Regular readers will know that I am prone to embellishments and particularly when it comes to fellow show biz ‘stars’ who I have worked with down the years. There’s my brush with Anne Hathaway or my fortuitous liaison with a certain Janet Jackson without which my eldest son might never have happened and I would not have written a story called Eclipsed.
John Challis is a less salubrious show-biz name that I am now casually dropping in to this week’s blog. He is probably completely unknown to most of you but no matter because he was a hero to my generation who grew up loving the man. And unlike Ms Jackson I did actually meet Mr Challis we even kept in touch loosely.
Comedy is subjective and I would say becoming ever more so these days. But the BBC TV sit-com Only Fools and Horses is universally acclaimed. It’s Christmas specials were a national event and for all generations, young and old. It regularly tops polls with funniest ever scenes – Batman and Robin, the counter top scene… (all available on You Tube, no doubt). Set on a London housing estate depicting the shenanigans of an ensemble bunch of rogues, including Boysie (John Challis) who managed the considerable achievement of leaving an indelible comedy mark with a single word catchphrase, “Marlene…”, his much put upon on-screen wife.
Never meet your heroes as the saying goes… unless they happen to be charming like John Challis. What is very peculiar about show-business is its thin veneer which separates the stars from the masses and the reality that the majority of ‘stars’ are normal like the rest of us. Their collective noun might be ‘talent’ but for the majority it could easily be replaced with the ‘fortunate’ – ordinary people on whom circumstances smiled. This is why it is so refreshing to meet a ‘star’ who seems to get this and is seemingly unaffected by their stardom. Ron Howard was one who I really did have the privilege of meeting. And so was John Challis, who died this week at the relatively young age of 79.
The cast of Only Fools was ably headed up by the mighty Sir David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst but their supporting cast were crucial and none more so than Boysie who inspired great affection from everyone Challis met and long after the show had ended. As such I was excited to meet him and beguiled that he should be as interested in my career and what I had managed to scrape together. He encouraged me to write a sit-com and no doubt to keep him in mind. Flattering though this was, I politely explained that it wasn’t going to be.
Sit-coms are such hard things to pull off. To establish an original situation. Conceive a cast of characters and wonder if yet another stupid character is permissible… Joey (Friends), Coach then Woody (Cheers), Phil (Modern Family), Manuel (Fawlty Towers), Trigger (Only Fools)… not to mention the myriad story arcs – some to run and others to conclude each episode and all before even a single funny joke is written.
Believe me, it is fiendishly difficult and why in America (where the best comedies are made) they rely on huge writing teams and chuck enormous amounts of cash at.
All stand-up comedians have taken a crack at writing sit-coms, me included (on numerous occasions) and almost all of us have failed and must suffer the ignominy of having a posh executive explain why our work doesn’t work. Never pleasant but at least we can scuttle back on stage and the reassuring sound of people actually laughing at our stuff.
The late and great John Sullivan penned Only Fools and Horses all on his own which is a remarkable feat. He also happened to write and sing its famous theme tune which seems above and beyond. He had a string of other hits to his name but nothing to eclipse Only Fools and why it was so chilling to sit with John one-time and he explained that even the great John Sullivan can’t get anything away with the BBC anymore. Only Fools indeed!
I say chilling when in fact it was probably just as heartening because if Sullivan starts to plateau then there is no disgrace for the rest of us.
And maybe this is why I latched on to writing novels. The internet has many downsides (child pornography…) but its upsides are enormous and particularly so for content creators. The gatekeepers (editors, agents, publishers…) can now be deftly circumvented. Writers, comedians… we can ignore the rejections and find an audience anyway.
We all enjoy the tales of the rejected person sensation who never gave up. JK Rowling with her clutch of rejection letters. We imagine how many people must rue their letters to Ms Rowling using the pivotal word “but”. The people who turned down the Beatles and other such luminaries.
But with technology allowing us to access ears and eyes, such tales might become more scarce because going forward, content makers won’t even bother with traditional routes.
The acting profession is hideously over-subscribed and few proponents will ever achieve what they hope for. Most who try will fail.
To play a pivotal character in a long running sit-com is a privilege and a remarkable success by anyone’s standards.
This is what John Challis achieved. And along with literally millions of fellow Brits, I was very fond of him and even more so for meeting and getting to know him.