Charlie Higson explains why he left pop stardom to become a painter | Books | Entertainment
WRITE STUFF: Charlie returned to detective writing after a successful career in comedy
“You have to go back to basics or it will never look good,” he tells me after I complain that the simplest DIY tasks invariably get worse. “It’s all about preparation. The more you do, the easier the job.”
Although less known for his skills with a brush and roller, the author and actor behind iconic characters including car salesman Swiss Toni, office prankster Colin Hunt and shy aristocrat Ralph, knows how to what he is talking about.
An earlier career in indie band The Higsons was cut short in part because he made more money as a trader than selling records.
“The bassist and I started decorating when we weren’t on tour to earn some money,” he explains. “That’s one of the reasons the band broke up. We realized that if we were decorating full time, we’d make a pretty good living.”
Charlie with his comedy buddy Paul Whitehouse
As one career ebbed, another sank. Teaming up with friend Paul Whitehouse – an expert at creating elaborate plaster cornices and decorative ceiling roses – the pair began writing sketches for Harry Enfield while fitting out homes, including one owned by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
“We decorated their house in east London, we did a really good job, and when they made enough money to move on, we made enough money to buy it for them,” says -he.
Gradually writing and performing took over and the first of five hit series The Fast Show exploded onto BBC Two in 1994. Soon every playground and workplace in the country was ringing with their timeless slogans.
Around the same time, Charlie, now 64, wrote several crime novels, before turning to children’s books, including his hit series Young James Bond.
Now back with Whatever Gets You Through The Night, his first thriller in 25 years, we speak today ahead of a much-anticipated appearance at the acclaimed Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate later this month.
The cast of iconic characters that made up The Fast Show
Set on the sun-drenched Greek island of Corfu, where dark things fester behind the facade of stunning beaches and blue seas, it’s a comeback – filled with gangsters, drug dealers, spoiled rich teenagers and a twisty, dark plot.
“Crime has always been my first love. I wanted to go back and write another thriller since those early books, but other things got in the way,” Charlie explains.
‘Although he may have it, he’s not far from punk
The new novel, he reveals, had been marinating for some time, inspired by family holidays in Corfu and, in particular, the magnificent private estate owned by the Rothschild family. “One day we chartered a catamaran with this young couple who had fun taking people on trips,” he recalls.
“We sailed along the east coast, about halfway between Corfu and Albania, and passed this huge private estate.
“They had their own port and everything. You could see this blonde woman in the distance sitting by the pool with a big hat and they said, ‘That’s Joanna Lumley’. I never had time to ask if it was really her, but I thought I’d like to write about a place like that, especially when they said, “Now look towards Albania”.
“Albania was destroyed by [communist leader] Enver Hoxha and it took years to recover.
“It was brown and barren except for that one stripe which was lush and green.
“The Rothschilds owned this land after they bought it so they wouldn’t be neglected.”
Fast forward a decade and Charlie has appropriated the lavish resort in question for his fictional villain, a slimy tech billionaire called Julian Hepworth, who is revealed to run a sex cult under the guise of a team. tennis for girls.
The book was inspired by American writers such as Carl Hiaasen, Joe Ide and especially Dashiell Hammett, whose 1929 novel Red Harvest featuring a tough detective cleaning up a filthy town has influenced generations of filmmakers and authors.
“In Red Harvest, there’s a corrupt politician, a corrupt police chief, a smuggling gang…and they’re all ruining this town and making it terrible for ordinary people. So he pits them against each other the others,” Charlie said.
“I was like, ‘I can do this’ – I can have this big cast of characters. My guy comes in, he’s very modest and his name is Macintyre.
“He was hired to rescue a young girl from Julian’s clutches.”
Cue some outrageously nice set pieces in a dark, comedic vein.
Talking to Charlie, it’s clear that while success may have put him at ease, he hasn’t strayed from his early “punk” ideals.
Everything That Makes You Sleep Satirizes the kind of super-rich people who buy up land in New Zealand to build end-of-the-world bunkers and populate much of central London.
“I’m a classic centrist liberal, but capitalism just doesn’t work and it doesn’t work anymore – the idea of spending your way out of trouble,” he says.
“It urgently needs a reset. The book is about what powerful people can get away with.
