Nigel Williams, the comic chronicler of suburbia, is hardly a modern-day Pooter: more the new face of media-savvy, running a TV series by fax from his leafy lair
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS the hot mid-afternoon lull in South London. A builder's radio rings faintly from one of the tall redbrick porches on Holmbush Road. Rosebush shadows inch across lawns. Wives with back-garden tans give their children squash and wait for their husbands to get home.

Nigel Williams, writer and resident, understands times like these. He reaches deep into the big fridge in his cool basement kitchen and pulls out a fat bottle of Marks & Spencer's old-fashioned lemonade. Taking two wine glasses, he heads out onto the balcony at the back of his large airy house, pulls up a garden umbrella, flops down under it in his loose linen shirt, and measures out our hour and a half in cold drinks.

Williams has long curly hair and the calmly ordered air of someone who works at home and likes it. In fact, he likes his home and its Volvo-ruled environs enough to make them the chief subject of his novels, short stories, plays and screenplays. Since The Wimbledon Poisoner in 1990, he has established a lush corner of suburban fiction, all of it set among the proud semi- detacheds of SW19; so far he has grown four books, a television adaptation and a radio series there. At the same time, he has grafted on a second, related variety: books of ostensible travel writing like 1993's Two and a Half Men in a Boat that turn out to be semi-fiction about adventures by himself and his family and friends.

The latest flowering of the latter is From Wimbledon to Waco, a record of the Williams family holiday to America last year. Everything about it - the overdone subject, the cute family arguments transcribed for our benefit - suggests a thin, possibly worthless, book. Yet Williams makes it charming: the pages skip along with sly jokes and observations (New England is condemned for its smugness and having too many trees) told in spare but digressive sentences that don't wait anxiously for you to laugh. It's the book of a man who has his work life and leisure in harmony - and is happy and able to turn any of them into a clever paperback. Moreover, a man who can get Faber & Faber to pay for the holiday and the book, a broadsheet newspaper to serialise it, and Radio Four to pay him to read selections.

Nigel Williams is 47, and has a keen sense of his own worth ("Publishers don't agree to things because they like the colour of my eyes") and how to increase it with cross-promotion and marketing synergy and other strategies usually unfamiliar to comic novelists. This may be because he also runs the BBC arts flagship Omnibus by phone and fax from his home office, in the same easy way he ran its books showcase Bookmark until his promotion in 1993. Like a more modest Melvyn Bragg, Williams has been playing both sides of the literary game since the 1970s, criss-crossing its small field as presenter and editor and writer in ever tighter, more productive patterns. Thus in 1992, when he wanted to televise a novel of his called Witchcraft, he was able to adapt it himself, and see it broadcast on the channel that he was working for. "He's one of a few people at the BBC who are doing exactly what they want," says Waldemar Januszczak, a rival arts head at Channel Four. "You just feel they have a red telephone and can get through to [BBC1 controller] Alan Yentob straight away."

Omnibus certainly seems fortunate: its budget has survived intact amid widespread cuts, the number of its programmes has been increased, and it has secured extra funding from the BBC's worldwide television wing. "I'm still allowed to do what I want without committees," says Williams. He says Yentob is "one of my oldest mates"; Yentob says Williams "has a presence". They started in the BBC together in the early Seventies; they have since been joined by Williams's wife Suzan, a senior script editor for drama and serials, and his elder brother Hugh, head of programmes at the World Service and husband of Sue Lawley. Here and there in this handy knot of connections, media watchers have hinted at favours being done.

Picking his words carefully, Williams denies any "whiff of corruption". He talks about refusing an outside production company's offer to script a film that might have ended up on Omnibus, about how it's a fact of life that the media is "a village" in which people naturally know and like each other. With a few thoughtful pauses, his sandals and his faintly South London vowels, he's fairly convincing: you cannot imagine him in a meeting. He says he has made no bid for power as "a suit" at the BBC, staying in the role of editor and mocking Yentob in print for his mobile phone and his power breakfasts.

Yet Williams is rather professionally shambling. Beneath his famously messy red fringe his eyes are hard and bright, and beneath all its likeable suburban self-mockery his writing wants lots of attention and influence. So Two and a Half Men in a Boat, a whimsical account of a lazy trip up the Thames with friends, actually turns out to be a carefully planned operation. Williams had just got a "surprise" tax bill of pounds 28,000 - an impressive- sounding amount - and needed the money; he persuaded Hodder & Stoughton to commission the book, collected an explorer called JP and a workaholic television executive called Al (guess who?) for colourful companions, and shrewdly chose to repeat Jerome K Jerome's famous journey.

