John and Carol visit the ruins of Paradise in Cape Town
After Del Boy casts another admiring glance at secondhand car dealer Boycie’s wife Marlene, Boycie tries to wind him up.
Taking another swig of his large cognac, he says: “Hey Del, my wife is so exotic she is descended from a dashing English army officer who had a love child after a secret affair in colonial Africa with a black slave girl. And when his posh skinny-dipping missus, who was best friends with George IV’s mistress, found out she had the kid shipped to London, where she became a proper lady and married a country gent herself.”
Too far-fetched a piece of oneupmanship even for Boycie maybe. But not for John Challis, the actor who played him. For it is the remarkable story of the roots of John’s wife Carol, the full details of which the couple have only just learned.
She is the great, great, great-granddaughter of the product of a secret affair between an African slave girl and Andrew Barnard, an English colonial administrator in South Africa’s Cape Colony more than 200 years ago.
We were thrilled to learn of Carol’s extraordinary heritage
Barnard was married to free-thinking Scottish aristocrat, writer, wit, royal and political confidante Lady Anne Lindsay.
This extraordinary true tale, as fanciful as anything on TV genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, has come to light thanks to a recently published book by writer Stephen Taylor.
Defiance: The Life And Choices Of Lady Anne Barnard describes the life and highly unconventional times of Lady Anne, who was best friends with Maria Fitzherbert, mistress and illicit wife of George IV.
John Challis as Boycie with Trigger (Roger Lloyd Pack) and Del Boy (David Jason) in a scene from BBC
Carol Challis already had a vague idea about her African heritage. But it was only when she read Taylor’s book that she learned the incredible and moving full story of her ancestor Meyndrina Christina.
Taylor helped the Challises visit the remote ruins of the Barnards’ idyllic colonial home Paradise, in the foothills of Table Mountain, Cape Town, where, reputedly Lady Anne swam in the nude.
“We were thrilled to learn of Carol’s extraordinary heritage,” says John. “I dread to think what Del would have said if it had been more boasting by Boycie. It would have been too politically incorrect to print.”
His wife adds: “It is a wonderful story. I marvel that Anne took on that little girl and give her a life she could never have dreamed of. She was a remarkable woman and it is thanks to her I am here today. It was lovely to see where she lived.”
Lady Anne Lindsay
Taylor’s book recounts how after spending years spurning all manner of powerful and wealthy suitors Lady Anne, daughter of Scotland’s fifth Earl of Balcarres, fell in love with humble soldier Andrew Barnard, 12 years her junior.
Anne was an accomplished painter, writer (credited with writing the famous Scottish poem Auld Robin Grey), wit, hostess, royal courtier, political fixer and traveller (she stayed in Paris during the French Revolution). Her love life made the London scandal sheets of the day.
Though she was too old to have children the couple had a happy marriage including several blissful years in the fledgling Cape Colony, now Cape Town, where Andrew was secretary to the governor.
It was only after his death in 1807 that his widow learned that while in Africa he had secretly fathered an illegitimate daughter, Meyndrina Christina, from an affair with a black slave from the Khoikhoi tribe.
And when she returned to London – where she lived on fashionable Berkeley Square – in defiance of the racism that was rife in English society at the time, she brought her late husband’s daughter with her and went on to raise and educate Christina as her own.
Anne noted reassuringly there was “enough likeness between the dear little girl of colour and my husband” for her to be sure she was his. A DNA test by another descendant of Christina has confirmed the Khoikhoi link.
Christina was absorbed into Georgian high society, played the harp in London salons and became her adopted mother’s amanuensis, transcribing her diaries about the royal and political intrigue of the day.
Proud Anne said of her: “I never saw a more promising child or one with a better disposition. She has inherited the talent of making friends from her father.”
She even wrote to the Cape governor asking him to “pay £10 to the black mother of the little child that came home to me and with whom I am so pleased and also £5 to the poor Hottentot [as the Khoikhoi were known by colonialists at the time] servant who attended my dear husband in his last illness.”
A measure of Anne’s progressive attitude can be seen in the fate of another Khoikhoi woman brought to London months after Christina. Known crudely as the “Hottentot Venus” she was put on the stage as a kind of sexual freak show and died shortly afterwards in poverty.
Before Anne died in 1825 she confided in Mrs Fitzherbert her fears for how Christina – her adored “girl of colour” – would cope without her.
She need not have worried: four years after Anne died Christina married Wiltshire landowner and cricketer Mark Sloper and had eight children by him.
The Slopers would probably have got on well with country gent John Challis, 74, who has little in common with wideboy Boycie, and Carol.
His 50-year acting career has spanned everything from Dixon Of Dock Green to Shakespeare and his own one-man show.
The Challises, who married in 1993, live in the 12th-century Wigmore Abbey near Ludlow, Herefordshire. Not so very different – or far – from Mark and Christina Sloper’s estate in Bishop’s Cannings, near Devizes.
Wigmore Abbey was the inspiration for the Boycie spin-off TV series The Green Green Grass Of Home. In it Boycie and Marlene had fled Peckham after falling out with gangsters.
Though centuries apart and from more humble origins, like Anne, John has led a colourful and varied life and shown dignity and strength in the face of personal misfortune. He has spoken movingly in the past of how he cared for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father with whom he had a very troubled relationship as a boy.
He has also struggled to overcome alcoholism. By a bitter irony one of Del’s cruel taunts at Boycie concerned childless Boycie’s alleged infertility.
The writers were unaware that one of the heartbreaks of John’s life was his inability to have children.
Showing a greater sense of responsibility than is generally associated with bragging Boycie and born loser Del, John has campaigned to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s, to save elephants and is patron of the Hedgehog Preservation Society.
During the Challises’ trip to South Africa the couple stayed at Cape Town’s Vineyard Hotel, once the Barnards’ second Cape home, where Carol posed for a photograph alongside a portrait of Andrew, her ancestor.
Author Taylor at the grave of Christina, love child of Barnard
The similarity in their profiles is unmistakable. “When we slept there we said good morning and good night to portraits of Andrew and Lady Anne,” she says. “I feel I got to know them better.”
Christina, who died in 1842, is buried in St Mary the Virgin Church in Bishops Cannings, where she lived with Squire Sloper. Her children and grandchildren went on to become bankers, soldiers and colonists themselves who played their part in the burgeoning Victorian British Empire.
South African-born Taylor, who lives in Windsor, Berkshire, says he was humbled to visit Christina’s Wiltshire grave and “touch the memorial stone to this African woman who died in this rustic hinterland of English countryside”.
He says that for all her airs and graces Lady Anne would have enjoyed Only Fools. “She was a friend of playwright Richard Sheridan and his Restoration Comedies, such as The Rivals were the nearest thing the Georgians had to TV sit coms,” says Taylor.
That said, even Sheridan would have struggled to pen anything as funny as Peckham Rivals Boycie and Del.
To order Defiance: The Life And Choices Of Lady Anne Barnard by Stephen Taylor (Faber & Faber £8.99, free UK p&p), call 01872 562310 or send a cheque to The Express Bookshop to: Defiance Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 4WJ or visit expressbookshop.com UK delivery is free.
Stephen Taylor is “in conversation” at the Baillie Gifford Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival on Thursday, August 17.