Bond is his words
Comedian and self-confessed pre-adolescent Charlie Higson is winning over a new generation of fans with his take on 007's younger years, writes James Kidd
THE NAME'S HIGSON - Charlie Higson - licensed to write 007 books. There's probably no variation of this Higson hasn't heard by now, but that's the price you pay when you graduate from co-creating one of British television's best-loved comedy series - The Fast Show - to writing for one of the best-known franchises of all: Ian Fleming's James Bond.
A couple of years ago, 48-year-old Higson was contacted by the Fleming estate and asked if he'd be interested in writing a series of books about the spy's formative years at Eton.
'Ian Fleming Publications wanted to revive Bond's literary side,' Higson says, sipping coffee and slouching on a sofa in a London cafe. 'Eon [Albert Broccoli's production company] owns the film side, which clearly tends to dominate. So the Flemings looked for proper writers to write some new Bond books. With the success of Harry Potter, but also [Anthony Horowitz's] Alex Rider books, they thought, 'We should be doing this, really'.'
The result was Young Bond, a series with two best-sellers (Silverfin and Blood Fever). Higson looks set to score a hat-trick with the latest instalment, Double or Die, a title voted for by Young Bond fans. A fast-paced tale of codes, double-bluffs and kidnapping, the story involves crosswords, early computers, car chases and guns - lots of guns. And, teenagers beware, there's even a girl for Bond to blush about.
Higson admits he was a surprise choice. Whereas Fleming personified English elitism (born in Mayfair, and educated at Eton and Sandhurst, he married into the aristocracy and served as a commander in naval intelligence), the laid-back, dry-witted Higson began as a rock musician in the Higsons, who enjoyed brief chart success in the 1980s.
'I knew the one thing I didn't want to do was be in a pop group,' Higson says. 'It was great fun when I was relatively young, but I didn't want to do it for a career.'
At a loss about what career he did want, Higson ended up working as a plasterer. In one of the more unlikely twists in British comedy history, it was how he met Paul Whitehouse, with whom he created The Fast Show, and Harry Enfield, who offered the pair their first show-business break.
'I ended up doing TV comedy by accident, really,' Higson says.
The Fast Show's success owed much to his skills as a writer and performer, creating such characters as Ralph and Ted (a tale of forbidden love between a diffident aristocrat and his handyman) and Swiss Toni (a used car salesman who compares everything to 'making love to a beautiful woman'). The show ended with sellout live tours and a TV finale featuring celebrity fan Johnny Depp. Higson went on to further success with a Swiss Toni spin-off and a remake of detective television series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).
Higson's background in light entertainment alarmed hard-core Bond aficionados. 'Before Silverfin came out, they were absolutely incensed - furious,' he says. 'What is Ian Fleming Publications thinking, hiring this comedian to write kiddie James Bond books? We don't want this. James Bond is the ultimate man. We don't want to know about what he was like at school. We don't want James Bond to be Harry Potter.'
What the Bond fanatics didn't know about was Higson's passion for spy stories, in general, and Fleming's books, in particular. A crime-fiction addict ('I don't want a book that's good for me. Great literature, I just think, is s***'), Higson has written four adult thrillers. The first, King of the Ants, revealed a profound affection for Bond's creator.
'It was a sort of parody of a Fleming book,' he says. 'Its plot mirrored the classic Fleming plot structure, only it was about a decorator falling foul of some builders in London. Throughout the novel, the main character is reading James Bond books. His mother called him Sean, after Sean Connery. There were lots of parallels.'
Higson's challenge was to stay true to Fleming's vision within the context of a children's book. The form posed no problems, he says. 'Fleming's stripped-down style works very well for kids. You haven't got pages and pages of description, and the plots aren't tricksy. The book starts and M says to Bond, 'This is the villain. Sort him out'. And Bond will. He never does any spying. He normally gets close to them by playing cards or beating them at golf. It's perfect for children's writing, really.'
The perennial Bond staples of sex and violence were more challenging. 'It's tricky, because sex is such a central part of the Bond thing - Bond lost his virginity at 16 in a Parisian brothel and was expelled from Eton because of an incident with one of the maids. But 10-year-old boys don't want to read about that.'
Higson's three sons have been an invaluable litmus test for excessive romance. 'I haven't had any complaints yet from the boys saying there has been too much kissing. What I've tried to do is put Bond into situations with a girl where nothing explicit happens. But if you're an older teenager, or a girl, who might think more romantically, you can use your imagination and fill in the gaps.'
