With a career spanning over 50 years and a recognisable star of both stage and screen, John Challis has seemingly done it all. With the tour of his newest show “Only Fools and Boycie” making its way to Pocklington on March 6, One&Other decided to ask him a few questions about his life and what people can expect to see from his upcoming show.
O&O: When you were a child did you have aspirations of becoming an actor?
JC: I always wanted to be an actor but I was sort of put off it by school and my parents. They said I needed a safe steady job, but I couldn’t face it. So I started off becoming an estate agent but I was bad at that I got sacked. So I went off and joined a children’s theatre which lead into repertory theatre. For five years I was in the theatre all the time.
O&O: You also worked in the Royal Shakespeare Company
JC: Yes I did. That was 1966. I did a lot of repertory theatre and then I got into West End shows. Then I went off to the Royal Shakespeare and then onto television.
O&O: Can you remember as a child what started your love of acting and the theatre?
JC: It was because my parents took me to see Peter Pan in London when I was six years old. I fell in love with Captain Hook and Peter Pan. That’s when I said that was I wanted to do and I apparently wouldn’t stop talking about it for months afterwards. Then when I went to school I was in all the school plays, I formed a little band and I impersonated all the school masters. [On becoming an actor] It was always going to be the case.
O&O: Speaking of Captain Hook, you’re a regular of pantomime. Is Hook a particular character you enjoy playing?
JC: Yes, I’d say Hook is my favourite role in pantomime, I’ve played him five or six times. I enjoy pantomime and so I do it every year. I’ve now been in lots and I watched them as a kid, it’s just something I’ve been attracted to. I go off and play the villain up and down the country. I frighten children and they pay me for it.
O&O: As an actor, do you have to prepare differently for say a pantomime to how you prepared for the Royal Shakespeare Company?
JC: No, not really. Whatever sort of show it is, you’ve got to still and base it on truth, if you can. You have to work out where the characters coming from and try and get inside his head, so you can try and portray that as you see it. You’ve got to see how that character will fit into the show and look at the show as a whole, how it all fits together so you can adjust accordingly. Even with the pantomime the script is always a bit different so you have to adjust to that. It’s the same for pantomime how it is for everything else really. I will be appearing in Shakespeare’s As You Like it at Ludlow Castle. It’s a play I’ve never done before so I’ll have to study the story very carefully.
O&O: With pantomime it allows for more audience participation and improvisation than in a Shakespeare play for example. Is improvisation something you enjoy?
JC: Yes, well I’ve always enjoyed the theatre a bit more than television because of the live audience. It allows to gauge the ebb and flow of the audience. With my show, that’s a good example. I tell my story in a way like a stand-up comic. It’s slightly free form in that what I’m going to say. I know the shape of what I’m going to say but you can judge the audience on the night. You can sense their reaction and sort of play towards them. If there’s no reaction you can come off and try something else the next time. This is the first time I’ve just done a show about me and my life. I’m not a stand-up comic but I like telling stories and the people like to hear about things I’ve been in.
O&O: One thing you were supposed to be in was the Magical Mystery Tour. How was it meeting The Beatles?
JC: Well it was extraordinary. It was in the 60s and they were just having trouble casting a particular role in the Magical Mystery Tour. We just had an idea that we’d get on. I mean the world and his wife were going up for it, but I went to see them as they were right at the height of their fame. Ther was only three of them there: John, Paul and Ringo. I was feeling in a very cheeky mood that day and John Lennon had said “We don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t have a script, so you’re okay with that”, and I said “I’ve got an idea, you could sing some songs. They’re really quite popular you know”. He turned to Paul and said “Hey Paul, this man’s a genius. He’s got ideas, we better get him on board the coach”. He then asked if I had a favourite Beatles song, and for some reason I said “I prefer the Rolling Stones”. I probably shouldn’t have really and there was a long pause until John said “I prefer them sometimes as well”. John was really quite self-deprecating really. He said “it’d be great to have you aboard”. I came out of there and thought, fantastic, I’m going to work with these guys. Unfortunately I was unavailable as I’d already been contracted to a show called The Newcomers, the dates clashed by about two days and they wouldn’t release me. It’s probably one of the great disappointments of my life.
O&O: You mentioned The Rolling Stones; you also spent some time with them. How was that and did it feel different to when you met The Beatles?
