Charlie's Angle

'The Fast Show' made Charlie Higson a comedy hero. Now he's about to make a fortune out of James Bond's schooldays. John Walsh wants to know his secret.
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The Independent Online

Charlie ("Charles") Higson occupies some ambiguous positions in the TV and publishing worlds. He's a writer of comedy who hates comic novels. He's a dealer in 45-second funny sketches who writes 100,000-word thrillers. He dwells at the centre of the modern humour orbit, where the planets Reeves and Mortimer, Enfield and Whitehouse circle each other endlessly; yet he has a whole alternative literary universe in which to roll around.

He's best known as a TV performer, the chap on The Fast Show with Paul Whitehouse and Mark Williams. His key persona is Ralph, the tongue-tied aristocrat who nurses a chronic but unspoken love for his elderly Irish gardener, Ted (Whitehouse). He co-wrote the show from the outset. He's been a singer in a rock band, a producer for Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, and a successful novelist - and, from next March, he's set to make a fortune as the author of children's books featuring the teenage James Bond at public school. Not since the arrival of a certain schoolboy wizard has there been such a rock-solid franchise - Harry Potter Master Spy Goes to Etonwarts. No wonder the film rights were snapped up last week by Miramax.

Meeting him at Tiger Aspect, his production company, you encounter a diffident, rather noli me tangere man of 45 in a shriekingly loud Mambo shirt. I asked him first about the fortunes of his Fast Show character Swiss Toni, whose second series begins this week on BBC3. Double-breasted, tie-clipped and sporting a ludicrous bouffant that suggests a collision between the lead singer in A Flock of Seagulls and a show poodle at Crufts, Toni is a smooth operator. His catch-phrase is " ... like making love to a beautiful woman". Lots of experiences in life apparently warrant this happy comparison. Driving a Ferrari, studying a balance sheet, restoring an antique chair - they're all like making L to a BW. We never in fact see Swiss Toni making love, or even talking to beautiful women, unless you count his formidable mother or his unimpressed secretary.

"In the original sketches," says Higson, "the humour came from the difference between the way Toni talked to the boy, Paul, and the reality of this grotty, tiny little car showroom he was running. In English sitcoms, the joke is always the gap between how people perceive themselves and how others perceive them. Hyacinth Bucket. Captain Mainwaring. As I envisioned it, in episode one his wife left him and he spent the rest of the series trying to keep up this pretence of being a playboy ladies' man. When we wrote it, the producer Geoffrey Perkins said, 'Actually, the others characters are very interesting; it would be good to see how things led up to that point'. So we re-vamped it until the break-up became the last of the first series. The whole first series was a sort of pilot."

The shade of David Brent, patron saint of delusional bosses, seems to hang over Toni. Is this a comedy of embarrassment? "Well, it was a question - is he going to be humiliated in this series? But he always has some small moments of triumph. We didn't want to say, 'Look at this twat, let's laugh at him.' It works better if the audience cares about what's going on. It's clear that behind all the bluster, he's a man having a nervous breakdown."

Swiss Toni, I said, seems to be a man who has based his life on Martini advertisements, and longs to be part of a more glamorous world. "Yeah, originally I was trying for an impersonation of Sean Connery. I failed, but you still get a sense of a man living in the past. He has a speech saying, 'In my day, men wore driving gloves and curry had raisins in it' - and that sums him up really. He's out of time and he thinks, well, I can't change, but lots of people think like I do." Poor Toni. All he wants is a little James Bond in his life. And from next spring, his creator is going to supply it ...

Higson himself grew up "typically middle-class" in Kent, mostly in Crawley and Sevenoaks, the third of four sons and the child of an accountant and management consultant. "Imagine - he was an accountant in the days when I was obsessed with Monty Python, and accountants were its main target. I used to love Monty Python."

Did it give him ambitions to be a comic writer? Higson looks scornful. "It was 30 years ago. There were no media studies courses or Channel 4. The thought that you might one day work in TV was unimaginable. But I was writing. Since I was 14, I wrote books for my own amusement. Science-fiction stuff. I started off influenced by Michael Moorcock and graduated to J G Ballard."

This was the early Seventies, when glam rock was all the rage. Was he into all that? "At school [Sevenoaks] I was very much in the arty set. They had a fantastic art department, and I used to hang out with them. It wasn't sport and pop music for me, it was Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. Quite a lot of pop musicians emerged from that art department," he concluded proudly.

Including, of course, The Higsons. There are few authors-stroke-actors-stroke-scriptwriters around who can boast that they've stood in front of the speaker tower and the drum riser, and sung to a mosh pit of pullulating students. Higson can. "There were five of us. We were originally called The Higson 5, as a piss-take of the Jackson 5, then we became The Higsons, and we always meant to change it; six years later we were still called that."

What was the music like? "We were kind of scratchy, indie, white funk - we were always accused of trying to f sound like Talking Heads, though we denied it. We were a very popular live act in the college and small-club circuit. But as the club thing took over, the electro stuff and the DJ-ing, live music fell away."

