Writer, Illustrator & Radio Presenter
Charlie Higson 07.10.2014
“I had done a few little bits and pieces on Harry Enfield’s show and I had always wanted to do more on that but Harry wanted to keep me as more of a writer than a performer. I’d been in a band for 6 years I was the front man I liked performing on stage. But when we came to do The Fast Show that was my first proper performing role.” (Charlie Higson)
It has been a real pleasure to interview Charlie Higson. Writer, author, artist and comedy writer and performer of Harry Enfield and The Fast Show. Charlie and I talk about his latest novels, James Bond, Doctor who and of course The Fast Show. I have never laughed so much in an interview!
[CS] Hello Charlie.
[CH] Hello there.
[CS] Thank you for letting me ask you a few questions today.
[CH] That’s ok.
[CS] People would know you from quite a few different things like Young Bond and The Enemy or The Fast Show, but it seems to me that a lot of what you have done has been writing based first and foremost. When did you realise you’d like to become a professional writer?
[CH] I suppose it sort of happened without my realising. Or certainly planning for. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember and I enjoy the creative process. But when I was growing up I didn’t have any illusions that I might actually do it as a job. I didn’t realise you could have a job where people would pay you to make stuff up! [Laughs] I did lots of things when I left university, I was a singer in a band and then I was a decorator. Then I knew people who were doing comedy and they needed people to write for them so I got together with Paul Whitehouse and we found that we enjoyed writing together and that we worked well together and people started paying us to write. That coincided with my first novel being published. So it just sort of happened without a real plan. Although I suppose the moment when I took the plunge and said I’m going to be a writer now was as a result of one of the few good things that Margaret Thatcher did [laughs]. She came up with this thing called The Enterprise Allowance Scheme and it was quite an interesting idea. It was basically acknowledging that a lot of people who sign on are also working. And it was a way of legitimizing that. The idea was if you could present a business plan and show you had investment from people of a thousand pounds or had already raised it yourself, you could carry on signing on but you could also start to make money as a self-employed person. Which was quite an interesting scheme. It worked quite well and a lot of people did it. Harry Enfield did it and he recommended it to me and Paul. We set up a little company and we presented a business plan of us being comedy writers. They took us on and I suppose that was the moment officially that I thought ‘ok, we now have a business as comedy writers.’
[CS] So you wrote your first novel at the same time as starting to write comedy?
[CH] Well I wrote my first novel when I was about 14. I’d been writing short stories and stuff since I was about 10. The first one I actually published was the first one I’d finished and thought was something someone else might want to read. The others I’d just done for my own amusement really and learning the ropes. But this one was a crime book and crime books are always quite popular, and I showed it to a few people and managed to get an agent and managed to get published. It certainly helped that I was already developing a profile as a comedy writer. Publishing books is very hard. Getting any kind of media attention or getting anybody to talk to a writer is very difficult and there’s a lot of books published every year. So for publishers top of their list of priorities is finding a really good book. But it certainly helped for them to say ‘alright, this guy’s written quite a good book and he already has a bit of a media profile, this might be something we get some interest in and sell.’ It all happened at the same time as the TV and I wrote 4 adult crime books in the early 90s. Then when we started doing The Fast Show, because it was pretty full on working 12 months of the year to make it, I didn’t have time or the brain space to be writing any more books. So it fell aside until I was approached by The Fleming estate to write some Young Bond books.
[CS] So the Fleming Estate actually approached you to write them?
[CH] Yes I wish I could say that it was my idea… but it wasn’t! [Laughs]
[CS] And are you a fan of Bond?
[CH] Oh yeah, I mean they knew I was a huge Bond fan, they knew I had 3 boys who were the target reading age for the book. They knew my adult books and they thought my style would translate quite well to kids. They spoke to a number of people and I managed to convince them that I was the man for the job. Which was great because I’d been doing TV back to back and I was a little bit knackered and wanting to step back a bit and also I wanted to spend more time at home with my own kids and write something for them so it was the perfect job really. I took those on and started to do a little less TV.