JC: Well yeah, it’s all a question of taste really. The Beatles, they changed music forever and there was always this competition of “Are you a Stones fan” or “Are you a Beatles fan”. Although I liked them both, I thought The Beatles were a bit too sweet and girly for me really. I liked The Stones because they were playing this blues music that had been on the radio from America. It was really dirty music and that was more my taste, the blues rock sort of thing. I first saw them in 62 and they weren’t very big. They played a pub in Richmond, called the Cool Daddy Club which they used to play in those days. In 1964 I was in a repertory theatre production and they came and played a town hall in Kidderminster and I saw them there. From then on it was great big American Football stadiums. I’ve been lucky enough to meet two of them since: Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman. That was great fun and they turned out to be big fans of Only Fools and Horses as well. That was a thrill for me. It was extraordinary. When I met Charlie Watts it was the hospitality suite at Wembley. He came over and sort of said “What are you doing here?” and asking if I liked all this stuff. I told him that I’ve been following them since the early 60s and he just said “poor bloke”. He also said that he couldn’t believe he was stood there talking to me. It never occurs to you that someone you’re such a big fan of might be a fan of yours. It was really a sort of revelation, getting to meet your hero and it turns out they’ve been watching you as well.
O&O: Do you think there’s a particular reason why actors and musicians get along so well?
JC: I suppose we’re in the same sort of business, you’re going on stage and saying “Look at me, aren’t I great”. For some reason you need to perform, and a lot of musicians never lose that. That feeling of wanting to be in front of thousands of people, with them dancing and clapping away. I think that’s why so many musicians carry on in their 60s. You think why the hell would you carry on, but I guess they’ve never found something to replace that shot of adrenaline. That’s the same with acting really, I mean I should have retired five or six years ago, but I can’t because nothing replaces going in front of a live audience and getting applause. For some reason you need to perform and show your stuff.
O&O: You also appeared in Dr Who and at the time did you think it’d carry on having the success it is still having today?
JC: Well it was already an institution when I did that in 1976. It was Dr Who: Seeds of Doom, with Tom Baker. It had already been going for quite a long time before then. So you sort of thought this is going to go on forever. Then it went off but it’s come back again and it’s much more modern. Technically the visual effects are on to another level which it has to do in this day and age. Generally it seems those fantasy things are trying to outdo each other. It was a lot more homely and cottagey when I was on it and it was one of the happiest jobs I ever did. It was really just charging around the shrubbery and doing this extraordinary story, having a great time. It’s just a very popular show, massively popular. It went out of fashion but came back again, like so many things do. Those good old shows, they can come back again. David Jason is just about, we think, do a new series of Open All Hours. There’s a lot of nostalgia for those really old shows, which is why they keep getting repeated and pushing them out again.
O&O: As you enjoyed Dr Who so much when you were doing it, would you like to do it again?
JC: Oh yes, I mean I always wanted to play the Doctor, but nobody really asked me. I am perfectly willing to settle for an interplanetary horrid figure or even a nice person. There’s a lot of good stuff around at the moment, like The Musketeers, which I really enjoy. It’s a great series, with terrific costumes. They’re all very good as well, so I’d like to be in that as well.
O&O: In the 90s you made a short cameo on Brass Eye, where you were informed that Noel Edmonds had killed Clive Anderson. Were you aware it was a spoof?
JC: I was doing a big gala evening at Windsor theatre, trying to raise money to keep the theatre open and that was a big surprise. I actually didn’t believe it for a second but when you first heard it, it was a terrible shock. They did it absolutely brilliantly, but I think they cut out the point where I clocked it, as I said that must be one of the biggest Gotcha moments ever. That bit was never shown. It was brilliant, but very cruel to shock people like that.
O&O: You didn’t seem too convinced at the time.
JC: I’ve never actually seen it, but it’s shown on a regular basis. People keep mentioning it. I suppose it was funny. I’d had a few adventures with Noel, him going out and winding people up. It’s a sort of pre cursor to all this humour: “it’s so cruel and awful, it’s funny”. Which Ricky Gervais did, all that stuff. I suppose there’s a place for it. It all really started with Jeremy Beadle. It used to make you laugh, people falling about and getting stuff wrong, but you thought “Oh that poor bloke”.
O&O: How did you first get the role of Boycie?