He and the golden crew of Nineties comics first met as students. "I met Paul [Whitehouse] at University in Norwich, and met Harry [Enfield] and Vic Reeves through friends of theirs who were also at Norwich. It wasn't until 10 years later that we got together, though. You just didn't go from university into comedy unless you were at Oxbridge. Ten years later, I was doing the band. Paul had become a plasterer, Vic was doing his strange club act. But me, Paul and Harry ended up staying in the same council estate in Hackney. Harry started doing a character-based live act, something nobody else was doing, and he came to the attention of the Spitting Image people. He started doing voices for them. One was a sketch of Prince Philip listening to his cousin who runs a kebab shop. It was the first incarnation of Stavros. When the same team came to put on Saturday Night Live, they were looking for someone to do topical gags about the week's events and thought, 'What about the kebab-shop owner?' In fact, Harry had nicked the voice off Paul, who used to do an impression of our local kebab-shop owner in Hackney ... "

So Harry Enfield took off. Higson and Whitehouse became writers on The Harry Enfield Show, and stockpiled characters which were rejected by Enfield, or didn't suit his persona. ("The thing about the show was, whatever we did, Harry had to be the main character in everything.") One was a sketch about two camp tailors saying "Oooh!" and "Suits you, Sir" to a customer ... "We knew we didn't want to spend our lives being Harry Enfield's writers," says Charlie with a hint of distaste, "so we started putting our own show together. Geoffrey [Perkins] put together a compilation of highlights from the show for a press launch, and we were struck by how well the characters worked in tiny little, trailer-sized bits. We thought - how about a whole series like that?" And so The Fast Show was born.

Among the catch phrases ("This week, I shall be mostly eating yoghurt"; " ... but of course, I was vair', vair' drunk"; "You and me - here - in a candle-lit restaurant? With my reputation?"; "Does my bum look big in this?") that greeted the first audience was a sketch which mystified people, a sketch in which two men kept not-quite-saying things. "When we first played Ted and Ralph, there were no laughs at all. We were thinking of cutting them. But people afterwards said, 'I really like those characters.'" Higson admits that it was a risk, amid the schoolboy humour, to ask viewers to empathise with a bittersweet, quasi-homosexual, Terence Rattigan romance between a toff and an elderly gardener.

"The character of Ralph is very much based on my experiences as a teenager, trying unsuccessfully to chat up women. I've always been fairly shy with women. I went to an all-boys school. I had an all-boys family. I went to a public school. Oh and there's also my inability to talk to the working classes - you know, that terrible embarrassment, when somebody comes round to fix your plumbing, and you feel awkward and don't know what to say. I just put those two things together."

Higson has also been writing novels for two decades. His first was King of the Ants: "I thought I'd write an American-style thriller, but make it English and set in Hackney Marshes." Three more followed, under the name of Charles Higson: Full Whack, Happy Now and Getting Rid of Mister Kitchen (in which a killer spends the book trying to get rid of the body). Now he's picked up the most lucrative commission imaginable - to write a series of children's novels starring the young James Bond.

"I was approached by Kate Jones, who'd been my editor at Hamish Hamilton, and was working with the Fleming estate. She knew I liked James Bond, and there were Bond references in my earlier books. The estate was looking for ways to reawaken interest in Fleming. Penguin had republished nice editions of Dr No and Casino Royale. Now they wanted someone to write books for nine-to-12s, to show that Bond was a literary character before he was a movie character."

He's now written the first (its title firmly under wraps) to be published by Puffin next March. In it, the 13-year-old Bond is at Eton in the 1930s, and is drawn into an adventure on a remote Scottish island. There's a villain, and a villain's henchman. There's even a love interest. "She's called Wilder Lawless. But it's a fairly chaste relationship. She's older than him, and he's got an older friend who fancies her. There's a lot of confused pre-sexuality. She wrestles him to the ground and pins him down with her thighs, and he likes it but he doesn't know why ... "

To research the book, Higson re-read the complete Bond oeuvre, in search of biographical clues. "There are only tiny nuggets of information, because Bond is a fantasy figure on to which anyone can project themselves. The books were like a textbook for the dull, grey, Fifties, British chap on how to be a man. It was the early-Playboy time. This is how you order a steak in a restaurant. This is what you should be drinking and wearing. This is how you treat a lady. That's why they were so popular and why they're interesting now, for what they tell us about Fifties aspirations."

We seem to have strayed back to Swiss Toni, and his outmoded attempts to woo the world with fine wines and Belgian chocolates. How clever of Mr Higson to have parlayed his early shyness into a career spent finding a voice for aspiring heroes, taking moth-eaten tropes of maleness and turning them back on themselves for comic effect. Provided he can brave the wrath of James Bond anoraks, Higson has got it made. He makes writing the adventures of 007 Jnr sound a treat. Why, it's probably like making love to a beautiful woman. E

The new series of 'Swiss Toni' starts this Tuesday on BBC3