“It has left a really big hole.”
Those are the words of Shelly Wall, who knew the Only Fools and Horses star John Challis better than most.
It was revealed yesterday that John, who was best known for playing Boycie in the legendary comedy, had died of cancer. He was 79.
John was touched by the story of Shelly’s son Noah, who was born with just two per cent of his brain – before he was even born.
Noah also suffers from spina bifida, which means he is paralysed from the chest down and requires the use of a wheelchair. His brain has since grown to 80 per cent.
“Just before Noah was born the story came out and I was asking celebrities to retweet it (to raise awareness of the condition) and John did that and followed me back,” said Shelly.
“He was like, ‘wow, Noah’. Everyone was like, ‘look at this kid, he is amazing’.
“He was so kind.”
From this moment the Walls, who live near Wigton, started what would become a special friendship with John and his wife Carol.
“He always went the extra mile,” said Shelly.
“We spoke most weeks. There might have been a break if we were away or they were away but he would always get in touch to say ‘we are on holiday in this place, are you there?’
“We could talk to him about anything, he was very interested in Noah’s condition and the fact that Noah’s goal in life was to walk and then run.
“He sent me a message to say, ‘I hope I get to see that’. We didn’t know he was really poorly.”
Dreams of Broadway
One of Noah’s goals is to be on stage on Broadway.
“John said to us, ‘as soon as you know where and when, I am going to be on the front row cheering him on,” said Shelly.
On one of a number of similar occasions, John got in touch with the family to say he was travelling through Carlisle.
“He said, ‘I can’t not see you, I want to see my buddy’,” said Shelly. “It was so lovely, John was on his hands and knees in the sensory room with Noah. He told his jokes and they laughed the whole time.”
John also brought a Sooty and Sweep toy because he was appearing in a show involving the children’s puppets.
“He got on so well with Noah. He always wanted to see how he was getting on and he was amazed at how well he was and how he was progressing,” said Shelly.
“He always followed his progress. They were such busy people (John and Carol) but they always found time to ask how he was doing or to send videos.”
“He was an absolute gentleman, he really was. We have so many memories and it is so great we got to meet him and speak to him. He would email us videos and vice versa, all the time,” said Shelly.
John even nominated Noah for an Operation Ouch Award, such was his fondness for the nine-year-old and his bravery and courage to date.
The news of John’s passing was tough for Noah.
“He was very very shocked,” said Shelly.
“I said to Noah, John has died. ‘Mine’s a large one,’ I said (a reference to his line from Only Fools and Horses). Noah said, ‘died like grandad? What was wrong with him, what did he die of?’
“We then had to explain why, what and when. He does understand about people passing away because we had to explain about grandad. We said he is with grandad and grandad will look after him.”
Noah has an old fashioned phone which allows him to contact his grandad by dialling 123.
“It is really difficult to talk about grief with children but it is much better if they know they have something privately or in the room where they can dial that number because they are always listening,” said Shelly.
Away from spending time with Noah and his work commitments, John was also a patron of many charities, including the Tusk Trust and The British Hedgehog Preservation Society.
Shelly has since got in touch with the two charities to offer the family’s support in memory of John.
Noah is continuing to defy the odds and will soon be given a body cast that will allow him to stand.