Most of us will know actor John Challis for his role as Aubrey 'Boycie' Boyce in Only Fools and Horses. He's also a huge fan of Margate, so I was absolutely thrilled when he agreed to answer some questions for my Margate Meets series...
Only Fools and Horses remains one of the best loved shows in Britain. How does it feel to have been a part of something like that? What are your fondest memories?
I'm often asked what it's like to have been part of such a much loved show and firstly I must say that we should be thankful for the genius of the writer John Sullivan, who gave us the opportunity to bring the characters to life. We couldn't have done it without his words and now, tragically, he is gone. Only Fools is as popular in the rest of the world as it is here, and each country can identify with the bunch of dubious characters that frequent the Nag's Head or the street markets. For example, we are very big in the Balkans!
I always thought that Boycie was a not very nice character but I was greeted with great gusto and warmth in Belgrade and Dubrovnik and wherever any of us goes at home or abroad, people smile in recognition and are pleased to meet us and that is very heartwarming. The show has a universal appeal to families who can watch it together with no worries about being offended or shocked. Its humour is gentle and observational, and you actually like the characters, which is an important factor. We have been around for 35 years and the show's popularity shows no sign of letting up. We're seeing very young fans at the conventions, many dressed up as small Delboys, and some of them know every single word of each episode - sometimes putting me right on a quote! Being a member of the OFAH family is a great honour and to have worked with the great David Jason and Nick Lyndhurst is the best experience for any of us. They are one of the great comedy double acts of all time and I put them up there with Laurel and Hardy.
My fondest memory is of the camaraderie; as Trigger said, "was that the Italian boy?" - especially amongst the lads when we were filming in the Nag's Head, and the banter was going on with the occasional insults and laughter. Or the silent laughter as we filmed the séance scene in Sickness and Wealth, all of us shaking with mirth at the reaction shots when Boycie says 'I am here.' And of course, the sheer joy and excitement of our Jolly Boy's Outing to Margate when we escaped the studio for a trip down to the seaside. When I watch that now I'm filled with nostalgia at how young we all looked and how unbelievable it is that Buster, Ken, Roy and Roger are no longer with us.
Was the Jolly Boys Outing your first experience of Margate or had you visited before?
That was indeed my very visit to Margate. My Mum came from Somerset so when I was young we used to go to Weston-super-Mare for our holidays. It was a big deal to go off on location for this special episode so the ladies were not thrilled at missing out on the opportunity...but we were like kids as we trundled along in our coach. We stopped off at Halfway House and the Roman Galley - now no longer a welcome pit stop on the endless road, but an apartment block sheltered from the traffic by a great bank closing off the in and out drive. The approach to Margate seemed to go on for ever but at last we could see the sea and we were off! We could also not miss the only high rise building in the open landscape! You can see Arlington House from miles away and even now I turn to my wife and say "ah, there's Arlington House; not far now."
You regularly show your support for Margate on social media. Do you think the right changes are being made during its regeneration? What are your favourite things about the town now?
I was thrilled to discover that Margate's famous funfair was to be restored as Dreamland - it wasn't called that when we filmed there on the rides and I've followed its regeneration with great interest. The biggest buzz was to see the scenic railway under construction, and to see it now up and running I marvel at the feat of engineering and the craftsmanship. I envy the moment of discovery for children who experience the feel and the sound of this traditional fairground ride for the first time. I love the fact that all those old buildings that played host to some of the biggest bands of the 1960s are being restored and will ring again with music and laughter and good times. It's brilliant.
I saw the creation of Sands Hotel on the seafront while watching my favourite daytime programme Homes Under The Hammer and determined to stay there, I've been a guest three times now. I always get a room with a balcony overlooking the harbour arm and the lighthouse. There's nothing more satisfying than sitting out there with a drink surveying that great sweep of bay and a full on view of Arlington House. It is described as 'brutalist' architecture and like Marmite you either love it or you loathe it, but it's home sweet home to lots of people, and who wouldn't envy them their fantastic view? Maybe all it needs is a lick of paint to lighten it up, perhaps sky blue.
I love a stroll down Marine Drive where I can find my friends Tracey and Greg who run Ruskin de la Mer, selling 'nautical niceties' and the Sunset Rock shop next door which supplies blow up dolphins like the one Trigger lost and kiss me quick hats. Turner Contemporary has been described as 'a shed', but I like the juxtaposition of old and new, being right next to the Old Town with its independent shops and cafes. There's a vibrant feel about the place again which I find exciting. I've been lucky enough to do my one man show at the Theatre Royal which is a true gem of a theatre. And of course, there's the Tom Thumb Theatre - a truly eccentric and delightful piece of wonderment. With the Winter Gardens as well, Margate's doing alright for entertainment it seems. One of the best kept secrets is the Victorian Shell Grotto, a great attraction for all lovers of artistic eccentricity! So beautiful.
I'm hoping that as the town regenerates the High Street will become more appealing and that independent shops will open up as well as the usual suspects. I live in Ludlow and we have a mixture of both which works very well and visitors come from all over the country because it has something different to offer. Ludlow is famous for its restaurants and the quality of the local produce. Perhaps Margate could become the culinary capital of Thanet? There are some beautiful little squares of Georgian houses and I'm sure the town will become a great favourite for young families wanting to escape the rat race of London. It's all very tempting!
Dreamland is hosting an Only Fools and Horses exhibition, which you'll be appearing at. What's in store? Is Sue Holderness (Marlene) going to join you?
The Only Fools and Horses exhibition at Dreamland is something I've been pushing for since I first saw what was going on down there. I had to persuade Perry, who runs the Appreciation Society, that we had to get together with Dreamland to recreate the Jolly Boy's Outing because the images of the funfair and the beach are imprinted on the minds of all fans who just love that episode. It means such a lot to so many people and still there are those who have no idea that the funfair is up and running again. And after all my tweeting! The event will run for nine days from May 28th and it's a massive operation for Perry who has gathered together a vast collection of memorabilia and props, sets and costumes, collected right from the beginning of OFAH in 1981.There's Trigger's blue suit, Del's sheepskin, Uncle Albert's duffle coat, Tony Angelino's frilly shirt and all manner of paraphernalia! All will be on show along with reconstructed sets of the Trotter flat and the Nag's Head bar. Visitors will be able to re-enact the famous chandelier scene!
Boycie and Marlene will be there to meet and greet over the first weekend. There will be photo opportunities and the chance to buy all kinds of merchandise and photos, as well as lots of items especially commissioned for this exciting event. With the chance to try out the thrills and spills of Dreamland as well, it's going to be great fun and I'm encouraging people to get all their friends together, hire a coach and make the pilgrimage to Margate. Go by car, take a train, launch a boat, whatever, just get there and join us for the Jolly Boy's Outing. Be there or be square. I can't wait!
Get your tickets for the Dreamland exhibition here.
Follow John on Twitter here.