[CS] Bond is such a global name did you have and reservations about doing the writing for it?
[CH] When I took it on I just thought what a brilliant job. I’m allowed to write an actual James Bond book and to sit down and type the words ‘the names Bond, James Bond’ was just brilliant. When I was a kid going to the cinema I wanted to be James Bond but I have to accept that’s probably not going to happen. But I got the next best job which was writing James Bond. The first book wasn’t announced until quite close to publication. I wrote it in complete isolation. I just had a huge blast and wanted to get in everything I could from the adult James Bond books and make the series work on a level for kids and just have fun in this world writing the sort of book I would have liked to have read when I was 12 years old. It was only when it was finally announced and publication was near, that it suddenly hit me and I thought ‘Oh my God, what have I taken on here? This is James Bond, the best known action hero in the world.’
[CS] Was it hard to keep it a secret until it was announced?
[CH] Yes it was because they wanted to make sure the book was working and they were happy with it. Once we announced it the James Bond websites went absolutely mental. They hated the idea and were saying James Bond is the ultimate man, we don’t want to see him as a boy worrying about his homework and having hot chocolate shaken not stirred. And I would have been the same. If I had read in the papers that some TV comedy writer had been given the job of writing books about young James Bond I would have snorted and poured scorn on the idea. At that point I did think ‘Christ, this could all go horribly wrong, I’ve taken on something massive.’ But luckily when the first book came out, they pretty much all changed their minds. They could see it was written from a great love and respect of Fleming’s books, and I was trying to keep it very much in that world. There were still a few that didn’t like it, though.
[CS] There always would be with anything so loved. Like Star Wars. There’s announcement of new films and people are up in arms, how can this or that person direct it.
[CH] Well you’ve got to think whoever he is, he’s going to do better than George Lucas [laughs]
[CS] Let’s talk about your performances. Was The Fast Show your first go at actually performing comedy?
[CH] I had done a few little bits and pieces on Harry Enfield’s show and I had always wanted to do more on that but Harry wanted to keep me as more of a writer than a performer. When we were writing I’d been performing some of the parts, and in rehearsals, but they were eventually given to other people. but I did do some tiny bits and pieces and I’d always enjoyed performing. I’d been in a band for 6 years I was the front man I liked performing on stage. But when we came to do The Fast Show that was my first proper performing role.
[CS] Do you have a favourite character to write for in The Fast Show?
[CH] They were all great fun, but ‘Ted and Ralph’ were a joy. We didn’t originally create the characters. Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews who wrote Father Ted, did. But as they got busy doing other stuff, we took over more of the writing and they were great fun to do because there was a lot you could write about, because you’re writing about an actual relationship. Probably the hardest characters to write were ‘Suit You’ because they didn’t have any life outside of a sketch. We could only ever do them in the shop and all that ever happened was that people came in and they had to insult them and be overly intimate with them. It was hard to keep thinking of new ways to do that because you don’t have any of the other emotional or dramatic things to call on. ‘The Painter’ was great fun, but they were all fun to write and perform actually.
[CS] One of my favourites you did, and I remember I spoke to you a little while ago about it and you pointed out it wasn’t actually in the show it was in a special and the character was ‘Ponce in the Garden.’ I absolutely loved that just a little scene that really tickled me.
[CH] He was a laugh and I hoped he might become more popular but we played a couple of them in to our studio audience, to test them out, and they didn’t seem to go down that well. I think I probably slightly overdid the character in it.
[CS] No I won’t hear that! I was pleased to see when you did the 2 recent Fast Show episodes, that all the favourite characters were there. For me when I knew it was coming I was worried it was going to be all new characters, but it was just as before which was fantastic.
