Here’s the thing that’s driving John Challis berserk: why does Only Fools and Horses work… in Serbia?
When the actor first played braying buffoon Boycie in 1981 he knew the scripts were good but was certain its appeal was limited.
“I thought, yeah, this is funny, but it was very London-centric, the language and everything,” he tells The Big Issue. “Pretty soon we started getting letters from all over the place – I mean even as far away as Scotland! You suddenly realise the appeal of it, that these characters John Sullivan had written were completely universal.”
So much so that the wheeler-dealer exploits of Del Boy and co became compulsive viewing in former Yugoslav nations during the Nineties when the region was at war. But it was only many years later, when a Serbian film crew tracked Challis down to a book signing in Peterborough, that it emerged just how famous Boycie was in Belgrade.
“It fascinates me why they liked it so much,” Challis, now 78, explains. “I know nothing about this part of the world apart from the horrible wars they had but I like history so I started finding out more about it.”
Challis travelled to the Serbian capital to make a documentary. In the city he’s treated like royalty, invited to an ambassador’s reception by the British embassy, lectures an English class, tours a plum brandy distillery, is mobbed by fans in a shopping centre and, oddly, speaks to the Serbian health minister. The resulting film, half travelogue, half treatise of the international cultural impact of Only Fools and Horses has won enthusiastic five-star reviews from Ricky Hatton (“I didn’t know how big it is in the Balkans”), Paul Chuckle (“a must-watch for any Fools fan or not”) and Sue Holderness, who played long-suffering wife Marlene (“That’s the last time I let Boycie go to Belgrade without me”).
At its heart Boycie in Belgrade explores humour’s power to bring people together. “There is something about laughter that unites people,” Challis says. “If only we could bottle it, share it, a lot of problems would be over.
“I realised they’re exactly the same, all those characters exist in that part of the world. Boycie was just one of these irritating people we all know who always seems to have money. There’s a bit of Del Boy in everybody. The aspiration, ‘Next time this year Rodders, we’ll be millionaires’. He probably doesn’t believe it deep down but he hopes it will happen. It actually sums up what that country and its people are about.”
Decades after the war, shells of bombed-out buildings still stand in central Belgrade like scars the city doesn’t want to hide. “I think they’ve deliberately left them there as a reminder of what could happen, because it’s a very volatile area, always has been,” Challis says. “They’ve been invaded by practically everybody over the centuries, then Tito [the former Yugoslavia’s president from 1953 until his death in 1980] kept that union together but it’s very tribal. I think there’s a bit of an identity crisis out there. And it’s not surprising.
“Then you see some bomb damage and suddenly realise it was us who bombed them,” he continues. “And still there you are, as part of this British programme, which is sort of iconic for them. It’s just so full of irony and ridiculousness.”
The show explored a lot of people’s predicaments
Closer to home, London too has transformed over the decades since Del Boy first set up his stall. Arguably, Boycie was the original gent in a now thoroughly gentrified Peckham.
“We started off filming in Peckham and it wasn’t particularly pretty,” Challis says. “I’ve been back a couple of times to open things or make a personal appearance and there was a lot more buzz about the place. As is happening to a lot of London, so-called gentrification is going on, people tarting up buildings and trying to sell them for extraordinary prices that nobody can afford.
“I think that’s happening all over the place, unfortunately. Presumably you have to stop it with some legislation and say, no, you can’t put those rents up, there must be affordable housing or people.”
Although some aspects of Only Fools and Horses, voted Britain’s favourite ever sitcom, have not aged brilliantly in the eyes of a more enlightened audience, the picture it painted of an inclusive, multicultural working-class community was a positive one.
“The show explored a lot of people’s predicaments. As well as being a series of very good jokes and stories there was a lot of pathos too,” he says. “John Sullivan talked about difficult stuff and made you smile. Boycie and Marlene’s inability to produce a child became a long-running joke but it made you think about a problem for an awful lot of people.”
And now in 2020 we’re awash with a fresh wave of woe. Challis has had to postpone his one-man tour and his traditional stint in panto has been cancelled. This Christmas he should have been setting sail to play Captain Hook in Portsmouth.
“It’s tragic. All those people out of work, not just the actors, the technicians, cleaners, box office staff,” he says. “That part of our life has changed so much and it’s such a shame, because people can go and have a great night’s entertainment. Theatre is a great release.”
Especially panto, where audiences can exorcise inner demons by booing at the baddie.
“That’s right. Hopefully we’ll be back next year. I’ll be given a hard time wherever I go.”
Boycie in Belgrade is out on DVD and Blu-ray now and can be ordered – alongside lots of other related gear – at boycieinbelgrade.com