John Challis obituary

Actor who enjoyed huge popularity in the role of Boycie in the BBC’s long-running sitcom Only Fools and Horses

The actor John Challis, who has died of cancer aged 79, was familiar to the many millions of viewers of John Sullivan’s long-running BBC television sitcom Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003), in which he played the used-car salesman Boycie.

The series depicted the aspirations of the deluded but determined Peckham market trader Derek “Del Boy” Trotter (David Jason) and his money-making schemes – “this time next year we’ll be millionaires,” he would optimistically assure his brother Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst). After a modest start the series, with its flawed but lovable characters and sense of optimism in the face of disaster, became a huge hit and its characters national treasures.

Terrance Aubrey Boyce was one of the bevy of regulars who popped up in the Nag’s Head to collude in Del Boy’s escapades or, more often than not in Boycie’s case, to mock him when they went wrong.

Challis invested the character with a swaggering braggadocio, a nasal twang, a nice line in sarcastic asides and a staccato machine-gun laugh. Flashy and often seen puffing a cigar, he was ostentatious about his wealth but vulnerable to gossip about the past promiscuities of his wife, Marlene (Sue Holderness), and his own alleged lack of virility. He and Holderness bounced off each other – “Come on, Marlene, let’s go home and ignore each other for the evening” – and became friends off screen.

Challis appeared in the second episode of the series and the role gradually became a mainstay – Boycie got Del Boy involved in a diamond scam in the 1985 Christmas special To Hull and Back; tried adoption in From Prussia With Love (1986) (“amazing innit, everything you buy off him has something missing,” he observed when Del Boy produced a baby girl instead of the promised boy); and became embroiled with the mafia in the ambitious 1991 two-parter Miami Twice, filmed in the US (“We were having a lovely holiday … and then they [the Trotters] turn up, and within 15 seconds some sod’s shooting at us”). For all his rivalry with Del Boy, though, there was an undercurrent of grudging respect which exemplified the warmth that permeated the series.

John Challis with Sue Holderness, who played his screen wife Marlene in Only Fools and Horses, in 2019.
John Challis with Sue Holderness, who played his screen wife Marlene in Only Fools and Horses, in 2019. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

When Only Fools and Horses ended in 2003 (after an initial intended final curtain in 1996 – seen by a record breaking 24 million viewers – in which the Trotters do become millionaires), Boycie and Marlene then became stars of their own show, the Sullivan-penned spin-off The Green Green Grass (2005-09), which found the couple forced to relocate to a farm in Shropshire to escape retribution from a pair of gangsters. It ran for four series.

Challis was born in Clifton, Bristol, the only child of Alec, a civil servant, and Jean (nee Harden), a drama teacher and keen amateur actress. Alec’s work took them to London when John was a baby and after a peripatetic period the family settled in Tadworth, Surrey.

He was educated at Belmont preparatory school in Dorking and Ottershaw boarding school. He did not take any A-levels and became a trainee estate agent before delivering groceries while playing in a skiffle group. Emboldened by encouraging words from a former drama school principal with whom his mother had arranged a meeting, but not fancying formal training, he answered an advertisement in the Stage newspaper for the Argyle Theatre for Youth and secured employment performing in Pinocchio in schools, earning £11 a week for 24 shows.

From 1963 he was playing small parts and performing stage management duties in rep and he got a decent part in the film Where Has Poor Mickey Gone? (1964), which unfortunately vanished without trace. His West End debut came in Portrait of a Queen (Vaudeville theatre, 1965), whereafter he joined the RSC, spending a happy summer in Stratford-upon-Avon playing tiny parts opposite David Warner’s Hamlet and Ian Holm’s Prince Hal, Henry V and Malvolio (1966).

Later theatre work included fruitful collaborations with Tom Stoppard – Dirty Linen and New-Found-Land in South Africa (1977) and the West End (Arts theatre 1978), Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth (US tour, 1979) and On the Razzle (National Theatre, 1981). He was also in Rattle of a Simple Man (Savoy, 1981), Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay (Criterion, 1983), The Rivals (National Theatre, 1983), Relatively Speaking (with Holderness, at Eastbourne, 2001), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hackney Empire, 2013). He became an exemplar of pantomime villainy, memorable as King Rat in Dick Whittington, Captain Hook in Peter Pan (both several times), Abanazar, Fleshcreep and the occasional Ugly Sister.

After his debut in a few episodes of the soap opera The Newcomers (1967), Challis settled into TV work – his imposing figure and steely presence making him ideal casting on both sides of the law. Despite being cheery and easy to work with he excelled in hard-edged, tough-guy parts. The action director Douglas Camfield used him often: on villainous henchman duty in The Sweeney (1975); giving a terrific turn as the brutal mercenary Scorby in the 1976 Doctor Who adventure The Seeds of Doom – tussling violently with Tom Baker’s Doctor before being dragged to a watery death by lethal vegetation; and as Corporal Dupre in Beau Geste (1982).

His many police roles included stints in Z-Cars (as Sergeant Culshaw, 1972-75) and Coronation Street (1974-77) and playing Chief Inspector Humphreys in an episode of Sullivan’s Citizen Smith (1980), a performance – based on a pub bore of Challis’s acquaintance – which so pleased the writer that it led to him being cast as Boycie.

Despite a healthy CV brimming with good TV parts, acting was a precarious profession and his experiences working in a garden centre when struggling for work inspired the sitcom Bloomers (1979), written by James Saunders. Even so, he could not get cast in the part based on himself, having to settle for playing another policeman (in one episode); Richard Beckinsale took the lead but died with only five of the planned six episodes in the can.

Boycie, though, made Challis instantly recognisable and he was able to sustain a long television career well into the 21st century, playing Captain Peacock in the one-off revival of Are You Being Served? (2016) and Monty Staines in Benidorm (2015-18).

He released two volumes of autobiography – Being Boycie (2011) and Boycie and Beyond (2012) – and Boycie in Belgrade (2020), a documentary about the popularity of Only Fools and Horses in Serbia: he was extremely proud to be made an honorary citizen of the country. He was planning a tour of one-man shows about his career, utilising his fine skills as a raconteur and mimic, but this was cut short, just three weeks ago, by ill health.

His first three marriages, to the stage manager Carol Robertson and the actresses Debbie Arnold and Sabina Franklyn, ended in divorce, but in 1990 he found enduring happiness with the costumier and wardrobe mistress Carol Davies (nee Palmer). The couple married in 1995 and relocated to Hereford, where he was a popular and active member of the local community, becoming a patron of the nearby Ludlow festival and playing Malvolio at Ludlow Castle in 2011 for free.

A lifelong Arsenal fan, he was also a patron of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, a supporter of a number of animal charities and successfully embraced social media without succumbing to any of its pitfalls: actively engaging with fans and striking up a charmingly incongruous friendship with the rapper Ice-T on Twitter.

Carol survives him.

• John Spurley Challis, actor, born 16 August 1942; died 19 September 2021

Contributor

Toby Hadoke

The GuardianTramp

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