John Challis was never meant to become an icon of British comedy. In 1981 the actor, who has passed away aged 79, was approached by writer John Sullivan to play a used car salesman named Terrance Aubrey Boyce in a modest new sitcom. It was intended to be a one-and-done cameo. Neither anticipated that anything at all would come of the part.
Expecting that the gig would take up an afternoon at most, Challis even recycled a policeman he’d played in Sullivan’s previous show, Citizen Smith. “John Sullivan said ‘I really liked that character,’” Challis later recalled of his copper with the distinctive nasal voice. “He said, ‘I’m going to try to use him again.’”
Yet Only Fools and Horses made Challis famous and stands as a heartwarming testament to his comedic talents. Whether smoking a cigar or flexing his trademark moustache, Challis was careful to never upstage David Jason’s Derek “Del Boy” Trotter or Nicholas Lyndhurst’s Rodney.
Instead, as part of an ensemble of secondary characters that also included Roger Lloyd-Pack’s Trigger and Paul Barber’s Denzil, Boycie provided the hilarious seasoning on top of the Del Boy-Rodney double act.
A habitué of Trotter local the Nag’s Head, Boycie was one of those comedy creations who seemed to arrive perfectly formed. Despite his initially limited screen time he was a hit from the beginning. And when season two of Only Fools and Horses came around, Sullivan made sure Boycie was back holding court.
Challis had modelled him on a “pompous” acquaintance he’d known from his youth in south east London. It was testament to the actor’s abilities that he could make audiences warm to a character who, as written, was a snob, a spiv and a braggart (and a Freemason).
“All actors are thieves really,” he would later tell This Morning’s Eamonn Holmes. “This guy had this curious, pedantic way of speaking. He was a pompous person. I stored it away.”
Boycie’s great comedic weapon was his signature braying chuckle. This wasn’t in Sullivan’s script. Challis had cooked it up when asked to bring Boycie back.
“The Boycie laugh just happened. It was improvised in one rehearsal,” he would recall. “The script said, ‘Boycie laughs’, and I remember a woman in the pub who laughed like a machine gun, so I just did it. Everybody else laughed at it and they told me to keep it in. If you look at the early episodes, he didn’t do it like that.”
Challis was 39 and well-established on stage and screen when Only Fools and Horses changed his life. Born in Bristol and largely raised in London, he’d worked as an estate agent – a very Boycie profession – before breaking into acting. He’d appeared in gangster drama Big Breadwinner Hog (1969) and in Z-Cars (1975) before moving into comedy in 1979 opposite Porridge’s Richard Beckinsale in Bloomers.
That series was cut tragically short when Beckinsale died of a heart attack. And then Citizen Smith introduced Challis to John Sullivan.
Challis was always modest about his part in the success of Only Fools and Horses– and hugely appreciative of the fondness in which it was held.
“We all noticed people started coming up, saying they loved the show – ‘Thanks for the laughs and so on,’” he reflected. “Which had really never happened. That was the first feeling that we were really on to something. It became bigger and bigger. You only had three channels, which was crucial as we were getting 15 million [viewers].”
Only Fools and Horses would run in one form or another until 2003. Challis had by then made peace with the fact he’d been typecast as Boycie. He was never bitter about it and indeed relished the opportunity to bring back the character for the spin-off series, The Green Green Grass, which reunited Boycie and wife Marlene (Sue Holderness).
He also made the documentary Boycie In Belgrade, about the huge popularity of Only Fools And Horses in the Balkans, and was named an honorary citizen of Serbia.
“It does close a few doors,” he told podcast host Rob Moore. “You’re always associated with it. A friend of mine, who’s a director said, ‘I’d love to have you in [firefighter drama] London’s Burning. However, I can’t have this comedy face walking on.’ Those doors close. But other ones you never expected open.”
He appreciated Boycie for what he was: a beloved character and a showcase for his comedic gifts. And along with the rest of the Only Fools crew, Challis cherished playing a part in one of the most adored British TV shows of its generation.
“Wherever we were – National Shakespeare Company, Broadway – we were never going to do something as famous as that,” he reflected with typical modesty. “It changed everybody’s life.”