Charlie Higson

Posted: February 19, 2013 in Comedian, Writer
Tags: , , ,

David Arnold passed me on to Charlie Higson.   I met him one morning at a cafe in North London,  me drinking a latte and him drinking dandelion and burdock.charliehigson

Charlie Higson has the same problem that everyone else is having these days, namely distraction.  After a successful career in television in the 1990s, he’s now an author, writing  at home during office hours.  But when I ask him how much time he actually spends working, he reckons it’s about two hours a day. ‘But as long as I get that two hours done, then there’s Twitter and emails and Call of Duty online which I spend a huge amount of my time on…years of my life.  It does get frustrating.  I do sometimes think if I hadn’t played so much Call of Duty I could have written a film script or another TV series.’    Still, his output is pretty respectable.  He’s written hundreds of sketches of the Fast Show, produced comedies like Vic and Bob’s ‘Randall and Hopkirk Deceased’ and is the author of 15 books.  ‘Yeah.  And I’m pretty good at Call of Duty’ he says, deadpan.

‘The Fast Show’, which Higson produced and wrote with Paul Whitehouse, was inescapable in the 90s.  Even if you weren’t watching it, you probably had someone telling you that all sorts of things were ‘BRILLIANT’ in an ironically positive way, that they had been ‘Very…very drunk’ when telling you about their weekend or responding with a chin stroke and the word ‘Nice.’  when you were boring the arse off them.  Once you’d discovered the source of the catchphrases, it’s likely you were beguiled by the ‘will they, wont they’ awkwardness of Ted and Ralph.  Higson had known he wanted to continue to perform after the demise of his band The Higsons.  They’d given it a go for six years, getting signed to 2 Tone records (Madness were label mates) and having their first record for the label produced by Jerry Dammers of The Specials.  ‘If you wanted to go on stage and arse about and entertain your mates, you formed a band and that’s what I wanted to do…be on stage.  Entertaining people, I loved that.’

Of the traditional rewards that are supposed to come from being in a band, it seems that rock n roll was the only one that came his way.  He’s loathe to discuss drugs now that he writes for kids and says there was a distinct lack of groupies as ‘if you went off with anyone, you had to be prepared to have the piss ripped out of you for the rest of the tour by the rest of the band, non stop. So it wasn’t worth it.‘  When temptation did come his way one night, it was resisted due to practical reasons.    There was, he says ‘a very, very beautiful girl in Hull who came up to me in a club after the gig and she said to me that she’d found the concert…’very exciting’, shall we say. I thought if I go off with her, how am I ever going to find the band and find my way back to the hotel in the morning?’

Having worked as a decorator in between gigs to make some cash, when the band broke up he figured if he did that full time he could actually make quite a lot of money ‘because London is full of houses.’  Paul Whitehouse, whom Charlie had met at University was also doing up homes, working as a plasterer.  They started writing comedy together and the spark that lit the fire was the creation of ‘Loadsamoney’ for Harry Enfield, after which they were taken seriously as comedy writers. rowley birkin

Higson talks very fondly of Whitehouse, whom he has known since 1977 and who he describes as ‘a brilliant performer’.  After Ralph, he tells me that the ‘very, very drunk’ Rowley Birkin, the bumbling, retired Q.C. who delights in disconnected remembrances, was his favourite Fast Show character.  Higson would sit opposite Whitehouse with an idiot board containing key words and phrases as he performed Rowley.  ‘Those stories could occasionally be very moving – thats quite an acting job, to speak gibberish and have people in tears.   As a range of characters, impersonating those people and making them come alive and keeping them different, he’s on a par with anyone like Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers or any of those people that have been praised for doing different characters.’  Whitehouse is apparently taking a break currently but Higson says they’ll definitely work together again.

‘The Fast Show’ made an internet only comeback in 2011.  Beer brand Fosters offered a budget, the opportunity to get the gang back together and the chance to see if entertainment could work successfully in a new medium.  With hindsight, you can’t help thinking that if transmission had been delayed by even 18 months, they might have attracted a bigger audience now used to watching television via different on demand services with tablet computers via turbo broadband.   Perhaps surprisingly for an avid online gamer with 80,000 followers on Twitter, Higson came away from the experience convinced that TV still rules.  ‘Somebody put it into perspective for me when they told me they’d posted a video on Youtube and said ‘Look it’s only been up there for two weeks and it’s had a million hits.  It’s extraordinary that you can get this access to people‘.  But ‘Cash in the Attic’ gets four million viewers every day in the afternoon.  Four million a day!  If you counted them as hits…‘   And as he points out, though his kids watch ‘a huge amount of stuff’ online, it is still television programmes that they’re watching.  51P9XA+L+8L

I’d read a lot of interviews with Higson before I got to meet him and in most of them he comes across as very content in a breezy kind of way.  You can hardly blame him.  He clearly loves writing, both the act of it and the freedom it allows him.  Not only has he already accumulated a very respectable CV writing, producing and directing  for television, he has, as he puts it, ‘had a second flush of success with the kids books where I was offered a new career completely out of the blue’.  Having published four adult novels, his Editor Kate Jones was charged with revitalising the James Bond brand several years later.  Knowing that Charlie was a big fan and would meet his deadlines, he got the gig.  Five ‘Young Bonds’ followed and since 2009 he’s been writing a zombie horror series, the fifth instalment of which will be published this year.  A lot to be happy about then.  Does he ever worry about anything?

‘I think everybody worries about something.  Certainly as you get older you are reminded more and more of mortality.  Your parents generation are all getting ill in different ways and dying.  As you get older your body deteriorates in different ways.  You get ailments and things fall off and things go wrong.  You can’t really worry about that because its inevitable. So on a work front, do I worry about stuff?  I’d like to do more TV comedy.  People send me sketches, they come to events or they email me asking ‘I’ve got a great comedy idea, how do I get it on TV?’ and I say ‘I’ve got tons of comedy ideas and I cant get my ideas on TV!  How can I tell you how to get your ideas on TV?’

When I express surprise at this, he answers that although his name will open a few doors and he’s acquainted with comedy controllers at both the BBC and Sky, ‘I’m 54, I’m not Jack Whitehall.  I’m not the person on TV that everybody wants.‘   The last television show he was involved in, ‘Bellamy’s People’,  was not commissioned for a second run by the BBC.  How did that feel?  ‘The only major rejection we’ve had was that one and I suppose like everyone else you just think ‘Well, they’re a bunch of idiots.’ rather than ‘I’ve made something that was shit.’ he says, laughing.  He definitely thinks the glass is half full then? ‘I think I maintain an even keel, I’m kind of in the middle. More and more as I get older it’s the small things in life that give you the most pleasure and are the most precious. Having a nice meal with my kids is brilliant. That’s a lot more fun and rewarding than going to the comedy awards.’

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