The name John Challis might not be instantly recognisable to our readers. But once you see his trademark moustache and hear his infamous laugh, he will be instantly recognisable to millions as Boycie from Only Fools and Horses. Born in Bristol but brought up in South East London, John’s big break was when he got offered the role to play second-hand car dealer, Boycie – a role he played on screen for almost 30 years in both Only Fools and Horses, and its sequel, The Green Green Grass.
Since then, John has starred in ITV comedy Benidorm as captivating conman, Monty, and was chosen to play the role of Captain Peacock in the BBC revival of sitcom Are You Being Served?
John, who describes himself as a Royalist, has kindly agreed to speak to Royal Central’s Editor, Charlie Proctor, in a wide-ranging interview about his association with the monarchy, his many encounters with The Royal Family, as well as causes close to his heart.
(1) What are your thoughts on Monarchy, especially in the 21st Century? Is it an archaic system of the past, or an anchor of stability?
Perhaps I am being a bit flippant and fanciful but I honestly think that at this time of worldwide chaos and uncertainty, it is essential that we have a figurehead, someone who is above and beyond it all, and that for me is the Queen. The pageantry, the pomp and circumstance is something that fills me with pride, especially when I am with friends from overseas who are in awe of our history and admire and respect our monarchy. Of course, the age old ceremonies are archaic but they are rooted in centuries of tradition and are quintessentially British. It’s what makes this nation different and gives us our identity.
(2) Have you ever met any members of The Royal Family? If so, what are your experiences?
I have never met the Queen or the Duke of Edinburgh but I have sat right next to them at Ascot – separated from the Royal Box by only by a sheet of glass! The Queen loves her racing and she looked truly happy and relaxed that day, laughing out loud and jumping up and down with excitement.
As a great supporter of the Battle of Britain Association I have been invited both to open days at their museum at Capel Le Ferne in Kent where I have met Prince Michael of Kent and also to their special service of dedication and commemoration at Westminster Abbey where I have been seated in the crossing by the altar feet away from The Royal Family. It’s an awesome place to be but frightening to walk the whole length of the nave with all those eyes upon you! At a gathering afterwards, I was introduced to the Duchess of Cornwall, a vision in purple. She grinned and said, “I know who you are,you’re Boycie!” I turned to introduce my wife and found a complete stranger by my side. My wife was talking to the members of the band so I said ‘You’re not my wife!’ which raised a laugh. I liked her -she’s a good looking woman with a great sense of humour and an easy manner. Anyone who laughs at my jokes is okay by me!
I met Prince Michael again at a gentleman’s club in London and I’ll never know if he had been primed, but he put out his hand and said ‘we were just watching you on the telly last night!’ What can one say?! I am an ambassador for the Midlands Air Ambulance charity and was recently presented to the Countess of Wessex-same again, ‘I know who you are!’ An amazingly enthusiastic lady with a lovely smile who manages to make everyone feel special. As a patron of Tusk, I have been present when our Royal Patron The Duke of Cambridge has given a speech, once at the Draper’s Hall in The City when he brought his then fiancée with him, Kate Middleton, and later at a dinner at Windsor Castle. On both occasions, he winked and nodded in recognition, but I didn’t get a chance to thank him for supporting our wonderful charity. I’m also an ambassador for the Lizard Lifeboat and when the RNLI opened their new lifeboat station and launched a new lifeboat I joined them for the ceremony. We had an informal lunch at a nearby hotel with the Duke of Kent, such a quiet and unassuming man who appeared to know me as Boycie!
Finally, the most strange incident was in Tescos in Windsor when a man behind me whispered ‘allo Boycie, my boss at The Castle loves your show – we’re all great fans.’ I thought he was talking about the local pub but the checkout girl said ‘Oh no, he’s a chef at Windsor Castle and they refer to the Queen as The Boss!’ So you see our little show Only Fools and Horses is much loved by all sorts of people! I don’t think anyone knows my real name, but I don’t mind being addressed as Boycie. It means I’ve done a good job with the character and I’m extremely proud to have been part of Only Fools and Horses.