Violence has proved to be less of a problem - at least for his young audience. 'Kids love fighting. My kids insist on very violent parts. They don't want plot, they want people killing each other. I did a reading and I asked, how do I get around Bond's success with women? One boy said, 'Well, what if Bond is about to kiss a girl and at the last moment there's a huge explosion and they're completely distracted'.'
This youthful bloodlust is an integral and unavoidable part of young boys' characters, Higson says. 'Boys play with guns, whatever you do. Left to their own devices, they'll make guns out of toast, Lego, bananas, cheese. It doesn't mean they all grow up to be murderers. I had toy guns and I grew up to be the most mild-mannered bloke around. You look at the kids we've turned out that haven't been allowed to play with knives and guns, and it doesn't seem to have done them much good.'
Most importantly, the explosive plots and minimal kissing have enticed boys - always the most unwilling readers - into bookshops and libraries.
'There's this big debate: Why do boys stop reading or not read as much as girls? I think the answer is that no one is writing the kinds of books they want to read. The classic tradition of adventure stories fell out of fashion because of their imperialistic, xenophobic, sexist nature. But that's what boys like - and it's not necessarily going to turn them into monsters.'
Higson has plans for two more Young Bond books before moving on. Although he has clearly enjoyed reviving Bond, the timetable of a novel a year has meant putting other work on hold. And he's constantly aware that Bond isn't his.
'I can't spend the rest of my life working on something that is essentially somebody else's creation. Another writer described continuing Bond as polishing somebody else's gold. I can't claim to have invented the man. I wish I had. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you - I'd be relaxing in Jamaica in my luxury villa.'
Higson has always known when to call time on a project - no matter how successful. 'In retrospect, we should have done more Fast Shows, but it was difficult. It was a team of seven, each pulling in different directions and wanting to do other stuff. Including me. There's always a feeling of wanting to do something different and new.'
His new projects include a radio series called Down the Line, which reunites him with Whitehouse, and writing children's thrillers. 'I'd like to start my own series. It's great doing events with kids. They're very open and enthusiastic - not too cool to care.
'Ian Fleming always said that his success was because he had an adolescent mind.' Higson giggles. 'I guess I must have a pre-adolescent mind. I understand 10-year-old boys, because I still am one.'
Genre Adult and children's thrillers
Latest book Double or Die (Puffin, HK$112)
Born Frome, Somerset, England
Lives North London
Family Married to Vicky, with three sons, aged seven, 11 and 13
Next projects The fourth Young Bond book next year; the fifth due in 2009.
Other works King of the Ants (Little, Brown, 1992), Happy Now (Little, Brown, 1993), Full Whack (Little, Brown, 1995), Getting Rid of Mr Kitchen (Little, Brown, 1996), Silverfin (Puffin, 2005), Blood Fever (Puffin, 2006)
Other jobs Rock musician, plasterer, TV comedian and writer
What the papers say about Silverfin
'A well-crafted page-turner with substance ... a most enjoyable,
well-written book.' - The Guardian
'Good, gritty and funny ... Very clever, Mr Bond, very clever indeed'
- The Daily Mail
Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson
'Jim Thompson was the greatest of the American pulp fiction crime writers of the 1950s and 60s. No one was better than him at getting inside the criminally unbalanced mind. Pop. 1280 is told from the point of view of a corrupt sheriff in a small town (population 1,280). He's lazy, self-serving and psychotic, but also very funny.'
Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks by Herge
'I've always loved comics and get up in arms over how snobbish we are about them. My 11-year-old, who is severely dyslexic and finds ordinary novels overwhelming, will happily lose himself in a comic. I still have my copy of this book from when I was a child. Let's face it, who hasn't enjoyed a Tintin book.'
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
'As a young teenager, I was utterly absorbed by the Gormenghast trilogy, which transported me to another world. I can't stand realistic, mundane, day- to-day fiction. I want a book to take me on an adventure. This is the story of Steerpike, the ultimate alienated teenager, and how he manipulates the inhabitants of castle Gormenghast.'
The Switch by Elmore Leonard
'It's impossible to pick out one Elmore Leonard, but I've gone for The Switch as I remember laughing out loud when I read it. Leonard is a genius at creating characters on the fringes of crime. The Switch shows us what happens when a scumbag rich man would rather not have his kidnapped wife back.'
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
'Ian Fleming created the most enduring character in 20th-century fiction. Those who only know Bond from the films might be surprised at just how readable the original books still are today. This is his best. A cracking thriller with a terrific, very modern villain in the murderous Red Grant.'