British television star John Challis (Only Fools and Horses, The Green Green Grass) talks to Hannah Smith about his career, working with new directors and what attracts him to short films. His latest short Tea For Two, co-starring Amanda Barrie (Carry On Cleo, Coronation Street) was part of the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
I have a confession to make; this was my first ever 'Big Interview' and despite checking my recording equipment diligently I was so nervous that I forgot to press record until we were three minutes into what was already an interesting conversation. As I quickly discovered, it is hard to stay nervous when talking to John Challis, he is very warm, engaging and most importantly open.
John has a temperament that has led him on adventures; a man who can be easily bored. His parents worried about his career choice due to what they described as his ‘butterfly mind'. They thought acting would be a phase, and no one could have guessed it would be such a successful and lifelong phase, except maybe John, who is humble about his own success.
“I think like most performers there’s times when you get tormented by self-doubt and you think about the value, is there anything valuable about what you do. And of course there is because you make people’s lives better, you know I’m constantly being told, thanks for all the laughs. That’s what’s great about these little films, it’s easy for me to do my theatre shows and sign autographs and be this character that everyone seems to like, you know, that’s comfort zone for me, and I’m very grateful for it and I’m delighted that people get such joy from it."
The move from television to film came later for John, his first short, Lost Tracks, was made in 2011. His latest film performance was in Tea for Two, written and directed by Mark Brennan and also starring Amanda Barrie.
“I think short film is an interesting format because you don’t have too long to fill. I don’t know why they don’t show them in the big cinemas, I used to love going to the cinema and to see a ‘b’ film or a little short before the main feature. They should be doing them on the tv, you can fill an hour very nicely with little ten minute films. What was good about Tea For Two’ was that it was very tightly edited and the story was clear, which was perfect. You know, it’s a turn-the-page thing, if I want to keep turning the page, like ending page three thinking: blimey what happens on page four? It’s like any bit of writing, if you want to know what happens next, you know it's the one.”
"You have to have a point; a reason for doing it. It’s got to grab me, like anything I read, I can always tell in the first three pages if it’s got me or not. A lot of people, like myself, can write good scenes and stories with great dialogue, but you’ve got to construct that story. It’s the old cliché, a beginning, middle and an end. So many scripts look quite promising then peter out because the writer has run out of ideas and often they will fall back on vulgar, risqué things. I’ve seen that many times and it’s simply because the ideas have gone. The great thing about John Sullivan’s writing (Only Fools) was that it wasn’t just a lot of jokes, even though there were a lot of good jokes, it was his plotting, that was the fascination, he could set up a little dodgy tape recorder in the first scene and there was the joke and then right at the very end it would come back and it’s gone all way through the story, it wasn’t about the tape recorder but he was fantastic about it.”
He explains to me why he likes working with new directors he meets on short films and in theatre. “I would say a young person; inexperienced in the directing arena is going to be more open to suggestion, so there’s a lot more of an ensemble about it. That’s a more open style than if you come across a director who is set in his ways and can be dictatorial, that can be difficult."
John shows none of the weariness you might expect when talking of the character that made him famous, in fact it is he who first mentions Boycie, but he does confess to finding television a little restrictive at times.
“Just as a natural stage actor I feel restricted slightly as it’s so technical and you can play a scene that goes very well and everything went right and you know it went well but they’ll be some technical problem and you have to do it all over again and make sure you’re facing in the right direction and standing in the right place, but on stage you’ve got a lot more freedom with that and film is slightly more freeing, there’s a chance to express yourself more so it’s quite an attractive thing.”
“You know I’ve been lucky to do lots and lots of things that are fascinating, and sometimes you look back and you think “ooh maybe I should have done that a bit better” but I imagine everyone is like that.” He reflects. It turns out John would have liked to have spent more time in America, but coming home to Britain from a successful Broadway debut he was signed up to do an episode of Citizen Smith, written by John Sullivan, creator of Only Fools and Horses and the rest as they say is history.
If you want to know more about John then head to his website, he has written novels, a very honest autobiography and all the dates for his one man show are there. I can’t wait to see what he does next, and if you want him in your next short then make sure he wants to keep 'turning the page'.