Tributes have poured in for Only Fools and Horses actor John Challis, who died on Sunday, aged 79. Here, Carol Challis shares her memories, speaking about their remarkable relationship and her 26 years of marriage to “Boycie”, revealing why she was right to predict that life with John would never be dull...
The second time I met John Challis I knew, in what seemed like a flash of intuition, that he was the man for me. Tall, brooding, darkly handsome, with an aura of mystery about him, softened by an infectious sense of humour and dark, sexy eyes, I was immediately attracted to him.
It was 1990, and I was staying with friends, the actor Peter Egan and his wife Myra Frances, while my house in Chiswick had builders in. Myra was directing a play in which John was cast as a scruffy, old, creepy murderer.
Myra introduced us in the Green Room before the show. I was captivated at once and loved his performance. It had been briefly interrupted by a comic moment when he’d made his first entrance and an old lady in the front row, nudging her friend, said loudly, ‘That’s him. That’s Boycie!’
I had met him once before, but fleetingly, and now a few years on, Myra asked me what I thought of him. ‘He’s lovely – just my type.’ I answered. She reported back to John, ‘My friend likes you.’ ‘Is she mad?’ he answered.
Nevertheless, this prompted him to ask me out for dinner a couple of times, and at Christmas that year, I joined Peter and Myra, who had also invited John for turkey and pudding.
It was one of the great Christmas dinners. John was in terrific form, bursting with anecdotes and brilliant mimicry – one of his great talents.
By the end of a merry evening, I was feeding him walnuts, and hanging my string of pearls around his neck.
I knew people in showbusiness and understood what it was about.
I was never an actress, but as a fashion student, working in Harrods’ lingerie department, I was spotted by a Bluebell Girls’ choreographer.
I had the advantage of very long legs, I knew how to dance, and within weeks I was a West End showgirl.
By the time I met John, I was working in the wardrobe department on The Phantom of the Opera.
Over the next year, John and I met up from time to time. I invited him for dinner at my flat a few times and he took me to Bill Wyman’s restaurant, Sticky Fingers.
Then John had to fly to Florida with Sue Holderness, who played his wife Marlene in Only Fools and Horses, to make Miami Twice, one of the few episodes filmed overseas.
When he came back, I plucked up the courage to ask if he would come with me to Hawaii, my favourite place.
Though we still didn’t know each other well, we felt, ‘What the hell. Let’s go for it and see where it leads’. The magic worked, and while we were there, he plucked up his courage.
‘When we get back to London,’ he muttered, ‘you might as well move in with me.’ I did move into his flat in Mortlake, but it was very small so we found an Edwardian semi near Richmond Park and I happily set about doing it up.
I loved living with John right from the start. We played tennis together, usually me and a gang of his male friends. He had been spending too much time with his drinking buddies, but I didn’t drink and he tried, generally successfully, to cut down, which I took as a significant commitment.
Soon after moving in, we set off on our first visit together to Africa. John was a well-respected trustee of the Tusk Trust and we were greeted enthusiastically in Zimbabwe, where we set off with guides into the bush on horses to locate young male elephants.
It was an extraordinary expedition, and wonderful to sit out under the stars with John in the warm African nights. I took to it from the start, which made John happy and, I think, confirmed I was the woman for him.
Back in England, we were closer than ever, but there was still no mention of marriage. I understood that John had had dozens of girlfriends; he was, after all, a very sexy man with a quirky sense of humour – which can be quite an aphrodisiac.
I was pretty sure one of my attractions for him was that I was different to the actresses he knew before and he found my direct honesty refreshing. He never ceased to be surprised when I always seemed to know what he was going to say. This happened at a critical moment, on the first trip either of us had taken to Paris.
As I was soaking up the view from the Eiffel Tower, John started shuffling his feet a bit, and started mumbling, ‘I propose...’ Before he could get it out, I blurted out, ‘Yes! I will.’ ‘How do you always know what I’m about to say?’ he muttered, succumbing to the clinch I held him in. And that was it.
We married at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton in June 1995, though we had to squeeze it in as John was working at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, playing Lord Stanley in Richard III.
We were the third couple to be married in the wonderful venue, and our friends, Keith and Madeleine Washington, were the only witnesses. After the ceremony, we had lunch in the Italian restaurant next door, then raced back to London for the evening performance in the Park.
Despite the rush, it was no less romantic and remained the big milestone in our lives. After all, none of John’s previous marriages had lasted long. Ours was to last 26 years.
We had a delayed honeymoon and a blessing of our marriage in Kauai in Hawaii the following February. It was conducted by a woman cleric who tucked flowers behind our ears.
Later, we were caught in a huge hurricane, driving back through the forest as trees started falling around us, reaching our little chalet by the ocean just before the porch and part of the roof flew off. We had no choice but to hunker down in married closeness until the storm passed, watched by a small yellow gecko lodged in the ceiling.
Throughout our 30 years together travelling brought us most joy. We also loved the same kind of music and went to some amazing concerts together, which became great shared memories.
We managed to wangle backstage passes for the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge Tour at the Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. Perhaps the most romantic trip we had together was in Italy, when we stayed in some amazing hotels, took a private launch across to Capri for lunch and booked into the Ava Gardner Suite at the Splendido Mare in Portofino.
There were other, longer interludes away. I enjoyed the several months we spent living in Spain when John was making Benidorm in 2017. We even talked about living there permanently, but our attachment to our home in England was too strong. Obviously in later years we weren’t charging around so much. John would sometimes tell me how he loved to see me sitting down sewing and creating costumes, while we talked.
My greatest gift to him was throwing a surprise 60th birthday party for him at our home in Herefordshire. He really believed all the strange reasons I gave for things that were going on and was almost overwhelmed when hundreds of people from all over the country turned up.
And it was a special joy for him when the Only Fools and Horses scriptwriter John Sullivan, seeing where and how we lived, suggested a spin-off and wrote The Green Green Grass for him.
Looking back, our greatest adventure was finding, buying and restoring our home, Wigmore Abbey, in a north-west corner of Herefordshire.
I’d grown up in rural Dorset so the country was my home, and by now John was also ready for a little less metropolitan life.
The minute I peered between ancient stone gate posts at the rambling stone house and timbered barns, I felt a shiver down my spine. This had to be the place.
When we looked around it and found that some ancestors of mine had lived there a century or so before, that sealed it. The joy that John and I have had since we moved in, in 1998, has never waned.
We created a beautiful garden from scratch, choosing all the plants, seeing what worked and what didn’t, watching our garden grow over all that time. We never had children; it wasn’t an option for John, and I had no great maternal instinct, so, in a sense, the house and garden became our offspring, with teething troubles and teenage tantrums.
In lockdown, we realised how lucky we were to have it. We were very happy spending days alone together, pottering around the garden, discussing new ideas for it, and ready to make the most of an extended period of tranquillity.
John never really felt he was from anywhere. He had very few relations left, and the house provided him with a great sense of security. He was pleased to be there in the later days of his illness.
Everything I look out on in the garden will remind me of him. I knew, since I first realised he was the man for me, that life with John would never be boring. And it never was.Read More Read More