JC: I was cast in a show called Citizen Smith which was John Sullivan’s first hit series. The producer or director had seen me doing something in the Fringe Theatre or somewhere. He asked me to play a bent policeman, probably because I look like a bent policeman. I’ve played a lot of policemen over the years, but there was something different with this one. I remembered a character I’d met in a pub, who had a very curios way of talking, a sort of pedantic way. As I’d always done since I was a kid, I just sat and practised it. I changed it a bit but I sort of gave this policeman a superior and pedantic way of talking. John Sullivan came up and said, “I really liked what you’ve done with that. I’m going to try and use it again someday”. Lo and behold a year later he asked if I’d come and play a second hand cars salesman for a new series. I did and had no idea it was going any further. Nobody said oh you’ll definitely be back next series, or indeed if there was going to be another series. A year later I was at the National Theatre, around 1981/82. They asked if I would come and do it, but still no idea it’d go any further, it wasn’t really until the fourth series that it was really building into a big show. So right place right time really
O&O: When you first started out did you think OFAH would become such a cultural icon?
JC: When it got to the fourth series, it was about then. Around 1985, the middle of the 80s. Mainly because people kept coming up to you, shaking your hand and saying they loved the show. That had never happened to me before, that recognition and I remember us all talking about it. Everyone had stories about it, you suddenly realised how much it meant to people and how many people were watching it and telling their friends. Also the figures kept going up, so when the first series wasn’t very successful, only doing 7.5 million, then 9 and bit, then it went up to double figures. In ’85 it was at 10 or 11. You had to remember there was only three channels in 1981, when we started so the figures weren’t very good. 7.5 million with 3 channels. 7.5 million is good these days, but not back then. You could see the figures building , after every show so you really had a view that more and more people were interested.
O&O: Do you keep up to date with the cast of OFAH?
JC: We all lead very different lives. We meet up for a convention once or sometimes twice a year. We meet the people who turn their tellies on and sign photographs and so on. Around 2000 people go. A lot of the cast meet up then and also at weddings and funerals. Roger Lloyd Pack died recently and a lot of us met up then. You always vaguely keep in touch. Sometimes bump into each other at charity dos. You can get hold of a member of the cast and say I’ve been asked to do something, do you want to come along and we can share this. Sue Holderness (Marlene) and I go out quite often, because due to the spin off we’re known as a couple. So people like to see us as a couple.
O&O: Speaking of the spin off, when you came back for Green Green Grass, did it take long to get back into the character of Boycie?
JC: Yes, well a bit. It’s a difficult thing to switch on and off. Obviously you can do it from a standing start. You can do a version of it, but it’s like everything else, it’ll take practise. Having to get back into the situations and relationships he has with the other characters. It’s very much to what’s been written, so you’ve got to adjust to that and the different situations. I think the Boycie in the Green Green Grass was quite different to the one in Only Fools and Horses, eventually. He became a sort of victim character as he was a fish out of water. A lot of people noticed that change and though it was very interesting, that whole change. Some people weren’t so keen on it though. They weren’t so keen on Boycie being a bit of a plank, they preferred him in the Nags Head thinking he was superior to everyone. It’s a question of taste really. We had four or five years down here. It was all shot around Herefordshire, Shropshire. So it’s great to involve the whole community, the pubs and shops. A lot of people who turned up as extras, we knew.
O&O: With Only Fools and Horses returning for Sport Relief sketch, do you think we’ll see a return of Boycie to Peckham?
JC: The Sport Relief thing is just a sketch. Probably five or six minute thing with David Jason, Nicholas Lyndhurst and interestingly David Beckham. I was never actually approached about it. I think it was an idea John Sullivan had before he died. It’s just something he jotted down. It’s like what I do, with bits of dialogue, characters or jokes. So when he died a couple of years ago, his sons collected them all up. They’re under quite a lot of pressure to write a new series but I think they’ve said they won’t do that. As they don’t want to dilute John Sullivan’s wonderful legacy. They thought this particular idea was possible because it was a short little bit and it would be perfect for a money raising programme. I suppose the sporting bit is David Beckham. What it is I don’t know as I’ve never seen it and I was never asked unfortunately. So I’ll be as interested as everyone when it happens. From what I hear I don’t think there’ll be another series and with some of the cast missing it’ll be difficult to write it. If a decent script came along obviously David and Nick would consider it but I think it’s unlikely.
O&O: Do you think sitcoms on TV have sort of slowed down now with it seeming TV are more interested in stand up or improvised comedy?