[CH] Well, we sort of approached it as doing a comeback tour. And we thought ‘Let’s just do a greatest hits package.’ It takes some time to bed a new character in and for people to get used to it and we knew that if we brought in a load of new characters people would have said – ‘We wish we’d seen more of the old ones.’ It was nice to revisit the characters and trying to think of new ways to make people laugh with them.
[CS] Is it something you had thought about doing for a while? Who instigated it?
[CH] It was actually instigated by Fosters beer company [laughs] they were trying to develop their own little comedy channel and we were quite interested in finding out more about how the online world worked and whether that was a viable route to go down. Because it was slightly different for us we thought actually its interesting on that front. And they gave us a decent budget and left us completely in control so we ran that operation and did 12 or 13 little episodes for Fosters. And then for the anniversary [50 years of comedy on BBC2] the BBC said to us would we like to re edit it and re package it for TV? So we picked out our favourite stuff and edited it into two shows. We expected a lot more people to say this is just the stuff that went out on Fosters, but virtually no one said that. It’s quite interesting that there’s still this huge divide between the online world and the TV world.
[CS] Do you think you would do anymore?
[CH] We’ve got no immediate plans we’re all busy doing other stuff. And the impetus is to do new things. That’s what’s exciting and it is 20 years ago now that we started doing it.
[CS] That makes me feel old!
[CH] It’s interesting because when we did it online we did it without an audience so when it transferred to TV it did feel a little bit different because there was no laughter track on it and a few people said it feels a bit slow and not as funny. Actually because there’s no laughter the sketches are edited a lot tighter and quicker because you don’t have to leave the space where people were genuinely laughing at stuff. We thought long and hard about it and we considered playing it into an audience for the TV showing but Paul was adamant that the modern way was to have no laughter. But I miss it. I do like audience laughter on TV.
[CS] So The Enemy series, your penultimate book has just come out?
[CH] Yes The Hunted which is the 6th book in the series.
[CS] For those who haven’t read it could you give an overview of the series?
[CH] Yes it’s essentially a zombie series. It starts a year after a disease has hit the planet and it only affects older people and it either kills them outright or it leaves them so badly infected, their brains and bodies so rotted away, that they behave like classic cannibal zombies. So it’s about gangs of kids trying to survive on the streets of London trying to put their lives back together, whilst trying to avoid being eaten by their parents.
[CS] Its one of those books where you could say a children’s book but it’s got such cross appeal and adult fan base.
[CH] Yes. I mean a lot of adults do read the books. You know this new publishing category of YA young adult I think a lot of books are being published in that area that in the past would have been published for adults. And horror always was sort of a gateway genre for kids moving on from the likes of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton. Horror used to be a big stepping stone for kids. The gateway to reading adult books. There’s tons of horror now in the YA market.
[CS] I think you can be reasonably graphic without going over board for children.
[CH] [Laughs] well, no, I do go overboard!
[CS] I guess what I mean is if you put the same thing on TV it would probably be too much as opposed to being in a book.
[CH] Yes you can get away with a lot more in books than you can in films and TV. Obviously unless you go for a higher certificate or you put it on late at night when the kids can’t actually watch it. Its fun writing these books and kids like to feel that they’re reading something properly grown up and intense. There are only 2 things that I have to be careful about, the language (in terms of not putting in too much swearing. There’s a bit of mild swearing.) and sex. There are quite a lot of YA books that do have sex in them but they tend to be written by younger people who are closer to the age group than me [laughs]. I don’t think it would be seemly for me. Actually I think it’s one of the reasons why YA books are so popular because it’s probably one of the most thriving sections of publishing at the moment. A lot of adults read them and I think not all adults want to read books with a lot of swearing and sex. Certainly in the last few years that’s the way a lot of literature has gone.
[CS] Are you a fan of horror in general as well?
[CH] Yeah I mean as a teenager in the 70s it was something of a golden age of horror. I was a fan then and I still am. My boys are really into it so it was a natural genre to move onto.