For three sunny days Williams rowed and ate and mocked Yentob - who says he brought and used his mobile phone constantly "as a prop" - while remembering everything. With this, some judicious fictional heightening, and some well-marshalled arguments about Three Men in a Boat, Williams wrote a funny book disguising a serious argument for the kind of fiction produced by Jerome and, latterly, himself. "If Nigel can talk himself into something, he can write himself out of it," says Melvyn Bragg.

Williams's Wimbledon books are similarly shrewd. First, he took "the most famous suburb in the world" (somewhere he has never lived - his house is in slightly more metropolitan Putney). Then he gave it a fictional life that was both whimsical and dark, perfectly pitched for readers in the many suburbs like Wimbledon to buy at their local Waterstone's. The Wimbledon Poisoner, which has sold a large 150,000 copies in paperback and which he adapted for television himself, was the template. A lovable loser called Henry Farr tries to poison his oppressive wife and keeps failing; bodies pile up at drinks parties and the Summer Fayre; the suburb loses its finely described straitjacket to mass hysteria as, gradually, it becomes clear that another, more professional poisoner is lacing the punch.

Throughout, Williams mixed funny-sour scenes with sweet suburban details, but never too many, to avoid spoiling our appetites. Then, for the follow- ups, he gave his original recipe some new spicings, adding a UFO fantasy in They Came From SW19 and a risky satire on Islamic fundamentalism in East Of Wimbledon. His writing stayed light, with only the odd skewed image like "roses as big as soup plates" to suggest a literary style. Saleable near-cliches were more common: "I have a great facility for being cheap and easy," admits Williams with his usual disarming candour.

This, however, is not really an admission: being cheap and easy was his point. "I don't like writing that is not afraid to bore the audience," he says, animated out of his good-natured slouch for the first time. "Ultimately what keeps a book alive is not whether it's on the syllabus for ten minutes. It's called the public, and it's got fuck-all to do with artistic success."

Williams's populism is not just reader-grabbing. Like Nick Hornby's, it is also a calculated stance for a new kind of middlebrow, and against more adventurous literature. Williams says, "Experimentation is jolly interesting every few years ..." Does he prefer more conventional books? "I'm conventional in the sense that I try to avoid talking bollocks. I do think there is a blind road in modern literature."

With his tastemaker's past at Bookmark and present at Omnibus, this view of literature has influence - an influence that can help sell his own books, which in turn justifies his advocacy of middlebrow, which can help sell more of his books and so on in a virtuous circle. This, rather than the insider dealing some suspect, is one benefit Williams derives from all his intersecting projects. And then again, his reputation as a player in the media village gives his amiable comedies an edge of knowingness, something that makes them popular with the other players, who can read his Wimbledon knockabout safe in the knowledge that its author is a respected cultural arbiter.

"In arts - as opposed to banking - the grubbier your shirt the higher up you are," says Januszczak. Under his wide garden umbrella, Williams's shirt is certainly crumpled.

HIS FATHER, to whom he frequently refers, was a headmaster. In his affable way, Williams has long been chasing a similar didactic status. Born to "genteel poverty" in Cheshire in 1948, he got into Oxford in the late 1960s and acquired a name for untidiness and ambition. "I wrote a play and I thought I was a great writer," says Williams. "David Hare and Christopher Hampton came to see it and said, 'You have talent, my boy.' " He left with a history degree, his wife-to-be Suzan, a trainee's job at the BBC and, Suzan says, a preoccupation "about the success machine". He wrote a novel, My Life Closed Twice, about a writer from Oxford working at the BBC who becomes obsessed by rejection letters from "trendies, up there in Bedford Square", and has to choose between writing and his wife. The book was prickly with showing-off; the following year, 1978, Williams suddenly had something to show off about: a hit at the Royal Court Theatre. Class Enemy was a blunt, short work about South London schoolkids taking their education into their own hands, full of the then communist Williams's pessimism about the Labour welfare state. Its success briefly made his reputation and ruined his writing.

