Gentleman John: My Tribute To John Challis
In the final moments of the last ever episode of Only Fools and Horses, Sleepless In Peckham, Rodney asks Del whether, other than looks, he is anything like his real father, gentleman thief Freddie “The Frog” Robdal.
“Freddie The Frog was a professional burglar,” Del replies. “He was disloyal to his friends. He was a womaniser, a home-breaker, a conman, a thief, a liar and a cheat. So no Rodney, you are nothing like him.”
In the same way, John Challis was about as far removed from Boycie, the character that he was best known for, that it was possible to be. Boycie was often mean-spirited, selfish, vulgar, pompous, tight-fisted, condescending and took pleasure in other people’s bad luck.
John Challis was the polar opposite. Kind-hearted, generous, selfless, warm, witty, understated and loyal are just some of the words that instantly spring to mind when I think about John. He was an old-school gent to whom good manners and common decency mattered, a gentle man and a gentleman.
Just about the only thing I can think that John had in common with Boycie was that they were both well-turned out. John didn’t go for Boycie’s salesman suits though, but always looked dapper in jacket and tie.
Obviously they looked the same, and that was something that he could never get away from, but whereas some actors find it irritating that people recognise them for one role in particular, John embraced it – and people loved him for it.
I first met John Challis in 1990 when I was tasked with writing a series of newspaper articles about Only Fools and Horses. John was rather wary of the press at the time but, thanks to an introduction from John Sullivan, John said yes to doing an interview.
He was living in Spain at the time so I flew out and we did the interview over dinner in a tapas bar. It was a very boozy evening. John was great company and we kept in touch from then on doing countless interviews and various other collaborations over the years.
And he was a fabulous person to interview… interviews can be a random affair – and magazines and newspapers often have formulaic features with standard questions. In the hands of an unhelpful interviewee, these can be very dull to write – and probably read!
But that wasn’t the case with John. He could always come up with a funny anecdote – he was a dream interviewee. So over the years, randomly, amongst other things I learned (via a Q&A on Food for TV Quick) that he’d once exploded a chicken he was cooking over an open fire (“I forgot to baste it and it burst into flames”) and that he been mugged at gunpoint in New York (via a travel Q&A in the Daily Telegraph) but told the gunman he was an actor and had no money (“I just kept talking and I could see him glazing over. I gave him one dollar which he took and ran).”
He just had a great turn of phrase and had a very natural, dry sense of humour. It was no surprise to me that he wrote two volumes of autobiography – after all, he’d had a colourful life, and he was a great storyteller. He enterprisingly went through the tricky process of publishing it through his own company – and, jeez, did he and Carol work hard at selling those books, travelling thousands of miles to all corners of the UK to attend events and shows.
John had launches for both books and they were great fun, and reflecting his wide range of friends and interests, were attended by an eclectic bunch of people from all walks of life, including his friends Jo and Pat (who really is a postman) to Bill Wyman from John’s favourite band The Rolling Stones.
I went up to John and his wife Carol’s 12th century abbey in Shropshire in 2002 for a magazine feature and three years later was back there for the filming of a pilot episode of Only Fools and Horses spin-off The Green Green Grass.
I was so pleased that Sue Holderness and John got their own show, as they’d always been tremendous ambassadors for Only Fools. I was lucky enough to be asked by John Sullivan to create a website for the programme and over four series, enjoyed many, many happy days on set and in the studio.
John and Sue had a working partnership that lasted for 36 years until he passed away. Theirs was no pretend “showbiz” friendship – they were genuine, proper friends in real-life. When they filmed The Green Green Grass in Shropshire Sue would stay with John and Carol and for studio recording in Teddington, Carol and John would stay with Sue and her husband Mark – in their “granny annexe.”
Sue described John as “a gentle soul” and “a really kind man and a supportive friend.” She told me people were sometimes disappointed to learn that they weren’t a couple in real life, recalling one incident when an old woman came up to them in a Tesco. “On learning that we weren’t married, she said ‘Well you ought to be’ – and whacked John with her umbrella!” Sue said.
John had great joie de vivre and a tremendous enthusiasm for work and he was such a hard worker. Nothing was too much trouble. I’m sure he had ‘off’ days but in more than 30 years of knowing him, I never once saw him once lose his temper.
It was the same when it came to interacting with people who recognised him in the street (and he was always recognised) and with fans who attended Only Fools conventions.
He would be there at the start (he was always punctual) and the one of the very last to leave. He’d make sure everyone had the autographs and photographs they wanted. He’d greet everyone as if they were the first person he’d met that day and he’d be uncomplaining even when asked to do the Boycie laugh for about the 700th time that day!
The outpouring of comments about John on social media since he passed away are testament to the man he was. I saw him be kind to people both online and in person and I experienced it myself. For example, a couple of years ago my friend Simon (a big Only Fools fan) was turning 50.
I emailed John and asked if he could do a quick happy birthday phone message. “I’ll do it as soon as possible,” he replied, almost instantly. A day later an email arrived and not only had John recorded a very funny video message, but he’d got Sue in on it too, as she happened to be staying at the time.
The John I knew in real-life, was the same John people would later find online. He was almost 70 when he started using Twitter. I’d advised him to give it a go to help publicise theatre appearances and events he’d be attending to sell his books.
If I’m being totally honest, I was not sure how well he’d get on with it. How wrong I was. John was BRILLIANT on Twitter. He was just himself: funny, sometimes a little random in what he posted, very occasionally grumpy about something he read in the paper but, above all, kind.
He helped to publicise good causes and charity events with tweets and retweets, he took the trouble to actually talk to people. He had no airs and graces. John on Twitter was exactly the John I knew in real-life. I’m pretty sure he even featured in a best Twitterer (or whatever the word is) list.
If there were more people in the world like John Challis then it would be a happier place. He was a real grafter, he cared deeply about some really important causes and charities and he adored his wife Carol, who in turn, supported him enormously.
John had time for everyone and touched so many lives. He took a real joy in people. I have so many fond memories of him and, although I am so, so sad that he’s gone, I feel so lucky and privileged to have known him and to have counted him as a friend.