[CS] Were there any films in particular that influenced you in the enemy?
[CH] Well obviously George Romero’s early zombie movies. He basically created a monster and defined a genre. And you know zombies are probably the most popular monster in the world right now. And it all came from George Romero. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are all you need to see really.
[CS] I’ve really enjoyed Inside Number 9 with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, as a mix of comedy and horror have you enjoyed the series?
[CH] Yes it’s brilliant.
[CS] It would be great to see you pop up in an episode.
[CH] Well it would be lovely but they haven’t asked me yet [laughs]
[CS] [Laughs] maybe if they read the interview!
[CH] [Laughs] yes fingers crossed.
[CS] You also wrote an eBook for Doctor Who?
[CH] Yes for the anniversary they got a lot of big name children’s and YA authors to write something. Each had a story for one Doctor. They were originally done online and came out one a month. I got to do Christopher Ecclestone which was fun. And then they were collected into a book, and I think they’re being published as a box set of little mini books. I think they are getting someone to write a final one which would be Peter Capaldi (This has actually happened now)
[CS] I think he’s [Peter Capaldi] absolutely fantastic, I’ve read some criticism of this new series, but I think he’s one of the best we’ve had. I think he’s doing a great job.
[CH] Yes it’s a return to a more old school doctors.
[CS] People always laugh at me when I say my favourite doctor was Sylvester McCoy.
[CH] Well I’m trying not to laugh! [Laughs]
[CS] Yes thanks! [Laughs] Moving on, you did some art work for a mental health charity?
[CH] Yes it’s a charity that does music therapy for people with depression.
[CS] I mean I didn’t know you were an artist as well is it something you’ve done with other exhibitions and things? Or was this a one off?
[CH] I’ve done bits and pieces over the years. When I was in the band I used to do all our album covers. But it’s always been a sort of subsidiary to the writing, but I’ve always enjoyed it.
[CS] Now coming up you have a Professor Branestawm adaptation you’ve written?
[CH] Yes they started filming yesterday. It’s a special one hour family film for the BBC starring Harry Hill. And that’s been a lot of fun actually.
[CS] And you’re in it as well?
[CH] Yes we were going to have Brian Blessed play the mayor but he had an eye infection so I have had to step in and take over. So I’ll be attempting to channel Brian Blessed.
[CS] [Laughs] You mean the spirit of the not dead Brian Blessed?
[CH] [Laughs] Exactly!
[CS] Was it a book series you were familiar with?
[CH] Yeah I loved it when I was a kid. They’re very funny books and particularly the first book has some amazing W Heath Robinson illustrations in it. They’re really funny stories and it’s quite an anarchic world that’s been created. I mean the first was originally written in the 30s and went out on children’s hour on the radio and they were very popular so he did 2 books in the early 30s. Then he took a gap until the early 70s where he wrote a load more. I think it was off the back of ITV doing a TV series in the late 60s. They’re still very funny today, I tried them out on my own kids and they really laughed at it so I’m hoping it will work on TV and we’ve certainly got a brilliant cast.
[CS] So what will you be working on next Charlie?
[CH] Well I’ve got to finish the last book in The Enemy series, but I’m also developing a big new series for ITV. A 10 part fantasy action horror series Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Which would fit in That early Saturday evening slot.
[CS] that sounds like it will be an excellent show!
[CH] Hopefully! [Laughs]
[CS] Brilliant thanks so much Charlie.
[CH] Ok it’s been great to speak to you.
[CS] Yes you too.
For more information on Charlie Higson’s work visit his website at www.charliehigson.co.uk
Follow Charlie on twitter @monstroso
PROFESSOR BRANESTAWM IS SHOWING TWICE OVER CHRISTMAS ON BBC1 – XMAS EVE AT 8.30 AND BOXING DAY AT 1.30 (CHECK RADIO TIMES FOR DETAILS).