Charlie Higson on returning to Bond – and if more novels are planned
Young Bond author Higson is tackling the adult 007 for the first time to mark the coronation of King Charles III.
It's been 15 years since the final novel in Charlie Higson's acclaimed Young Bond series was published. Now, the author, actor and comedian is returning to the world of Ian Fleming's spy for his first foray into the adventures of an adult 007.
Out today (Thursday 4th May), On His Majesty's Secret Service – the title a play on Fleming's own On Her Majesty's Secret Service, published in 1963 – is being released to mark the coronation of King Charles III and sees Bond tasked with thwarting a usurper to the throne who is seeking to disrupt proceedings.
Higson – who penned five books featuring a young Bond between 2005 and 2008 – was initially contacted by Ian Fleming Publications about writing a short story themed around the coronation. "But I got so excited by it, and so carried away that it became a novel," he tells RadioTimes.com. "It's a short novel, but it's still a proper, full-on James Bond story."
All royalties from the sale of the book will go to support the work of the National Literacy Trust. "They'd originally wanted a couple of the Royal charities to be the beneficiaries," Higson explains. "So they said, 'Probably best not to make it about anyone trying to stop the coronation of King Charles,' at which point you think... 'But that'd make a great story!'"
The author continues: "I thought, 'Yes, I want to write a story where a rival claimant to the throne threatens not only the monarchy but the stability of the UK, and Bond is sent to sort it out.' At which point we did move to a different charity, so there was no controversy."
Higson was first approached about the project in February, wrote the book throughout March, and it was off to the printers by April – a rapid-fire process even by Fleming's own standards (Bond's creator was famed for writing quickly) and one that Higson describes as "madness".
"I was supposed to be writing a sequel to my last kids' book... I had to take a month out writing that and sheepishly go to my publishers and say, 'Look, I'm really sorry, I've sneaked off and had an affair with someone else.'"
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One benefit of such a tight turnaround was he had no time to overthink the challenges that lay ahead, including writing an adult 007 for the first time and transposing a character birthed in the 1950s into a setting that couldn't be more contemporary.
"Possibly if I'd had more time I might have overthought it, because my [previous] books were always very much Fleming's Bond and drawing on the timeline of Fleming's world. But I just launched into it and I was very pleased that Bond came alive on the page...," Higson explains.
"There was enough of Fleming's Bond in there, there were elements of the cinematic Bond, but he was also a contemporary 35-year-old man. Casino Royale came out in 1953, so a 35-year-old man then is very different to someone of that age today, so I couldn't just reproduce Fleming's Bond. It needs to be recognisably that same character, but also he's someone who is born into the modern world, and will have slightly different views and attitudes on some things.
"Fleming's Bond can work in a contemporary setting if we just tweak a couple of things. The main thing about Bond is, it's what he does, really, that makes him who he is. As long as James Bond gets to do James Bond things and you have enough of the other trappings that we're familiar with, then he is James Bond."
Previous Bond continuation novels written by authors post-Fleming have variously kept the character rooted in his original era of the 1950s and early 1960s or relocated him, as Higson's does, to the present day. There have even been calls from fans for the film series to leap back in time and return 007 to his Cold War roots, though Higson doesn't expect it will happen and firmly believes a contemporary Bond can work on-screen as well as on the page.
"You can still do Bond in the present day, because it's an action thriller. So many other people are doing things like Bond – there's that incredibly expensive new Amazon series Citadel... it's essentially a James Bond story, it's in that mad world of international spies and secret agents that Fleming and [Bond films producer] Eon basically created between them. The Mission: Impossible films are essentially James Bond films.
"People all around the world... we just want to go and see some escapist action adventure. So they're not going to start making period films of Bond."
Higson does admit, however, that he'd be intrigued by the prospect of period-accurate Fleming adaptations produced as a spin-off of the main film series.
"I've always thought – and I know a lot of the fans would love it – that there could be a sort of separate stream, which you could do on TV, on Netflix or Amazon, which went back to Casino Royale and did all the books in the time they were set and stuck roughly to what happens in the books, just as a great period drama on TV, which I think people would be a lot more accepting of."
A lifelong Bond fan, Higson's latest as well as his earlier 007 adventures are peppered with references to the original Fleming stories for aficionados to spot. Though he did return to the source material before starting work on On His Majesty's Secret Service, it wasn't all that challenging to immerse himself again in 007's world.
"That stuff was in me, lying dormant like a chicken pox virus," he laughs. "Re-reading those books, it just really came alive quickly. I realised I've been so pickled in Bond that it's oozing out of my pores. So I started writing and there was Fleming's Bond come back to life, but as a contemporary young man. I was very pleased – and it was a lot of fun reading the books, because it's probably about 15 years since I last read them."
Could this be the start of something, then? Prior to the release of On His Majesty's Secret Service, the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Jeffrey Deaver and William Boyd have all written new 007 novels, with Anthony Horowitz most recently contributing a trilogy of books between 2018 and 2022. Is a follow-up from Higson next in line?
"We haven't talked about whether we might do more, because at the moment the estate is very involved in the new Kim Sherwood series where she's created her own world," he explains. Kicking off with Double or Nothing in April 2023, author Sherwood's books take place after Bond's disappearance, following a new trio of 00 agents instead.
"I don't want to step on the toes of that," Higson says. "I think probably her books will be given space and be allowed to run their course before they would come back to me. We shall see. I've got a lot of other projects on as well, so I can't guarantee that I could write another one as quickly!"