Charlie Higson is not a shambolic toff. I’d expected to meet a real-life version of Ralph, the sexually troubled lord of the manor he played in The Fast Show. But today Higson isn’t shambolic at all. Tanned, with an expensive haircut set off by designer frames, he looks like what he is – a success. So far Higson has sold more than a million copies of his Young Bond books in the UK alone.
He began writing them after The Fast Show ended in 1997 (far too early, he’ll tell me). The first, SilverFin, immediately sold 30,000 copies on its release in 2005, and his Enemy zombie series has been selling well north of that. “I’m regarded,” says the 57-year-old with only a little amusement, “as a major children’s author”. Are you rich? “Anthony Horowitz has made a s**tload more money than me.” Slightly smug then? “Oh, I’m terribly smug!”
Now ITV has asked Higson to jazz up Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, hoping he can twist the 1886 literary shocker about a good man who becomes very bad into another Sherlock. Only it won’t quite be like Sherlock. “Steven Moffat really pulled off ‘contemporary’ with Sherlock,” Higson says, as he flops onto a leather sofa. “I’m not going to do it better than him. I could have gone steampunk, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes approach, but I’m bored of streetcorner tarts saying, ‘Do you fancy a good time?’ and men in top hats.” So he picked the 1930s, where his Young Bond novels are set. “It was quite a stylish time; it’s recent enough that people can talk and behave in a modern manner, but it’s far enough in the past that you can treat it as a sort of fantasy playground,” he says.
“And I can make it about Dr Jekyll’s grandson, so there’s a younger central character.” Is he more Jekyll or Hyde? “Imagine you walked through that door into a parallel universe,” he says darkly. “A universe where you could indulge all the desires that you keep repressed.” All of them? “Yes, and when you came back it had all gone, none of it had happened. There were no consequences. We’d all do that.”
And which desires would you indulge, Charlie? “Well, not necessarily killing people, but misbehaving on a big scale. Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll.” In the series, Jekyll’s grandson has inherited his unfortunate forebear’s personality disorder, which is why we are talking about doing bad things. Higson says the Victorian tale is particularly pertinent to our own times. “It’s actually a very contemporary idea,” he says. “The monster isn’t a creature from Mars or a vampire from abroad, it’s us. Stevenson’s book was about hypocrisy. You have a do-gooding exterior but in secret, underneath, you live a Jimmy Savile life.”
That’s not a standard light-entertainment pitch, but Higson’s not a standard light-entertainment figure and hasn’t been since he and university pal Paul Whitehouse first wrote the Stavros and Loadsamoney sketch for Harry Enfield on Saturday Live in the 1980s. The pair would “get drunk and hung around in the audience”, but were very different – Whitehouse went to a north-London comprehensive, Higson to public school in Kent. “Sevenoaks was an extraordinary place,” he says of his 600-year-old alma mater. “Very avant-garde, not like Eton or Harrow.”
Such subtleties were lost on locals who attacked him in the street (“The straw boaters made us easy targets”), but Higson’s class was an advantage when it came to his defining role: Ralph to Whitehouse’s estate worker Ted in The Fast Show. “I’d had no contact with working-class people so it was very easy for me to play Ralph. A lot of people,” he says, fixing my eye, “think basically I am Ralph, an aristocratic toff who is half gay.
“We were a family of four boys, no sisters, and my mother died when I was 18. It left me with a sense of the impermanence of things. I think, ‘This isn’t going to last, I’ve got to work hard at the next thing.’ And women still are something of a mystery to me, but I made the most of it when I went to university. I thought, ‘I’d better find out as much as I can!’” How did you set about that? “I’m not sure I had a technique. Just luck, really.” He discovered enough to pepper his version of Jekyll with a hint of sauciness and some violence but keep it family friendly. “If it’s the 1930s and a monster shoots people that’s just a bit of fun. Look what they got away with in Indiana Jones – melting faces!”