools and Horses wouldn’t have been the same without Boycie. That’s true of all the supporting characters, of course, but Boycie was intrinsic to the show. He was the image of what Del Boy aspired to be: a Del Boy who's actually made a few quid, but isn't as far removed from the Trotters' dodgy dealings as his snobbery might suggest.

Unlike actors who want to disassociate and prove a body of work beyond their biggest mainstream success, Challis embraced the character and fans. When I interviewed Challis back in 2019, he was quick to do the show’s classic lines down the phone.

In Belgrade, he needed little encouragement to slip into the Boycie voice, pump out his signature laugh, or deliver his adopted catchphrase: “Come along Marlene, get your coat, we’re leaving.” (The same line that Challis used to make his grand exit from the stage in panto each year – usually playing Captain Hook.)

The Serbs – who refer to him exclusively as Boycie in the film, not John – lapped it up, too.

In one scene, Challis meets an employee of Serbia’s most successful businessman, Philip Zepter, who got his start selling pots and pans and lived by the “this time next year, we’ll be millionaires” mantra (he’s now worth billions). Zepter’s man explains that Boycie’s business dealings make him “a very good example to us” and later describes Boycie as “a perfect guy for our country”. (Overlooking the fact that Boycie’s forecourt is packed with dodgy Ford Cortinas that have old newspapers stuffed into rust holes in the bodywork).

The series perfectly captures the country’s aspirational mentality, he explains to the camera – it’s like Only Fools and Horses was made in Serbia, not Britain.

Challis describes being recognised on the streets of Belgrade as readily as he was back home. In one scene he comes face-to-face with a huge graffiti mural of Del Boy – appropriately painted in the middle of a tower block estate. Elsewhere, he takes a tour of a car museum and finds a replica of the Trotters’ three-wheeled van – at which point he’s asked to play out a scene as Boycie, selling the clapped-out motor to a Serb actor.

“It’s a great pleasure for me,” the auto museum manager told the filmmakers. “My generation and my friends… we discuss all the week, until the new Only Fools and Horses come on our television. It’s a part of our life. British people, and the British nation is the great nation. They can laugh on themselves.”

John Challis admiring one of Belgrade's many Del Boy murals - Wolf Entertainment
John Challis admiring one of Belgrade's many Del Boy murals - Wolf Entertainment

Challis also makes a shopping centre appearance and is greeted by 500 fans, queuing up to meet Boycie while clutching DVD box sets. “Big stuff for me,” one fan tells the camera about meeting Boycie. “Cushty,” says another. Challis was clearly game: he visits a Belgrade university and gives students a lesson in Cockney rhyming slang. “What shall we learn from your lecture?” asks an interviewer. “Practically nothing,” replies Challis.

Later, when another interviewer suggests that Challis is “the most interesting man in the UK” he shrugs off the comment affably, giving an insight into his real self: “I always tried to find the comedy in life... if you can just see the funny side you can get through it.”

There are unexpected insights into the political, ravaged history of Serbia, too. “Everybody over the centuries seems to want Serbian land,” Challis comments during a whistle-stop historical tour.

His Zepter business contact explained how their troubled history relates to the popularity of Only Fools and Horses: Serbs could choose between watching Only Fools and Horses, or switch over to the the other channel and watch news about bombings.

Challis’s guide at the Royal Palace suggested something personal about the show. “All the characters in Only Fools and Horses, including of course the character of Boycie – played so, so brilliantly by Mr Challis – are very much relatable to our mentality. Which is the reason why the show was so very much popular, at least in Belgrade.”

Challis joked about the phenomenon at the Embassy: “As Del Boy would say, ‘We’re big in the Balkans.’ Take out of that what you will.”

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