WRITE STUFF: Charlie has returned to crime-writing after a successful career in comedy
“You’ve got to strip it back to the basics or it’ll never look good,” he tells me after I complain that the simplest of DIY tasks invariably escalates. “It’s all about the preparation. The more you do, the easier the job is.”
Although less well known for his skills with a paintbrush and roller, the author and actor behind iconic characters including car salesman Swiss Toni, office joker Colin Hunt and shy aristocrat Ralph knows what he’s talking about.
An earlier career in indie band The Higsons was cut short in part because he was making more money as a tradesman than selling records.
“The bass player and I started decorating when we weren’t on tour as a way to make a bit of cash,” he explains. “It’s one of the reasons the band split up.We realised if we did the decorating full time we’d actually make quite a good living.”
Charlie with comedy pal Paul Whitehouse
As one career ebbed, another flowed. Teaming up with his pal Paul Whitehouse – a dab hand at creating elaborate plaster cornices and decorative ceiling roses – the pair began writing sketches for Harry Enfield while doing up houses, including one owned by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
“We decorated their house in east London, did a very good job, and when they had made enough money to move on, we’d made enough money to buy it off them,” he says.
Gradually, writing and performing took over and the first of five hit series of The Fast Show exploded on to BBC Two in 1994. Soon every playground and workplace in the country was ringing with their timeless catchphrases.
Around the same time, Charlie, now 64, wrote several crime novels, before turning to children’s books including his enormously successful Young James Bond series.
Now back with Whatever Gets You Through The Night, his first thriller in 25 years, we’re talking today ahead of a much-anticipated appearance at the world-famous Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate later this month.
The cast of iconic characters which made up The Fast Show
Set on the sun-soaked Greek island of Corfu where dark things fester behind the facade of stunning beaches and the blue sea, it’s a corking comeback – filled with gangsters, drug dealers, spoiled rich teens and a twisty, darkly humorous plot.
“Crime was always my first love. I’ve been wanting to go back and write another thriller since those early books but other things got in the way,” Charlie explains.
‘While may have him he’s not far from punk
The new novel, he reveals, has been marinating for some time, inspired by family holidays to Corfu and, in particular, the stunning private estate owned by the Rothschild family. “One day, we chartered a catamaran with this young couple who bummed around taking people on trips,” he recalls.
“We sailed down the east coast, about halfway between Corfu and Albania, and passed this huge private estate.
“They had their own harbour and everything. You could just see this distant blonde woman sitting by the pool in a big hat and they said, ‘That’s Joanna Lumley’. I’ve never got around to asking if it really was her, but I thought I’d like to write about somewhere like that, particularly when they said, ‘Now look over to Albania’.
“Albania had been wrecked by [communist leader] Enver Hoxha and it took years to recover.
“It was brown and barren except for this one strip which was lush and green.
“The Rothschilds owned that piece of land having bought it so they weren’t overlooked.”
Fast forward a decade or so and Charlie has appropriated the palatial compound in question for his fictional baddie, a slimy tech billionaire called Julian Hepworth, who it emerges is running a sex cult under the guise of a girls’ tennis team.
The book was inspired by the likes of US writers Carl Hiaasen, Joe Ide and particularly Dashiell Hammett, whose 1929 novel Red Harvest featuring a hard-boiled detective cleaning up a dirty town has influenced generations of film-makers and authors.
“In Red Harvest, there’s a corrupt politician, a corrupt police chief, a bootlegging gang and they’re all ruining this town and making it terrible for the ordinary inhabitants. So he plays them off against each other,” Charlie says.
“I thought, ‘I can do that’ – I can have this big cast of characters. My guy turns up, he’s very unassuming and calls himself Macintyre.
“He’s been hired to get a young girl away from the clutches of Julian.”
Cue some outrageously enjoyable set pieces in a darkly comic vein.
Talking to Charlie, it is clear that while success may have made him comfortable, he has not strayed far from his early “punk” ideals.
Whatever Gets You Through The Night satirises the kind of uber-wealthy 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’s increasingly not working – the idea of spending your way out of problems,” 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 world’s problems, which are actually caused by the same old thing: rampant capitalism’.
“It’s hard to disagree that problems stem from the hold capitalists and big corporations have on the world. I’m not really a leftie, I argue a lot with my kids, but I’m certainly left of [Donald] Trump and [Nigel] Farage 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 it’s going that way – the young are more into caring and sharing and thinking about each other.”
Fittingly, for someone whose career has been built on creating memorable characters, Charlie admits he is himself a man of many names.
“My father had four sons and he named us alphabetically. 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 headed off to university in 1977, I wanted to reinvent myself so I bleached my hair and when someone said, ‘Who are you?’ I said ‘Switch’. I expected them to say, ‘No you’re not’ but they didn’t, so everybody at university called me Switch.”
Murray, to his wife Victoria he will always be Switch. He finally became Charlie to everyone else after his Higsons bandmates clocked his real name: “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 personas that appeals?
“I’m quite a shy person,” the softly-spoken star admits. “A lot of actors and writers are, which is why performing or writing is such a good outlet.
“In both disciplines you can inhabit other characters. It’s a disguise. All my characters had a lot of wigs and facial hair and padding – anything to make them different to me.”
How much does writing books differ, I wonder, from the collaborative nature of television?
“If you enjoy writing, that’s what it all comes down to, whatever the medium,” he says. “For TV, even if you’re not writing with someone else, you’re involved in a much wider team: director, actors, producers, set designers, costumes, executives writing a novel, you’re all those people.”
Which is partly why, I suspect, Charlie is looking forward to getting back to Harrogate and on to a stage to meet readers and authors alike.
“It’s the biggest Crime Writing Festival in the world so all the big names are there and it’s very mutually supportive,” he says. “It’s great to be able to be back with an adult crime book and feel properly part of the community.”
Ahead of the pandemic, The Fast Show stars – 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 25th anniversary documentary, Just A Load Of Blooming Catchphrases.
“Everybody was in a good mood and up for it.
“Our last day of filming was the last day before we went into the first lockdown,” says Charlie. “We were the last sketch show before the apocalypse.”
Today Charlie bemoans the fact sketch shows have become an endangered species.
“They’re the most expensive type of thing to make, because of all the sets, and also the riskiest,” he says.
“Humour is quite personal and people these days have such instant scrutiny. Nothing gets a chance. The cheapest thing to make is a panel show, which is why they are so ubiquitous.”
In fact, he wishes they had made another series when The Fast Show was at its 90s peak and the BBC was receptive to the idea and had the money.
Surely five series in four years wasn’t bad, though? “I wish we’d been more prolific. It’s great to have done something that’s still popular, still in the public consciousness and people still enjoy.
“Later I became obsessed with Michael Palin’s diaries and read them back-to-back. He started writing around the time he was making Monty Python but he didn’t chronicle much of that, because he thought it was just another job.
“They were all saying, ‘We’re doing this little comedy but I want to make films or go off and do this or that’. It was only looking back they realised Python was the big thing.
“It’s the same with The Fast Show. Obviously there were stresses, you’ve got seven ambitious people all wanting 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’.”
Thankfully what with writing novels, shows and screenplays, Charlie keeps busy.
And combining his creations, I can imagine Swiss Toni saying: “Writing a crime novel is like making love to a beautiful woman ”
- Whatever Gets You Through The Night by CHARLIE HIGSON (£14.99) is out now. To order for £13.49 with free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 0203 176 3832.Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing n Festival, visit: harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/