On Air: Television film critic - suits you, sir

Charlie Higson, Fast Show straight man, is to be Channel Four's answer to Barry Norman.
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The Independent Culture
To some, Charlie Higson might seem like the Ernie Wise of The Fast Show. While Paul Whitehouse - the Eric Morecambe of the trendy sketch- show - grabs all the plaudits and the best lines, his partner appears to be butt, stooge and straight man all rolled in to one.

Higson is the first to admit that he shuns the limelight. Dressed unobtrusively in a lightweight suit of a colour fashion editors would no doubt call ecru, he is not a natural showman. Wearing neatly parted, school-prefect hair, he modestly directs his gaze at the floor as he speaks, too shy to catch your eye. His best creations are imbued with this in-born, archetypal English diffidence: think of Ralph, the tongue-tied landowner from The Fast Show who suffers a love that dares not speak its name for Ted, his Irish gamekeeper (played by Whitehouse).

Higson is at his happiest when not being recognised. "I'm only ever seen disguised with wigs and facial hair. I'm one of the more anonymous people on The Fast Show. Film premieres and fancy clubs are not my style. I don't yearn for fame. That's not why I went into this business. Paul is much better-known. He gets things like being pestered by other parents in the playground when he takes his kids to school."

Now, however, all that might change, as Higson embarks on a schedule that would exhaust a blue-arsed fly. Next week, he is fronting Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a new Channel 4 film magazine series. "It's aimed at people who like the kind of films made by Channel Four," he explains, in between shooting scenes. "The brief from Michael Jackson [chief executive of C4] was to re-invent the film magazine, which is impossible. I wish he'd just said, `make a very good one'." The first episode promises features on the clamour to remake Hitchcock and the enduring scariness of The Exorcist.

Scarcely pausing to draw breath, Higson is then dashing off to launch the video of the live Fast Show and his re-published first novel, before polishing off a feature-film script he hopes to direct, script-editing and performing in a new series of The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer for BBC2, writing and producing a remake of Randall and Hopkirk - Deceased (again with Vic and Bob) - oh yes, and filming an hour-long BBC2 Christmas special of Ted and Ralph. In this, their relationship is threatened by the arrival of a woman in Ralph's life.

"We were worried about extending it to an hour," Higson concedes, "because the Ted and Ralph sketches are about what's not said between two people who don't know what they feel about each other. But by bringing in a woman and making it a triangle, it becomes like when your best friend at school gets a girlfriend and you suddenly become an embarrassment. It's good to explore that shifting relationship."

Instead of Morecambe and Wise, Higson reaches for another image to describe his working relationship with Whitehouse, his co-producer, co-performer and co-writer on The Fast Show: "I'll give you a poncey analogy of playing the piano. I'm the left hand and Paul is the right hand. Paul comes up with loads of ideas, and I think how to structure and present them all. I'm laying down the chords with the left, so Paul can improvise and footle around with the right. I'm the one that pulls it all into shape, and he's the one that does the stuff that people notice, the funny stuff. I'll never be the one entertaining everyone in the pub with gags and wisecracks. That's Paul's job."

For all its popularity, there is a suspicion that many of the characters in The Fast Show are merely cardboard-cut-outs; walking catchphrases. Higson responds that some have hidden depths. "Look at Swiss Toni [the terminally sad car dealer full of empty boasts about invented exploits with women]. Behind the facade, he is a lonely, frightened man. He's more interesting if you portray him as someone trying to impress on the world his great wisdom when you know that in fact he's cracking up. I wanted to have one sketch with him just sitting on the toilet weeping, but that was a sketch too far. People like the fact that there's a bit more to the character than just dirty jokes. It's the same with Ted and Ralph. The best thing we ever did on The Fast Show was the sketch where, during a drinking game at the local pub, Ralph is trying to tell Ted his wife has died. It teeters between being very painful and very funny."

All the most successful creations, he contends, are failures. "They're either sad or mad or wankers or all three. That seems to be what people find funny. The most popular comedy characters are people you wouldn't want to spend more than a minute with. They're so unpleasant in real life that comedy is a way of coming to terms with them. At the safe remove of a comedy show, watching them is a relief."

He goes on to draw a contrast with comedy imported from across the Atlantic. "American comedy is about successful, witty people - look at Friends or Seinfeld. Here, successful characters have to be wankers. We don't like success; we like quirky grotesques and monsters. It's the myth of the great British eccentric."

Higson's own creations major on the eccentric. "I know there are certain things I can do quite well. Ralph is very easy for me. He's not very extrovert, he's quite shy and quite repressed emotionally. I can do that easily. I'm good at awkwardness. It's like Alan Bennett or Hugh Grant. I can do characters who are crap."

None of that puts off a Fast Show following that is anoraky, bordering on the fanatical. The programme itself sends this up in the cringe-making figure of Colin Hunt, the unsubtly named office loser (again played by Higson) who desperately tries to make friends by reciting TV catchphrases to his colleagues. "Colin is a good way of commenting on The Fast Show," Higson reckons. "There must be lots of people in offices who hate the show because people come in and quote bits of it at them. There are definitely Fast Show bores out there." I'll say - and anyone who has ever got stuck at a party next to a bloke cracking up as he says "suit you" or "which was nice" will back me up. So there will be mortification if they do not make another series. "I don't know when we can get everyone back together and pay them enough money," Higson says.

Anyway, he has quite enough on his plate to be getting on with. Reflecting on his whacking great workload over the next few months, Higson laughs: "I must be crazy doing all this, because I like the fact that I'm anonymous." It looks like he's well and truly blown it, then. He should brace himself for at least a little pestering in the playground.

`Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' starts on Channel 4 on Tuesday 13 October