“My son said the other day, ‘Every new thing is blamed for the problems in the world, which are actually caused by the same old thing: creeping capitalism.
“It’s hard not to agree that the problems stem from the grip of capitalists and big business on the world. I’m not really left-handed, I argue a lot with my kids, but I am definitely on the left of [Donald] Trump and [Nigel] Faring and [Boris] Johnson.
“It doesn’t have to be a revolution, despite what the hard left says. You can gently nudge things in the right direction. I think that’s how it goes – young people are more concerned, share and think of each other.”
Fittingly, for someone whose career has been built on creating memorable characters, Charlie admits that he himself is a man of many names.
“My dad had four sons and he named us in alphabetical order. I was the third so I was ‘C’ – ‘Charles Murray’,” he reveals. “I never particularly liked the name, so he called me Murray. My brothers are Andrew, Barney and Dan.
“When I went to college in 1977, I wanted to reinvent myself so I bleached my hair and when someone said to me, ‘Who are you?’ I said ‘Switch’ I expected them to say ‘No you’re not’ but they didn’t so everyone at college called me switch.”
Murray, for his wife Victoria, he will always be Switch. He eventually became Charlie to everyone after his bandmates Higsons recorded his real name: “The bands always hate the lead singer. When they found out my name was Charles, they all started calling me Charlie as a joke, and it stuck.”
I wonder if there’s something about different characters that appeals?
“I’m pretty shy,” admits the soft-spoken star. “A lot of actors and writers are, which is why acting or writing is such a good outlet.
“In both disciplines, you can inhabit other characters. It’s a disguise. All of my characters had lots of wigs, facial hair, and padding — anything to make them look different from me.”
How different is book writing, I wonder, from the collaborative nature of television?
“If you love to write, it all comes down to that, regardless of the medium,” he says. “For television, even if you’re not writing with someone else, you’re involved with a much larger team: director, actors, producers, set designers, costumes, executives…writing a novel, you’re all those people.”
That’s part of why, I guess, Charlie can’t wait to get back to Harrogate and hit the stage to meet readers and writers.
“It’s the biggest detective writing festival in the world, so all the big names are there and it’s mutually supportive,” he says. “It’s great to be able to be back with an adult crime book and really feel part of the community.”
Before the pandemic, the stars of The Fast Show – bar Caroline Aherne, who died of lung cancer aged just 52 in 2016 – reunited for the first time in years to make a two-part documentary about the 25th anniversary , Just A Load Of Blooming Catchphrases.
“Everyone was in a good mood and motivated.
“Our last day of filming was the last day before the first lockdown,” Charlie explains. “We were the last sketch show before the apocalypse.”
Today, Charlie laments the fact that sketches have become an endangered species.
“It’s the most expensive type of thing to make, because of all the scenery, and also the riskiest,” he says.
“Humor is quite personal and people these days have such scrutiny. Nothing stands a chance. The cheapest thing to do is a panel, which is why they’re so ubiquitous.”
In fact, he wished they had done another series when The Fast Show was at its peak in the 90s and the BBC was receptive to the idea and had the money.
But surely five series in four years wasn’t bad? “I wish we were more prolific. It’s great to have done something that’s still popular, still in the public consciousness and people still appreciate.
“Later I became obsessed with Michael Palin’s diaries and read them one after the other. He started writing around the time he was making Monty Python, but he didn’t do much of it. talked about, because he thought it was just another job.
“They were all like, ‘We’re doing this little comedy but I want to do movies or go off and do this or that.’ It wasn’t until they looked back that they realized Python was the big thing.
“It’s the same with The Fast Show. Obviously there was stress, you have seven ambitious people who all want to do their own thing and Paul and I had to be mum and dad.
“But we all saw it as a stepping stone to the next big thing and, like Monty Python, you look back later and think, ‘Ah, that was the big thing’.”
Luckily, with writing novels, shows, and screenplays, Charlie keeps busy.
And by combining his creations, I imagine the Swiss Toni saying: “Writing a detective novel is like making love with a beautiful woman…”
- Everything that gets you through the night from CHARLIE HIGSON (£14.99) is available now. To order for £13.49 with free UK delivery, visit expressbookshop.com or call 0203 176 3832.Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing n Festival, visit: harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/