15 Minutes with… John Challis

From Peckham to Powderham, One Magazine’s Jake Tucker meets the Only Fools and Horses star whose best-known alter ego would take tarmac over turf any day. We talk about his passion for being out in the garden, utilising his 800 year-old Wigmore Abbey home and garden as a filming location for The Green Green Grass, and we find out more about his appearance at this year’s Toby Buckland Garden Festival.

Q: Some of our readers might be surprised to know of your gardening prowess. Is it a passion that you’ve always had from a young age?
Gardening was not on the radar for me until 1969 when I was 27 years old and living in Battersea. There was an old brick trough in the yard filled with weeds – a bit of an eyesore – so to make the place look more attractive I started to experiment with some plants. I had no idea that certain plants need certain planting mediums so I filled the trough with a couple of sacks of leaf mould that had been hanging around. Into this I plonked some wallflowers and some tomatoes! Surprise, surprise not much came up and, like a lot of first time gardeners, I didn’t know I had to feed and water them! I then sought advice from the local garden centre and that’s where it all began.

Q: You’re most recognised as Boycie from Only Fools & Horses who, after the show had ended, escaped from Peckham to the rolling hills of Shropshire to set up home in the country as part of a spin-off series, The Green Green Grass. How did you separate your character, Boycie, from your own personal love of gardening?
I personally had always wanted to create a garden from scratch and when we found Wigmore Abbey I had pretty much a blank canvas. However, gardening is anathema to my alter ego Boycie. He prefers to tarmac over everything; the more space the better for forecourt car sales. Boycie doesn’t care for the spiritual rewards of gardening. His only concern is making money – there’s no profit in gardening and, anyway, everybody told him it’s a constant money pit. How right they were!

Q: It was actually your home, Wigmore Abbey, which served as the filming location for The Green Green Grass. Was that your decision and how did that affect the way in which you crafted your garden there?
When Sue Holderness and I were first asked if we’d like to make a spin-off from Only Fools and Horses, we leapt at the chance. We knew there would be a period of location shooting in the country and the writer John Sullivan, having visited us at Wigmore Abbey, thought the countryside would be ideal. The location for Winterdown was more difficult however. I was asked to send photos of friend’s houses but none of them looked right. One day the location manager came round and said he thought they’d found the ideal ‘spooky old grange’ and how did we feel about Wigmore being the star of the show! Ha – what a piece of luck; a location fee as well and only a short trip down the lane each morning to base for make-up and costume.

Q: We’ve heard about David Jason buying set items from Only Fools & Horses – have you done the same and have any of those things made it into your home or garden?
I acquired two of Boycie’s suits; the cream three-piece he wore for the poker game with Del Trotter in the episode Losing Streak – which I thought was incredibly natty – and a grey suit that was more useful. They have since been requisitioned by the OFAH Appreciation Society. Boycie wouldn’t have touched any of Del’s clutter, although David loved his ceramic cigar jar so much he took it home! I was presented with my portrait by the eminent artist Klunge at the end of filming Green Green Grass but it was known as the Cross Eyed Boycie so that too was quietly given to the appreciation society.

Q: Your new book, Wigmore Abbey: The Treasure of Mortimer, is an autobiographical account of creating your glorious garden in Herefordshire. Can you tell us more about your one acre garden and how it all began?
When we bought Wigmore Abbey it came with 5 acres of land – most of it old pasture. There had been a garden around the house laid out in the 1970s so we inherited one of each specimen plant you can think of, including pampas grass, some roses and a lot of multi-coloured conifers of all shapes and sizes. Mostly it was grass which had grown to waist height and thus came right up to the house. A thirty foot high hedge of conifers made everything very dark so we literally cut everything down to give us an idea of the space we had available. My wife, Carol, is the designer – a veritable Vita Sackville West to my Harold Nicholson – so she drew up the plans incorporating garden rooms like those we had admired at Sissinghurst. We love our herbaceous borders but they are a tyranny! After 20 years our initial design has come to fruition but the rambling roses have rambled for miles and if not checked everything is of jungle proportion!

Q: What do you think are the most positive benefits of being out into the garden?
I lead a very sedentary life and gardening is my way of keeping fit. I’m out there for hours at a time and I find it very therapeutic, especially pruning. I get time to myself in the fresh air and I love getting my hands dirty. Gardening calms me down and I can practise my lines out loud where nobody can hear me! I love how you can engage with wildlife – we have all sorts of birds coming to the feeders and hedgehogs aplenty that I have fostered from two local wildlife sanctuaries. I am patron of Cuan Wildlife Trust and also the British Hedgehog Society. There are plenty of hiding places for the hedgies and lots of escape routes for their nocturnal wandering. My only dilemma is that I love badgers and Brian May keeps asking me for my support but I have to take into consideration that badgers are the biggest threat to hedgehogs after man. Hmm.

Q: You’re appearing at Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival between 27th – 28th April where visitors will be able to get a signed copy of your book, Wigmore Abbey: The Treasure of Mortimer. What can visitors to the festival expect to hear about from you here?
I have never been to Powderham Castle but my wife and I love castles and history so we are very excited about spending a couple of days there. Our own house is 800 years old and its’ story is fantastic, especially as we discovered that it was lived in by my wife’s ancestors for 250 years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries! It was these same ancestors who came originally from Cullompton and Ottery St Mary too. At the festival I will be telling people why it was the best decision I ever made-to move from London to the rolling hills of Herefordshire. It really did change my life. After 37 years of city life we realised more and more that we wanted freedom and fresh air, and having discovered this amazing place, we are truly grounded, happy and content. My message is not to just think about making a life changing decision but to grasp the moment. Life is too short.

You can meet John to hear more of his intriguing stories and tales, as well as pick up a signed copy of his new book, at this year’s Toby Buckland’s Garden Festival. To get your tickets and to find out more, visit www.tobygardenfest.co.uk

Author: Jake

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