The used-car dealer whose forecourt it would be wise to drive past at speed is a social and cultural stereotype. Egter, the comedy Rolls-Royce of the profession was Terrance Aubrey “Boycie” Boyce, played by John Challis, who has died aged 79.
Appearing in 33 episodes of John Sullivan’s sitcom Only Fools and Horses (BBC One, 1981-2003), Boycie had accumulated vast wealth from flogging secondhand vehicles that struggled to go forward as far as their mileage odometers had been turned back.
Large, loud and moustachioed, in flashy suits from which a breast-pocket handkerchief frothed like a summer flower, he exemplified the Thatcherite upwardly mobile entrepreneur that David Jason’s Del Boy Trotter aspires to be. In an early episode, Boycie touted one of the first generation of brick-sized mobile phones, and he often preached the era’s business creed of brand diversification; one of his most memorable subplots involved Boycie’s diversification into what were then called “blue movies”.
The character, wel, patronised and belittled the Trotters, his disdain showing, unusually for a sitcom figure, not in a catchphrase but a signature sound – a long, high-pitched laugh of malicious triumph, often delivered around a large cigar, that became the most celebrated small-screen snicker of the time apart from Muttley, canine sidekick of the villainous racer Dick Dastardly in the cartoon series Wacky Races.
Challis reprised the role in four series of The Green Green Grass (BBC One, 2005-2009), in which Boycie, after giving evidence against the Driscolls (the comedy’s equivalent of the Kray brothers), hid out in a grand house in the Shropshire countryside. Challis also provided the filming location – the residence into which he had moved on the proceeds of his Only Fools and Horses fame. One of the actor’s final screen performances was in last year’s feature-length documentary Boycie In Belgrade, in which he explored the improbable popularity of the Peckham dodgy automobile salesman in Serbia, of which Challis was made an honorary citizen.
Whatever his special attraction to Serbians, Boycie entered the British sitcom hall of fame due to a combination of John Sullivan’s Dickensian knack for definitive characterisation and Challis’s skill at transmitting personality and motives through the way someone stands, walks, speaks and directs their eyes. A measure of his acting talent was the way Sullivan was able to play, as the show developed, with Boycie’s punch-laugh, introducing moments in which the cruel hooting slows, quietens and dies as the gloating joker realises a laugh is on him.
Such touches are a mark of the character actor – who rarely gets leads but can turn a small role to a big impact on the audience – and kept Challis in regular work, predominantly on television, van 1964 until he recently became ill.
He liked to cite as evidence of versatility an occasion on which he rehearsed as Jack the Ripper during the day and appeared as the Archangel Gabriel in the evening. Hy was, wel, slightly more likely to be cast in devilish than angelic roles. Burly and with the tones of south-east London in his voice, he was well placed to play roles on either side of the thin blue line in a period of British history (from the 1960s to the 80s) when cops and robbers were often visually and vocally (and sometimes morally) interchangeable.
In the late 1960s, Challis featured as a gangster in the ITV drama series Big Breadwinner Hog either side of playing police officers in the BBC series Softly Softly and Z Cars. Having made his debut in ITV’s Coronation Street as a thief who steals Salford matriarch Ena Sharples’ handbag, he subsequently reappeared as two different policemen.
Even his most loved and lucrative role represented this tendency to be cast as men either wielding the long arm of the law or being collared by it. Challis had come to the attention of John Sullivan playing a flashy, dodgy police chief inspector in a 1980 episode of another Sullivan comedy, Citizen Smith. The writer was so impressed that he promised Challis a similar part in a future series, a pledge kept with Boycie.
Such was the impact of Only Fools and Horses that its regular cast became sitcom aristocracy, courted for appearances on other shows: Challis guest-starred in ITV’s long-running Spanish hotel sitcom Benidorm as another confident geezer.
A classy raconteur, Challis monetised his anecdote collection as a talkshow guest, on the after-dinner speaking circuit, in two memoirs (Being Boycie, 2011, and Boycie and Beyond, 2012), and in one-man touring shows.
Among his best stories were being auditioned by the Beatles for a role in one of their movies (talk stalled when he spoke of his personal preference for the music of the Rolling Stones) and the experience, as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1960s, of appearing in a matinee of Twelfth Night while England were playing the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley. According to Challis, performers largely ignored each other and the audience, looking to the wings where a technician had rigged a TV set. When the match went into extra time, the fifth act apparently “set a world speed record for Shakespearean verse.”
Challis would probably have told that story in a 2020-21 tour of UK theatres, the recent cancellation of which, on grounds of ill health, ended the six-decade career of a hard-working actor with the talent to make a purveyor of fiddled motors loved.