JC: Well I thought it had but there’s quite a lot of nostalgia. Open All Hours for example. The word is that he might be doing a new series of that. They did the special which I think was received quite well. I think a lot of people would like to see that gentler type of comedy. A lot of people were moaning that Last of the Summer Wine isn’t on anymore and I think that there’s a great demand for that sort of thing right now. Dad’s Army keeps coming back and Fawlty Towers. Of course Only Fools and Green Green Grass are always on Gold. I think on mainstream TV there’s room for both. I don’t think the pendulum should swing one way or the other. There are enough people who like the old style about and not just talking about middle aged. Young people as well. A lot of young people will come up when I’m signing up my books and say exactly that. Something they can sit down with their grandparents and kidsand not be embarrassed, everyone can enjoy it and laugh at it. This new stuff is, I think, pretty cruel for my taste I mean. It’s difficultto watch, uncomfortable for me, but I think there’s room for it. There’s room for both.
O&O: You’ve released two autobiographies now, “Being Boycie “and “Boycie and Beyond” are there plans for a third?
JC: Not at the moment. I talk in Boycie and Beyond, which is the second part of my biography about how The Green Green Grass started. How I moved from London down to Herefordshire and John Sullivan saw the context and wondered what would happen if the character did the same. That’s how the Green Green Grass came to happen. So many things have happened to me after 15 years of being down here. I talk about stories and introduce ideas which a lot had come out in the Green Green Grass. I was always writing things down, stuff I’d heard. After Green Green Grass had finished I met someone who knew about publishing and he became my editor. I’m completely chaotic. I write a lot of stuff down but it’s all on bits of paper. He throws out the rubbish and tidies it all up. That’s how we got to the novel about Reggie.
O&O: With your novel, Reggie A Stag at Bay, how much of the character was based upon the character of Boycie?
JC: It’s about my experiences in Hereford with a bit of Boycie in as well, in that the new character Reggie is a London trader who finishes up in this part of the world. He loses all his money, he’s a bit of a gambler and gets into lots of scrapes and funny situations. He’s lucky and he’s charming so he squirms out of it. Being down here you meet all types of extraordinary characters so you tie them all in. A few of them are quite disreputable but it’s a part I never saw. I just started to write about it and that’s how it all came about
O&O: Are there plans to release anymore novels, pertaining to Reggie or otherwise?
JC: Oh yes. I hope so. Reggie is doing quite well. The “Further Adventures of” is hopefully coming out October, towards the end of the year. So that’s something to look forward to. It’s doing very well locally as you can imagine. As they’re buying it to see if they’re in it but the characters that are in it are more amalgamations of characters I’ve met, with different names.
O&O: Do you have any advice for any budding actors or actresses?
JC: If it’s in you that you must try and do it. I’ve met so many people who wish they’ve done it and now it’s too late. If it’s in you you’ve got to have a go. It may not be for you after all but at least you’ve had a go. Some get as far as going to drama school and they feel they’re not good enough or they don’t enjoy it but they can still finish up in stage management or television or producing or whatever it is. Anybody that’s interested in it should do it, that’s the advice I’d give. Also don’t be too upset or worried if you find out it’s not for you but you’ve got to have a go at it. Do all the stuff you can. Do amateur work and I suppose the best showcase you can find these days is the drama schools. So you’ve got to get a couple of speeches together and go over thre and hope for the best. Don’t worry about rejection because it’s something you’ll just have to get used to. I’m afraid even though I’ve been in the business 50 years, you still have to face the idea that some people just don’t want you but then occasionally people do and that can work out very well.
O&O: What can people expect from “Only Fools and Boycie?
JC: It’s just me getting up and telling my story really. From the get go people ask me why it happened and how it happened. When I was writing the autobiography I addressed why I’d become an actor. It’s a very strange thing to do really but there’s sort of a need to do it. So you think to yourself why did you need to do it and so you start thinking about your parents. It’s something I talk about in my autobiography, not necessarily my relationship with my parents. It’s just amusing entertainment in a conversational way which I look forward to. It’s quite an intimate evening , like someone’s sat in your front room talking to you. The stories are throughout my career from Dr Who to all the stories I’ve done through to Only Fools and Horses and Green Green Grass. For the last quarter of hour it’s a series of question and answers. People will ask me embarrassing questions which I’ll attempt to answer. In a lot of ways it’s a way to say thank you for the people for watching all these years. I never forget that if people didn’t turn their tellies on we wouldn’t be where we are.
I’ll also be selling my books and they can have them personally dedicated with a free bookmark. If they can’t get to shows and still want a dedicated book they can get them from my website, www.wigmorebooks.com. It’d be nice to meet people after and take some photographs and sign a few books if they’ve enjoyed the show they’ll stay. No one’s seemed to have left yet so it must be doing something.