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John Challis: ‘You only really regret what you don’t do in life’

As his one-man show hits the road, John Challis talks to Gabrielle Fagan about Boycie’s legacy, finding happiness, and the joy of making people laugh.

John Challis is happy to accept he’ll always be best known for playing Only Fools And Horses’ cigar–chomping wide boy Boycie.

The iconic BBC sitcom, which ran from 1981-1999, with a string of one-off specials until 2003, catapulted him to fame – and who could forget Herman Terrance Aubrey ‘Boycie’ Boyce, with his cackling laugh and signature cry of ‘Marleeeene!’

Challis’ career has spanned 50 years and a huge variety of roles. He played Monty Staines in ITV’s hit comedy Benidorm, with parts in Coronation Street, Last Of The Summer Wine and Heartbeat too.

The Bristol-born actor, 77, who’s written two autobiographies, Being Boycie and Boycie & Beyond, is now touring with his one-man show, Only Fools And Boycie: An Evening With John Challis.

Here, he takes a break from the stage to talk to us about the role that changed his life, getting through tough times when his father had Alzheimer’s, and how he finally found happiness after three failed marriages…

What does Boycie mean to you?

“He’s always with me. He’s like my shadow, really. People literally come up to me every day when I’m out and about – even when I’m abroad – and say how much they enjoyed him and want to reminisce about him.

“Often they don’t know my name, so they just greet me as ‘Boycie’. As a young actor, you dream of being in something that catches on with people, and when it does, it’s extraordinary. It’s wonderful being remembered so fondly for something that’s still hugely loved 35 years on.

“A lot of people expect me to be like the character but I’m honestly not – I’m not in the slightest bit knowledgeable about cars, for a start. I based him on a man I once met in pub who had this very pedantic way of speaking. Also, he’s quite pompous, arrogant and snobbish, which isn’t me.”

What’s been the toughest time of your life?

“In the Eighties, my third marriage broke down, so I was feeling at a pretty low ebb and my mother was ill with cancer and my father had Alzheimer’s. Ironically, work was going well in Only Fools And Horses but underneath, John Challis was not doing very well at all.

“My parents weren’t living together and I was an only child, so I was rushing between the two and trying to sort out care, and at that time not so much was known about Alzheimer’s.

“Eventually, it got to a stage where my father was a danger to himself and other people and I had to section him and have him taken into care, which was absolutely the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.

“I had a difficult relationship with my father. I craved his approval but don’t remember ever receiving any sort of affection or praise from him as a child. He was a very clever self-made man, who was in the civil service, but he was always very critical of everything I did.

“He didn’t want me to go into acting and claimed he’d never watched me in anything, although I once found out from a friend of his that he was secretly proud of me and had watched me act.

“He died two years after my mother in 1990. I remember when I buried him, I cried like a baby for about two days. I wasn’t really close to him but I think that was part of the reason… I started trying to get to know him too late.”

What’s been a turning point in your life?

“Meeting my fourth wife, Carol. I’d pretty well resigned myself to being single because I was convinced I was hopeless at relationships after having three failed marriages behind me. She believed in me, grounded me, and was such a steadying influence and we’ve been married 25 years.

“Our passion is restoring and preserving our home, Wigmore Abbey in Herefordshire, which dates from the 12th century. Some of the scenes in The Green Green Grass were filmed here.”

How do you look back on your career now?

“With astonishment, really. It’s weird, an actor’s life – you wear borrowed clothes, project your voice and pretend to be other people. You have to have a sense of humour about it. I see actors talking seriously about their art, which makes me laugh because I’ve never taken it very seriously.

“Despite that, and having no great ambitions, in more than 50 years I’ve performed in the West End, acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre and travelled the world performing. It’s amazing really how well it’s gone.”

What’s your opinion of today’s comedy?

“There are some very clever people out there doing brilliant stuff, I’m a huge admirer of Lee Mack, Rob Brydon and David Mitchell, but generally speaking, comedy has a harder edge, lacks charm and has coarsened.

“That’s inevitable though, because comedy and humour reflects the world and it’s definitely a harder and more cynical place these days. It makes me feel even luckier to have grown up in a classic era, with programmes like Porridge, Fawlty Towers and, of course, to have been part of Only Fools And Horses.”

How do you look after your health?

“I’ve got a bit of a hip problem but I walk and garden as much as I can. Five acres of ancient pasture surround our home and we’ve created a garden which requires a lot of attention. I gave up going to the gym because it was too tedious.”

How do you look after your wellbeing?

“I’m a very up and down sort of person and quite moody and mercurial. So I feel very positive sometimes, but can swing to feeling there’s a cloud hovering over me.

“Performing is my best tonic. I can feel 100 years old sometimes, but then I’ll go out on the road with my show, tell my stories and entertain people, and feel young again and totally energised.

“By the time I come off stage, anything that’s been bothering me is in perspective and I feel brilliant. People often will come up and tell me how Only Fools And Horses helped them through their difficult times by making them laugh and distracting them from their problems. It’s quite humbling really.”

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“For performing: ‘keep your head up and speak clearly, so you can be heard at the back of the stalls.’ For life: ‘if there’s something you want to do, give it a go because if you don’t, it could haunt you for the rest of your life.’

“I remember meeting a hugely successful banker, but late at night he’d listen to opera and sing along to the tenor parts and cry. He once confided in me that he’d longed to be an opera singer but had never dared to try, and it was his biggest regret. It confirmed to me that you always regret what you don’t do, and rarely regret what you do.”

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