John Challis is best known for his role as Boycie in the cult sitcom Only Fools and Horses. He became one of the most recognisable faces on British television for the best part of three decades and has recently brought out his autobiography: ‘Being Boycie’ covering his life from early childhood to playing the famous character.
Q) The level of interest in the new book has been quite astounding. Does it still amaze you the reaction you get from people?
“It just seems to perpetuate from generation to generation. It’s amazing when young lads come up to me now and are huge fans of me and Only Fools and Horses. I feel very lucky and privileged to have given people so much satisfaction. I mean some fans of the show still meet up once a month now, dress up and act out the scenes! Most of them know every single word and remember scenes I’d forgotten I’d done, it’s extraordinary.”
Q) Taking things back, we don’t know too much about what you were like growing up, as a child did you always want to move into acting?
“Well to me I was a normal kid and I was an only child. My parents were quite strict and looking back I did get a lot of being bounced on the knee and being made a fuss of. From a very early age I found myself indulging in fantasies, right from the start I was always copying things. If I heard a noise like the screeching of brakes I’d copy it and practice it. I would always be fascinated by other people and the way they were. I did this for some reason and it always seemed natural to me right the way through school. In school I’d be in plays and impersonating the Headmaster, I’d play guitars, sing songs and be like the American blues singers. It just felt like the most natural thing to do for me. I suppose I was always going to be a performer. There was something in me that wanted to show off, whether that was because I lacked belief in myself or there were some psychological reasons for it I don’t know. I did it because it made people accept me and laugh at me. I was OK to have around because I mucked about a lot.”
Q) Did the early interest you had in people give you ideas and characteristics that you then wanted to take into future acting roles?
“Yes it did because I stored things away and the little habits people had. I based Boycie on some unusual characteristics this man used to have at the pub I went to. He had this very pedantic way of talking and I had never heard anybody talk like that. That was the sort of thing I loved and I could always do impressions. Before I got into television my theatre background was very important for me as I was able to do a quick sketch. As a youngster I was very restless, I always wanted to be somewhere else, look round another corner, look through another door or something. I didn’t concentrate at school at all.”
Q) After finishing your schooling and before you moved into television you worked as an estate agent. What was that like?
“Well everybody tried to put me off acting but I knew what I wanted to do. People used to tell me that it wasn’t a secure industry and that you would spend half the time out of work! My father wanted me to have a safe job like he had but when I was given the opportunity to become an estate agent I just ended up being bored. Looking back I can’t believe I used to do it but I started to make fake phone calls pretending to be other people so I could impersonate them. I don’t know what the hell I thought I was doing! Eventually I got sacked and my parents said: ‘what are we going to do with this guy?’ After delivering groceries for a bit I answered an advertisement in the newspaper and I joined the travelling theatre. Performing from town to town as an emerging actor suited me very well.”
Q) Having had numerous early television roles and appearances in programmes such as The Sweeney, Doctor Who and Coronation Street, you first worked with the late John Sullivan OBE (the creator and writer of Only Fools and Horses) in Citizen Smith as Chief Inspector Humphreys in 1980. Did you ever imagine then that getting to know John and working under him as an actor would lead you on to the success you have achieved in your career?
“John had a massive impact on my career and I would have never of dreamed of the success that was to come. As you mentioned I had done a few different roles in television but this was the first programme that really got me noticed. To begin with there was no sign it would take off as it was just another episode of another series. I thought it was funny and it was a great show. The series then began to take off, and then of course, it led me on to other things.”
Q) Sullivan played a massive part in kick-starting your acting career in Only Fools and Horses in 1981, what was he like as a friend and writer to operate under?
“He was a mercurial type of guy and an intensely loyal, family man. The cast of Only Fools became a family for him and he wrote the golden words and stories that everybody identifies with. He was a brilliant talent, not only could he write brilliant jokes in a comedy situation, but he also cared about the characters so much. Writing about their lives, writing about Del and Rodney and all the things and disasters what happened. He was an absolute perfectionist and very often we got given the scripts very late. John was always worried he hadn’t got the idea perfect and right up until the recording in the studio, he would be there tweaking it and this carried on to when we done the successful spin-off ‘The Green Green Grass.’ In between takes he’d come up to us and say he’d just had a better idea. We were like bloody hell John! We’re going to have another go at it if it doesn’t work he used to say. He was a very passionate man.”
Q) Interestingly, the first two series of Only Fools and Horses attracted modest television audiences for that time, but the BBC decided to keep their faith in the series. This was a stroke of luck early on, wasn’t it?
“They did want to give it another chance but it still wasn’t really doing the numbers many had expected. The key was that people did have faith in it and after a technicians strike at the BBC in the 1980’s, the show was repeated at different times. Word of mouth got about and the ratings suddenly shot up. It just started to grow and grow and it was absolutely extraordinary.”
Q) The Only Fools and Horses cast seemed really close-knit, was this the case?
“Time has moved on now so we don’t all see each other as much. At John Sullivan’s funeral we all saw each other again and it was a horrible occasion. No one had the chance to say goodbye to someone who had changed all of our lives. That sort of closeness cemented everybody together and we were all so proud of Only Fools, we knew how much it meant to people. That was the glue that kept us all together really and there’s still contact between most members of the cast. I remember moments like ‘The Jolly Boys’ Outing’ and it just felt like myself and all my friends going on a holiday! Nowadays, occasionally, I’ll get a rude text or card from someone.”
Q) The book ‘Being Boycie’ is an excellent and humorous account of a fascinating acting career. What did it feel like to go trawling back through all those memories?
“It was great. People have always come up to me and asked me about my life and I tell them many stories so I thought I might as well write it all down. The trouble with most actors is that we can write a bit about characters and situations but we have difficulty in tying the story together. I met someone who was interested in Only Fools and my career and he helped me put everything in chronological order. That organisational quality was key and the stories came flooding out. I’m still remembering more and more stories and there are still some I forgot to put in this book. However, these memories and moments will be in my second book, the follow on to ‘Being Boycie’, which I have already started writing. I’ve been lucky enough to be in some great shows, travel the world and work with some smashing people in some great productions. I’ve been very lucky to have survived it really. As somebody said to me the other day: ‘you deserve a medal for surviving in the business for 50 years!”
Q) Do you still find that you have to pinch yourself when you think about the success and status playing Boycie has given you?
“Yes because the character means so much to people and you realise how important it is to many. People remember that laugh I did as Boycie and my relationship with Marlene and recall many moments. Playing that role for all those years now helps me to make a difference and help charities and people. It is a positive by-product. I meet a lot of people and receive a lot of letters telling me that Only Fools had changed their lives. I find this extraordinary and I feel a great deal of responsibility to the character as it is unique in a way.”
‘Being Boycie’ is published by Wigmore Books Ltd.