In the event of a zombie apocalypse, you will most likely find Charlie Higson holed up in Waitrose on the Holloway Road.
There are solid, practical reasons for this. Firstly, it contains a plentiful supply of (if we may say, rather fine) food, which is obviously essential in any siege situation. But it’s also because Higson knows all the best hiding places, having been given a personal tour of the store – specifically tailored to evading an army of the undead – by the branch manager.
It was seven years ago, when he was planning The Enemy – the first in a bestselling series of children’s books about a global pandemic that turns the world’s adults into marauding, mindless cannibals – that the writer and Fast Show star first hit upon the idea of setting part of the action in his local supermarket.
‘Ian Fleming always said that, if you can get the everyday stuff as real as possible, that buys you the licence to do mad, fantastical stuff,’ explains Higson. ‘People will accept the mad stuff, but they won’t accept it if you get the route of the A46 wrong. So I wanted to set the books in a very real world, the world I live in. And I’m in Waitrose every day.
‘The store manager thought it was brilliant, and gave me the full tour. We went down to the level beneath the shop, and he pointed out where might be good to have zombies crawling around and stuff. So I know the store very well. It would be definitely my supermarket of choice for hiding from zombies.’
Higson – who has just published the seventh and final book in the series, The End – had been toying for a while with a story idea about kids surviving in a world without adults, and decided to combine it with his love of zombies. The big challenge, he says, was making the books properly scary for a generation anesthetised by exposure to screen horror and violence. In the end, he used Sidney, the youngest of his three sons, as a guinea pig.
‘When we started, he wasn’t getting scared at all. So I had to keep pushing it and making it more and more frightening and gruesome and upsetting. And eventually, he had a terrible nightmare, so I was leaping with joy,’ he laughs.
Prior to The Enemy, Higson found huge success with the Young Bond novels, exploring the teenage years of Britain’s most lethal civil servant. The problem there, he explains, was ‘all the things Bond is known for’ – sex, killing, drinking, smoking, fast cars – ‘are the things you can’t do in children’s books’. In the end he found a way of working most of those things in – though he drew the line at smoking.
More recently, he’s reinvented another British literary icon for ITV’s new big budget adventure series, Jekyll and Hyde. Transplanting Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror classic to the 1930s, it stars Tom Bateman as the grandson of the original Doctor Jekyll, as he discovers the truth about his monstrous genetic inheritance.
‘It’s a fantastic, universal story – this idea that we all have a dark side that we keep repressed,’ says Higson. ‘I didn’t want to do the standard Victorian gothic version. The 1930s was the era of the Universal horror films, and it’s also very stylish – great hats, suits and cars. So we thought this was a fresh way of doing Jekyll and Hyde – Downton Abbey with monsters.’
As for performing, the 57-year-old – who spent several years in the 80s fronting cult punk-funk outfit The Higsons – has no current plans to reunite with The Fast Show gang. He doesn’t rule out reviving the likes of car lot lothario Swiss Toni, office irritant Colin Hunt and Ralph – the country squire whose unspoken desire for Paul Whitehouse’s repressed Irish handyman was a Nineties love story to rival Ross and Rachel – for the occasional theatre run, but doesn’t expect it to return to TV screens. ‘As long as Paul and I are doing new things, we’ve no real desire to revisit old stuff,’ he says, citing his and Whitehouse’s recent collaboration on the radio comedy Down the Line and its TV spin-off, Bellamy’s People.
The pair have been best friends since the late 70s, when they met at university in Norwich. Afterwards, they worked together as ‘posh builders’ – Whitehouse was a plasterer, Higson a painter and decorator – before being recruited by Whitehouse’s friend, up-and-coming comedian Harry Enfield, as scriptwriters.
‘Paul was your classic funny mate down the pub,’ says Higson. ‘Harry had always wanted to get him into writing and performing, because you could tell he had an amazing talent. Harry had got [Greek kebab shop owner] Stavros from Paul. But Paul was a plasterer, he had no desire to go on stage.
‘When Stavros started to take off, though, Harry needed more material, and asked Paul if he’d write it. I’d been writing stuff since I was a kid, and I had a word processor, so Paul said, “Why don’t we try writing together?” And something just clicked between us.’ One of their early successes was Loadsamoney – the nouveau riche cockney plasterer inspired by their days on the painter and decorator circuit, whose name quickly entered the national lexicon.
Whitehouse is unusual, ventures Weekend, in that he is one half of two successful comedy partnerships. Do Higson and Enfield have to compete for his attention?
‘It’s a kind of Mormon arrangement,’ he laughs. ‘Paul and I come from a very different angle when we’re writing comedy. It’s like playing the piano – the left hand is holding down the basic structure while the right-hand is doing all the fancy flourishes and the arpeggios. I’ve always felt I’m a left-handed writer, and Paul is the right hand.
‘And Harry is more of a left-hand, which meant, when the three of us were working together, Harry and I rubbed up against each other, because we both wanted to do the same thing. That’s why we went our separate ways, while Paul was happy to flit between the two.
‘Harry basically said, “This is called Harry Enfield’s Television Programme, not The Charlie Higson Show – why don’t you go and make your own show?”
It was this amicable creative disagreement that eventually resulted in The Fast Show, setting Higson on an appropriately Jekyll and Hyde career trajectory juggling daft character comedy with writing slightly twisted, pitch-black thrillers (Time Out memorably described him as ‘the missing link between Dick Emery and Brett Easton Ellis’). These days, he’s never happier than when dreaming up ways to give children – his own included – nightmares. So if you see him in Waitrose, lurking by the avocado dips with a funny glint in his eye, you’ll know why.
The End, book 7 of The Enemy series, is published by Penguin, priced £7.99
Published in Waitrose Weekend, October 29, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend