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Charlie Higson talks comedy, `The Enemy` and 007

30-Aug-2009 • Young Bond

Writer and comedian Charlie Higson arrives at our lunch meeting 10 minutes late after spending the morning working on a new series with his comedy pal, Paul Whitehouse.
His ordinary face and easy demeanour enable him to slip in and out of celebrity haunts such as The Groucho Club unnoticed and walk down the street without being recognised, for which he is grateful.

"I've got a bland face so that helps," he joked to the Belfast Telegraph.

Unremarkable features that are easily transformed by make-up have helped him turn into such cult comic characters as Swiss Toni and Ted and Ralph (with Whitehouse) in the hit comedy The Fast Show.

His latest transformation is rather more disturbing in the internet trailer of The Enemy, his debut horror story for kids, in which we see him turn from a normal-looking grown-up into a bloody- nosed, grey-skinned, frightening being. If you read the book you'll understand. It's David Cronenberg for kids.

Indeed, The Enemy is set in modern day London after a mystery illness attacks everyone over the age of 14. The sufferers either die or become child-eating zombies with rotting flesh and putrid innards. For a gang of kids it becomes a race across London for survival.

Some of the inspiration is derived from the Canadian horror movie maker Cronenberg, he admits. While at East Anglia university, Higson studied gothic literature, a film course on horror and wrote a dissertation on Cronenberg.

There are many scary bits -- disease-ridden grown-ups emerging from the depths of a stagnant swimming pool to attack the children, kids knocking the grown-ups' heads off with catapults containing metal balls, grown-ups taking nasty bites out of their young prey. It's the first in a series of three. But is it really suitable for children?

Higson thinks so. He tried it out on his own children, Frank, 16, Jim, 14 and 10-year-old Sid, first.

"It's about a bunch of kids going through a traumatic time. I think kids need to be scared now and then, to get used to it. Life is quite scary.

"The great thing about zombies is that you can do what you like to them. You can smash them to pieces because they are no longer human. You can be quite violent with them."

Higson, 51, who lives in London with his wife Vicky, a graphic artist, and also has a place in Puglia, Italy, where he does some of his writing, hopes that girls will pick up The Enemy as well.

Between books, he's working with Whitehouse on the BBC2 TV adaptation of their spoof phone-in Radio 4 series Down The Line, in which controversial phone-in host Gary Bellamy is let out of the studio to meet people face-to-face.

The comedy pair met at the University of East Anglia in Norwich in 1977, before Whitehouse dropped out and ended up in a council flat in Hackney, east London, with a bunch of other university dropouts.

Higson worked as a decorator and performed with his punk group the Higsons, while Whitehouse worked as a plasterer. Then they met and befriended Harry Enfield and started performing with him.

Higson recalls that when he and Whitehouse left the Harry Enfield series to work on The Fast Show, they wanted to do a show where no- one was the star.

"With Harry Enfield, Harry Enfield was very much the star, Paul and Kathy Burke were the sidekicks.

"When it came to The Fast Show, we didn't want it to be The Paul Whitehouse Show (the one off Harry Enfield). We wanted it to be a team thing."

He both wrote for and appeared in Harry Enfield's Television Programme, but always wanted to appear in more sketches.

"I had written certain bits for myself but Harry was never keen on me performing. Maybe he didn't think I was very funny. We did clash a bit. Maybe Harry and I were too similar, but it was his show. We're still friends, but he didn't really like anyone else telling him what to do."

Today, Higson says he tries to keep abreast of contemporary comedy.

"I watch everything comedy-wise that comes out. You have to see what other people are doing and make sure you're not doing the same jokes as them.

"I'm really enjoying Psychoville and I like Mitchell and Webb and Flight of the Conchords. Harry Hill's very funny too. But I think we need some new blood."

Higson's return to television comes some five years after he made a name for himself as the author of the young James Bond series, which began with SilverFin and earned him a place in the bestsellers list.

Indeed, the Young Bond series of five novels to date has now sold more than a million copies in the UK and has been translated into 24 different languages.

"I'd like to write more Bond books, it's just a question of juggling time," he explains.

He has also become a willing spokesman on children's reading habits, particularly those of boys.

But he is happy to return to making comedy with his pal Whitehouse.

"The good thing about me and Paul is that we are such different characters. He's the opposite of me -- I'm introspective, quite dull and probably more intellectual. He's got this great social confidence, I haven't.

"It's been a long partnership because we are so different. We both bring something to what we do that the other person can't."

And he's glad to be out of the solitary confinement of novel writing, at least for the time being.

"When you become immersed in writing a book you become very anti- social, you don't see anyone or answer the phone or go out. You end up sitting in your underpants at your desk at two o'clock in the morning."

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