Panto Visit Saw Bad Boy Boycie Hooked; ONE Comedy Star Is on Scarily Good Form This Christmas, Says BARBARA HODGSON

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Byline: BARBARA HODGSON

I'M having coffee with John Challis and if the name doesn't ring any bells, I bet if I said Boycie, you'd immediately think of a cackling laugh and drawn-out 'Mar-leeene'.

The likeable actor, who plays Del Boy's chief winder-upper in TV favourite Only Fools And Horses, is happy to chat - about everything, in fact, from his childhood to current marital status (wife number four).

I also want to hear a little bit of Boycie but don't like to ask. We are, after all, at Sunderland Empire to talk about his role as Captain Hook in this year's panto Peter Pan and he's probably tired of being shadowed by his camel-coated alter-ego.

But then it comes, almost incidentally, when I get Challis on to the subject of the character he played over 22 years. "He follows me around all over the place," he says. "People wait for the Boycie laugh. They pass me and I hear 'Marleene...'": just one word but unmistakably Boycie. "And they laugh, nudging each other."

He played the car salesman - and husband of said Marlene (Sue Holderness) - in the comedy from 1981 to 1991 with occasional Christmas specials until 2003, then again in spin-off series The Green Green Grass, whose debut saw a remarkable nine million viewers tune in to reacquaint themselves with the couple.

"I can never understand how people can love Boycie. I say, 'How can you?, he's dreadful'!

"But there was something about him that people just locked into."

He is, stresses Challis, very different to his likeable self. Nevertheless, to keep us happy, he'll be injecting one or two Boycie-esque characteristics into his otherwise pretty scary Hook in Peter Pan, running until January 3. "I'll try to shoe-horn a bit in as the audience expects it. There's pressure to put something in but you can't just do it - you've to have a reason."

Mainly, he wants the baddie to do his job - and justice to what he calls a great story hijacked by panto. "You've got to be bad so good can triumph.

"There's got to be a balance: the evil has to be believable - you've got to have those kids scared. It would be wrong to make him a figure of fun so no- one is scared of him."

Challis is an old hand at panto and this is his fourth Hook. "I've done an Ugly Sister too, twice, but I became so like my mother I had to give up. It was quite a strange feeling."

Being so well known for TV, it's easy to forget he cut his teeth in theatre: "Stage work is the heartbeat of this business. In fact, Sunderland Empire was one of the first jobs I ever did."

It was in a play with Trevor Howard - it sounds an illustrious start until he explains it failed in the West End.

"So they brought it up here, I'm not sure why, and it was the biggest theatre I'd seen in my entire life." But on his debut "I fell flat on my face".

"Hopefully, the same won't happen this time. I've not been invited back for 44 years. Actually 46!" he works out, to his surprise. He is a bit vague about his age - Wikipedia reckons he's 67 - but does make reference to when David Jason, Del Boy himself, attended his 60th birthday party.

Even as a child he wanted to act, having first been attracted to the idea, coincidentally, by Captain Hook. …

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