That said, the role for which he will be best remembered has got to be Boycie from Only Fools and Horses.
The 79-year-old actor, who tragically lost his battle with cancer on 19th September, played the role of Herman Aubrey Boyce for 22 years, between 1981 and 2003, in the BBC sit-com. He then played Boycie in the spin-off comedy series, The Green Green Grass, in which the Londoner had moved to the countryside, from 2005 to 2009.
By his side through all life’s ups and downs was his glamorous on-screen wife, Marlene, played by Sue Holderness. The couple played a central role in Only Fools and Horses and were fan favourites – so much so that they were given their own show about moving to rural Shropshire to escape mobster thugs in Peckham.
After Challis’s sad passing, Holderness paid tribute to her friend, writing on her Twitter account: “John Challis was my partner on screen and stage for 36 years and my beloved friend. RIP, darling John.”
In reference to their longstanding partnership in Only Fools and Horses, she said poignantly: “Marlene without Boycie – it’s unthinkable.”
Road to success
Born in August 1942 in Bristol, Challis had quite a strict upbringing, as his father, Alec, was a disciplinarian. His mother, Joan, taught drama in schools and performed in amateur dramatics.
John inherited Joan’s passion for acting and in his own words he, “ran away with the Argyle Theatre for Youth”, after leaving his first job as a trainee estate agent!
He won his first TV role in 1967, when he was 25, in the BBC soap opera The Newcomers. Challis never looked back, as he enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, successfully auditioning for roles in many high-profile TV shows.
He played Detective Sergeant Norman Phillips in Coronation Street from 1975 to 1977; made regular appearances in police drama Z-Cars, as Sergeant Culshaw; and in 1980, he took on the role of Chief Inspector Humphreys in Citizen Smith.
Boycie and Marlene
Challis’s role in Citizen Smith was the platform to him becoming Boycie in Only Fools and Horses the following year. John Sullivan, the scriptwriter for Citizen Smith, also wrote Only Fools and Horses and cast Challis as the second-hand car salesman with an ego.
Boycie was born in Peckham in 1945 and went to Dockside Secondary Modern School with Derek “Del Boy” Trotter, Trigger and Denzel. They all became good friends and their teenage years featured in the spin-off series, Rock and Chips, set in 1960, when they were 15.
When Boycie met Marlene in 1963, she was working in a betting shop in Lewisham Grove. Boycie, aged 18 by that time, was a customer. Marlene was the same age as Boycie and had a brother called Bronco and a sister, Petunia.
In the early 1960s, a few of the Peckham boys had dated Marlene at some point – something Trigger would often comment on in later life. In fact, Marlene also met Del Boy in the betting shop in 1963 and they began dating while she was also seeing Boycie!
Del was smitten with Marlene and planned to take her on the “holiday of a lifetime” to a caravan site. He even took her to meet his mum and dad at their family home. However, she dumped him suddenly the following day in favour of Boycie. Del never did get his money back from the caravan park!
Marlene went on to marry Boycie in 1969. Despite Del and Boycie both dating her at the same time in their youth, they remained lifelong friends. However, there was always an undercurrent of flirting between Del and Marlene.
One of the most memorable moments in Boycie and Marlene’s marriage occurred during the Only Fools and Horses Christmas special in 1991, when the happy couple enjoyed a holiday to the US.
Their romantic boat ride in the Everglades is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of Del Boy and Rodney, who have the Mafia chasing them! Boycie utters the famous line, “They turn up, and within 15 seconds, someone’s shooting at us!”
Another hilarious scene involved a new cast member of the four-legged kind. Unfortunately, the huge Great Dane puppy, described as “Marlene’s baby”, takes an instant dislike to the dog sitters. Del and Rodney are intimated by the dog’s size and start having second thoughts.
However, Del is cheered up after Boycie tells his wife, “Kiss him goodbye,” and she mistakenly kisses Del, when Boycie meant her dog! The moment Boycie and Marlene leave, the dog won’t let the Trotter brothers into their own van and comic chaos ensues.
The Green Green Grass
The romance continued throughout The Green Green Grass, set on Boycie and Marlene’s farm in rural Shropshire. Boycie had snitched on the gangster Driscoll Brothers, who were jailed for life. However, they were released early after only 18 months, as the witnesses changed their statements.
The Driscolls realised Boycie was the person who put them in jail. They were out for revenge, so he and Marlene left Peckham to lie low. However, they never quite embraced the country lifestyle.
The spin-off series ended in 2009, after four series. According to the plot, Boycie and his family went back to Peckham after the threat of the Driscoll brothers subsided. Del was pleased to see them again and was relieved they were okay.
The last time Del saw Boycie was in 2015, when the latter said he was considering getting a “nip and tuck” and Del quipped he should get his whole face done. Later, after making his millions, Del Boy wrote his autobiography, He Who Dares, in which Boycie and Marlene featured prominently.
Life outside Peckham
While Challis will be forever remembered for his role as Boycie, he was also a talented serious actor. He had roles in The Sweeney, Dixon of Dock Green, Dr Who, The Bill, Heartbeat, Soldier Soldier and many more.
He also performed in the theatre with the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the National Theatre and in London’s West End. In 1993, he toured with the National, starring alongside Barbara Windsor in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane.
A respected Shakespearean actor, he appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard III at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. He played Malvolio in Twelfth Night at Stafford Castle in 2000 and performed in As You Like It in 2011 at Ludlow Castle.
He had been married to Carol Davies since 1995 and the couple had bought and renovated the Abbot’s Lodgings at Wigmore Abbey Grange, in Herefordshire. An animal lover, he was patron of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.
Following his death, family, friends and fans paid tribute to this wonderful actor, who has left the legacy of his TV work for future generations.
The meeting between Boycie and Marlene sparked an on-screen relationship spanning more than three decades, bringing pleasure to everyone who watched their comic rapport.