Only Fools and Horses actor John Challis - The Grass is Greener in Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 17:51 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:36 20 February 2013

John and screen wife Sue Holderness are taking Boycie and Marlene on tour

John and screen wife Sue Holderness are taking Boycie and Marlene on tour

Why Only Fools and Horses actor John Challis of Wigmore Abbey loves the green, green grass of Herefordshire

Someone once told me: you created a monster and let it out of its cage. John Challis laughs when remarking on his character of Boycie, the used car salesman who first graced our TV screens in comedy sitcom hit Only Fools and Horses nearly 30 years ago. Little was he to realise that in copying the characteristics of an old man hed met in the pub in the Seventies who had a curious way of speaking and a pedantic manner and adding the machine gun laugh of a female acquaintance, he was to create one of televisions most recognisable characters.

As a child I was always more interested in other people than myself and fascinated with the way they walked and talked and was always being told off for staring. I pinched some of these characteristics for the part of a disreputable policeman in John Sullivans (the creator of Only Fools and Horses) earlier series of Citizen Smith and he said at the time he really liked the character and wanted use it again. So in some terms I think I stole it from someone else who lived in the real world, he says.

Along with Sue Holderness, who plays his screen wife Marlene, John will be touring the country with their new Boycie and Marlene show over the next few months.

Using clips of some of the shows most memorable moments, they will provide a potted history of their acting careers and behind the screens insight into how they created their characters and their development in the spin-off series of The Green Green Grass, where Boycie and Marlene swap Peckham for the altogether new and alien environment of an isolated country farm to escape the South London Mafia Driscoll Brothers.

Much like his on-screen alter ego, John and his wife Carol moved from their London home to a country idyll 11 years ago, in search of: somewhere with a sense of history and needing a bit of love and attention, with some space to create a garden. What they found was the 12th century Wigmore Abbey, former Abbots lodging of a ruined monastery.

We didnt initially aim for Herefordshire because our idea was all quite vague. We knew what we wanted to do and the sort of thing we were looking for but no idea of where to find it. I remembered this area because Id worked at Malvern Theatre lots of times and, being a great explorer, travelled around and knew the countryside was fantastic and relatively unspoilt, which is difficult to find these days. A friend of ours sent us the details of this place, which we initially felt was far too much money and far too big, but when we came to see it we just went gulp!

The deal was sealed when they discovered that Carols ancestors on her mothers side lived there for 200 years from the mid 16th century following the dissolution of the monasteries. Then we knew it was fate, says John. We threw everything at it. We had no idea what we were doing. There were five acres of derelict land around it and the ruins, but this fantastic brooding house sitting in this valley below Wigmore Castle and the sense of history and tranquillity was extraordinary.

Another great thing was due to the amount of work that needed doing we met a lot of people in the area quite quickly from all walks of life. We found that locally, people were very proud of this place and its history and so glad when two people turned up who wanted to do something about it and rescue it.

Eleven years of hard work to both the house and gardens, which has included John planting an orchard of ancient apples trees and laying hedges has transformed it into a beautiful home and they are working closely with English Heritage to restore the ruins.

It was when attending Johns surprise 60th birthday party in 2003 that John Sullivan hatched the idea for The Green, Green Grass, although it took a further two years to come to fruition. The first four series ran from 2005 to 2009, with the outdoor scenes filmed at Wigmore Abbey, its surrounding fields and villages. Everyone treated it like a holiday and had a wonderful time. I thought it was the luckiest damn thing and it delighted me that the local area benefited. I got quite a few local people on the show as extras, and the crew and actors would use the shops, pubs and B&BS and borrow animals from the farms. Leintwardine featured quite heavily, and people in the area became very proud of it. There may have been some who thought it was a bloody nuisance, so I was very keen to say to the crew: Dont be rude to the locals because theyll be ruder to you!

Now John has another important part to play as one of the countys Ambassadors, tasked by Visit Herefordshire with promoting all that is great about Herefordshire wherever he travels. The Ambassadors are a select group of high profile and influential personalities all with a passion for the county. I was immensely flattered to be asked to be an Ambassador. I care about the countryside and the senseless march of technology and want to do something to preserve what I found special about this part of the world.

For more details of the Boycie and Marlene tour visit www.pauldufer.com


My Herefordshire Life

What have you come to appreciate most about Herefordshire?
The natural element; it is relatively unspoilt and the countryside isnt too managed. It used to be referred to as the Wild West round here and its remained that way and we need to try and preserve that. There is a farmer in the north west corner who wants to put 300 feet high windmills on his land, which in my mind will completely desecrate the landscape. Why would you want to destroy what makes this area so special? And the idea of people covering fields in plastic to grow strawberries is so ugly and ruins the scenery. I think it is so special this part of the county, and we have to look after the way it looks.

Hereford also had wonderful towns and history. This border has been fought over for many centuries and has a wonderful atmosphere and its important to hold on to that.

What makes you smile about Herefordshire?
The countryside. Thats whats lifted my soul over the years. Whatever problems in life I may have, when I walk around this countryside I realise it doesnt matter. It has been here for centuries and will be for centuries unless we cover it in plastic and windmills!

Where is your favourite spot in the county?
Just here at Wigmore Abbey, in a wonderful valley surrounded by tumbling rivers. I also love the Golden Valley.

Where would you describe as a quintessential Herefordshire village?
Places like Eardisland and Pembridge, which are beautiful. But you need to have a balance, you cant keep them like museum pieces and have to have people living there and living out their traditions and keeping it alive.

Where is your favourite area to walk?
I enjoy walking in Mortimer Forest and you can follow the rivers, Lugg, Teme and Clun and walk all over the hills up there, and its wonderful.

Which is your favourite pub?
The Sun Inn at Leintwardine, one the last of the living room pubs. A lovely old lady called Flossie who died last year ran it so the licence has to change. It has recently been taken over so Ill be interested to see what happens. Flossie was such a feisty old lady and wouldnt let you in if she didnt like the look of you. It was famous with hikers and fishermen and hunters, so the locals are very keen to keep it as it always has been.

What would be your idea of a perfect weekend in the county?
It would be to go off and have a drink with friends and lunch in the Jolly Frog between Leintwardine and Ludlow, and then do a bit of gardening with the wife. Im fascinated by gardening and enjoy planting hedges and trees.

How would you sum up Herefordshire?
It has an otherness about it. I think it has a wonderful sense of old times and what England should be about.

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