John Challis, actor and writer known for Only Fools and Horses

Born: August 16, 1942;

Died: September 19, 2021

TO SAY that John Challis, who has died aged 79, was simply a supporting character in Only Fools and Horses is rather like saying Lady Bracknell gave Wilde’s Earnest a bit of back-up, or that TV’s Bilko benefited just a little from the appearances of Corporal Doberman.

Challis, who played the slightly sleekit, cigar-puffing Boycie in the BBC sitcom, helped create an integral figure who proved to compliment David Jason’s slightly pretentious and gauche Del Boy perfectly. The flash used car dealer Boycie always had Del Boy’s number.

Challis, of course, was given great lines by writer John Sullivan. But being handed greatness on a script is only half the story. The other half is in the delivery and to play someone who is slightly oleaginous is tricky.

Yet, the actor knew exactly what to do with the lines: "I've left my Mercedes parked downstairs and you know what they're like on this estate. They'd have the wheels off a Jumbo if it flew too low." Or "Oh turn it up, Del Boy. Trigger couldn't organise a prayer in a mosque."

Challis also knew how to offer up vulnerability. Sullivan’s Boycie was a financial success story – yet failed to balance his accounts in the bedroom department. And he often fretted about the reputation of his once-flighty wife, Marlene. “Come on, Marlene. Let’s go home and ignore each other all evening.”

John Spurley Challis however had the early upbringing which suggested an actor in the making. His father Alec was a civil servant but his mother Jean was a drama teacher and an am-dram actress.

After the family moved from Bristol to London, young John was sent to boarding school but as a teenager the decision to act wasn’t yet evident. Leaving school without A Levels he became a trainee estate agent before the performance gene registered itself and he joined a skiffle group.

Thankfully, his mother intervened and he was encouraged to answer an ad in The Stage for the Argyle Theatre for Youth. Thus began an actor’s life, touring schools appearing in the likes of Pinocchio.

By 1963, Challis had made his way into rep theatre and a year later appeared in his first movie, Where Has Poor Mickey Gone? It flopped at the box office but Challis went on to join the RSC, playing opposite David Warner’s Hamlet and Ian Holm’s Prince Hal, Henry V and Malvolio.

Television opportunities also began to open up to the likeable, funny young man with the contrastingly dark countenance. He appeared in the soap opera The Newcomers (1967) and producers noted he could convince easily as the bad guy, or the tough cop in the likes of Z-Cars, Coronation Street and The Sweeney.

But that didn’t mean he was forgotten by theatre. In the 70s, Challis’s villainous features helped him land roles on the likes of Tom Stoppard’s Dirty Linen and in the 80s he landed major roles in the likes of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, and The Rivals.

And of course, his rather steely demeanour made him perfect for playing the baddie in panto; which casting director could fail to see his potential as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, or King Rat in Dick Whittington?

That’s not to say John Challis was exempt from the slings and arrows of outrageous acting fortune. At times when work was slack he worked in a garden centre. Indeed, his garden centre personal stories inspired the TV sitcom Bloomers. Ironically, Challis could only land one tiny role in the series, the lead going to Richard Beckinsale.

But it was a casting in 1980 which saw his career soar. Arsenal fan Challis appeared in John Sullivan’s urban revolutionary sitcom Citizen Smith, starring Robert Lindsay, and his performance hit the back of the net.

When it came to casting the role of Boycie, Sullivan knew he had his man. Success continued. When Only Fools and Horses ended in 2003 (seen by a record-breaking 24 million viewers) Challis played Boycie and Sue Holderness as Marlene in the spin-off The Green Green Grass which found the couple forced to relocate to a farm in Shropshire to escape retribution from a pair of gangsters.

Challis went on to play Captain Peacock in the one-off revival of Are You Being Served? (2016) and Monty Staines in Benidorm (2015-18).

The actor was prompted to write of his life and colourful times over two (best-selling) volumes, Being Boycie and Boycie and Beyond.

Yet, the Peckham connection could never be forgotten. Such was the success of Boycie it has been revealed that the Deputy Mayor of Belgrade will name a road in honour of John Challis. Only Fools and Horses was a huge hit in Serbia, and indeed all of the former Yugoslavia. And Boycie a particular favourite.

John Challis’s personal life however seemed at one point to be as changeable as the roles he played. Married three times, to stage manager Carol Robertson, actresses Debbie Arnold and Sabina Franklyn, he finally found lasting happiness in 1990 with wardrobe mistress Carol Davies. The couple married and lived in Hereford and wildlife lover Challis worked for the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

Until ill-health struck, John Challis, who suffered from cancer, was set to tour with his one-man show, regaling audiences with life tales and funny moments. There’s little doubt it would have been successful. The ever-engaging, cheerful actor was far from the flash Boycie he performed so well for comic effect.

Boycie’s best line, when seemingly hurt at the suggestion he had murdered Marlene and buried her body in the garden, he retorted in traditional whine; “I have never been so insulted in my life. Do you know how much I spent on that garden? You think I’m going to dig a hole in it?”

John Challis is survived by his wife Carol.