(3) Which royal do you admire the most and why?
The Queen is the most important member of The Royal Family and she’s always been there like a much loved grandmother to a lot of my generation. She has been steadfast and dedicated to the vows she made at her coronation. I watched the ceremony on a tiny black and white television in the village hall in Tadworth, Surrey and I remember her solemn little face and the enormous burden of responsibility that was obvious to us all. She has always been dignified and in this new age it is a quality to be cherished. Everything seems to be so brutal and aggressive and as is evident in the current rash of reality TV shows, dignity is a forgotten virtue, no longer aspired to by the younger generation. I am often poo-pooed on social media for my ‘old fashioned’ views, so there’s probably no hope for my vision of a new gentle world where everyone is blessed with a modicum of decorum and couth!
(4) I know from following you on Twitter that you are a huge supporter and advocate of Tusk Trust, a charity which initiates conservation, community development and environmental education programmes across Africa. The Duke of Cambridge is Patron of Tusk, and wildlife conservation is something he is also a huge advocate of. Can you tell us more about your links to Tusk and why this is such an important issue to you?
My friends Charlie Mayhew and Sir Timothy Ackroyd founded Tusk Trust in 1990 and it was around that time that I was asked to help with some publicity to draw awareness to the plight of endangered species in Africa. All those years ago and the situation is still grave;we are in danger of losing elephant and rhino to the point of extinction all due to ignorance and the greed of Mankind. Prince William cared enough to lend his support as Royal Patron and since he came on board the charity has gained many followers and sponsors, but unless our government endorses an outright ban on the ivory trade things will only get worse. I was a trustee at first then a patron, along with Ronnie Wood, so that we are the oldest and longest serving members of the team, but the only way I feel I can help out now is by urging people to follow Tusk on Twitter @tusk_org.
I contributed a sketch of some antelope and an elephant to a book of art called Ackroyd’s Ark which is sold on the website to raise funds for the charity and I attend fundraising events occasionally. Our CEO Charlie Mayhew is completely dedicated to the cause and I admire him greatly. In 1991 I went to Zimbabwe with Tusk to look for a herd of elephants that had gone missing in a vast wilderness called the Mavuradonna and after a week in the bush and on horseback we still hadn’t found the ellies! But what an adventure. I first went to Rhodesia in 1972 and then again in 1976 at the height of Apartheid and that’s when I fell in love with Africa, especially The Cape.I was so appalled by the regime that I wrote a play called Cut The Grass So We Can See The Elephants and I took it to several countries to let people know what was happening out there.I am a great animal lover and the conservation of endangered species is close to my heart.
(5) The Duke of Edinburgh recently retired from royal duties at the grand old age of 96. How do you think this will affect The Queen and other members of her family?
The Duke of Edinburgh has been the most wonderful companion to the Queen and is even older and more irascible than me! I love that he says what he thinks and I’m sure he embarrasses the hell out of HM at times but he obviously makes her laugh and has always been there for her in what must be the loneliest of jobs. I imagine that he will still accompany her on both formal and informal engagements when he feels up to it, but it is always a sharp reminder of the passing of the years when a member of any family takes a back seat. In this case there is a sense of the ‘end of an era’, but also a sense of relief that he doesn’t have to pitch up in the pouring rain for yet another ‘meet and greet’.
(6) What do you think the future has in store for the Monarchy? Will it continue to thrive in support?
God, I do hope the monarchy continues for the foreseeable future. The alternative is too dreadful to imagine. People complain about how much The Royal Family costs the taxpayer but when you break it down, it costs us each pennies – pennies I am only too pleased to fork out to protect the unique system we have in this country.
When the time comes I think Prince Charles will be a very compassionate King and the future of the monarchy is set fair with the dedication of Prince William assured. He is a sensible and caring young man,he has an heir already and let’s s hope they are here ‘long to reign over us’.