The Royal Court accepted his next play and it flopped. Williams burrowed back into his BBC career, anxious about his status: "I'd be interviewing someone and think, 'You should be interviewing me.' " Gradually, by writing, he rebuilt his confidence. His novels began to get him reviews with "best" and "young" in them. They also got darker, with Witchcraft showing an enthusiasm for the macabre that would later give his Wimbledon books a welcome taint of black humour. But proper literary fame was still distant. "I wanted them to say, 'Nigel Williams, the novelist'," he says. "I didn't like it when they said, 'Nigel Williams, the man at the BBC'."

This had its compensations, though: once editor of Bookmark, he could give the literary success machine a tilt of his own. He made a series of films showing "connections between literature and the world". He commissioned a film placing the Bosnian Serb leader and poet Radovan Karadzic in the Serbian epic tradition, and was denounced for respecting a war criminal; he allowed a record of an English Shakespeare company tour of Malawi to be intercut with comparisons of that country's regime to Macbeth's, and the programme's broadcast was mysteriously blocked.

This sense of issue-based seriousness did not leave Williams when, at the end of the Eighties, he spotted a market for comic novels that actually made people laugh. Among the SW19 japes lurked his suspicion of clerics (the creepy evangelists in They Came from SW19), his worries about mock- Tudor xenophobia (The Wimbledon Poisoner's villain talking of "purifying" the area), and a strong conviction that the leafy streets he mocked represented civilisation nevertheless. "The world is either suburban or it's falling to bits," he tells me without irony, looking out over his cool back garden.

Williams is proud of his Putney home, telling me unprompted what a good price he bought it for 12 years ago; he knows that suburbia is about aspiration. "Get more money, have another drink, go to the swimming pool [not his own yet] - these are the priorities," he says. His politics have shifted, predictably, to a "liberal pragmatism" that allows him to send his three sons to Kings College Wimbledon. So has his view of art: "Joseph Brodsky said once - I was doing a film with him - that 'All art is middle class.' It's not a million miles wide of the mark."

Williams knows suburbia is about graft too. Henry Farr fits in his poisoning after work; Williams fits in his writing "between telephone calls". He is still driven: "I do work a lot of weekends - it's a good time because all the kids are working hard for exams. I work all the time really." Doesn't he get interrupted by his family, by looking after his house? "I'm appallingly impractical about practical things ... but I am extremely - well - ruthless ... with my time. I can't stand having my time wasted. I'm 47. Every single moment is precious."

"There are whole areas of life he cuts out entirely," says Suzan, "Like meetings and shopping." Sometimes Williams talks about his writing in the same functional way: "It's a job. I'm like a plumber" - but then he smiles and says with a giggle like a Wodehouse character, "It still seems to me amazing that someone will pay you for writing. I think it's a wheeze really."

Most people like Williams's giggling side. Friends remember him being fun to take on holiday; readers remember his books being fun to take on holiday. But the contradiction between his shaggy-dog literary persona and his media savvy and ambition is rather obvious. It can be irritating, when the suburban winner Williams writes too obviously about suburban losers like Henry Farr, or when the BBC veteran Williams pretends to be bemused by Yentob talking about scheduling. The interview Williams is honest (or manipulative) enough to admit this: "I thought I was going down rather well with this guy at a dinner party. Then he said, 'If I have any more of this faux-naive crap from you, I'll smash you in the face.' "

Williams knows that one day he may have to stop telling jokes: "I'm quite a dark person, actually. I don't necessarily think I'm gonna write a jolly book a year." The one he's working on is "funny in places, but frightening too". And all through his "jolly" period Williams has been clever enough to keep a sideline in more highbrow work, hedging his bets on middlebrow despite his rhetoric. In 1992 he wrote a play about FR Leavis for the BBC; next month his Golding-approved adaptation of Lord of the Flies opens at the RSC. He lets literary references trail off at the end of his sentences.

In fact, the Williams household belies his public concern with ordinary people in average suburbs. The rooms are full of books, computers, music stands. One son has just got into Oxford ("they practically leapt over the desk at him," says Williams proudly), another writes songs, a third offers Williams a word-processed poem as we walk in from the balcony. "We're all wrapped up in each other," says Williams. "Find each other quite interesting and amusing."

He grabs the poem and, disappearing upstairs, returns with a jacket that makes his casual grey trousers into a smart-casual John Birt suit. A taxi is waiting outside to take him to the city: Nigel Williams is off to a meeting.

8 'From Wimbledon to Waco' is published by Faber & Faber at pounds 12.99