Charlie Higson: My success in comedy and writing 'happened by accident'

The comedian and author sits down with Yahoo UK to share his Origin Story

Watch: Charlie Higson shares insight into his life and rise to fame

Charlie Higson has worked in many industries over the years: comedy, writing, making podcasts and even decorating at one point.

With such a prolific career behind him you might think that he had it all planned out, but Higson admits he thinks it "all happened by accident" as he reflects on his life and career in a new interview with Yahoo UK.

The comedian made his big break in sketch comedy with shows like Saturday Night Live and The Fast Show alongside longtime collaborator Paul Whitehouse. He later moved into writing with the Young Bond series and the recent 007 novel On His Majesty's Secret Service, and is now working on a brilliant new history podcast titled Willy Willy Harry Stee..., that explores the history of the British Monarchy.

For him, he can't help but appreciate "how nicely things have worked out without any planning through [his] life", and to give better insight into his life Higson sits down with Yahoo to reveal his Origin Story.

Charlie Higson's comedy beginnings

Charlie Higson looks back at significant moments from his life and career with Yahoo UK (Getty Images, Illustration Yahoo News)
Charlie Higson looks back at significant moments from his life and career with Yahoo UK (Getty Images, Illustration Yahoo News)

How did you get into comedy?

When I went to university in the late seventies I met a few people who altered the course of my life; one of them was Paul Whitehouse, another one was Harry Enfield. He wasn't at university with me but his best friend was, Vic Reeves. So I met all of those people at that time in my life.

When I left university, I kept in touch with Paul, Harry, and Vic, and I saw this very interesting trajectory that comedy was a thing you could do.

It started because Harry needed people to write material for him... I'd always been a writer, so I'd managed to save up to buy an early Amstrad computer, terribly clunky thing — Kids today, they don't know.

LONDON - NOVEMBER 4: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) (L-R) Charlie Higson, Paul Whitehouse, Harry Enfield, Simon Day and Paul Weller pose for a photograph after their 'The Fast Show' live performance at The Dominion Theatre on November 4, 2007 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M Benett/Getty Images)
Charlie Higson (left) with Paul Whitehouse, Harry Enfield, Simon Day and Paul Weller backstage after a Fast Show live show in 2007. (Dave M Benett/Getty Images)

Basically Paul said to me, 'Look, I want to write some stuff with Harry. You've got a word processor and I haven't. Let's do it together.' We'd always made each other laugh and I had the discipline of being a writer, and he was a great performer, [at] mimicry and doing characters and voices.

We really liked doing that, so we started writing for Harry and we started doing little bits of performance for Reeves on the Big Night Out before it was on television.

[Writing sketches] started when Harry got a job on the English Saturday Night Live.

He started off doing Stavros, and then Paul and I developed the character loads with him. So that was our first foray into actually making comedy and doing character-based comedy, which is what all my sketch comedy has been, and was, on that show.

Portrait of Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse photographed in London in December 2006.;    (Photo by Edd Westmacott/Avalon/Getty Images)
Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse were longtime collaborators in comedy (Getty Images)

And then on the back of that, Harry got offered his own sketch show and Paul and I were writing for that, and I was doing little bits of performing.

It all happened by accident. I had started doing some decorating to make some proper money, and now we found ourselves working on a very big and successful sketch show on the TV. So we thought, 'okay, would we work in comedy now?'

Charlie Higson and Young Bond

Steve Cole with his new Young Bond novel
Charlie Higson (right) with Steve Cole, the author of Young Bond novel Shoot To Kill in 2014. (PA)

How did you first get into James Bond?

The first film that I remember going to see in the cinema was Thunderball in the early sixties, and I remember being absolutely blown away by it.

I'd seen things on TV with old-fashioned types of heroes, but James Bond was this completely new type of hero... and I thought that was quite interesting. As soon as that opening music came on, the Bond theme, and he turns and fires that look at the camera, I just thought 'this is amazing.'

Read more: James Bond at 70: 007 writers and experts share their favourite Ian Fleming books and quotes

Later on, as I started to read a lot of crime books and thrillers, I thought, well 'I really ought to get around to reading the Ian Fleming James Bond books' and so I made my way through them. I've always been a big, big James Bond fan.

I wrote four crime books in the early nineties, and I had a fantastic editor called Kate Jones and at least ten years later she approached me and said, 'I've got a new job now. I'm not in publishing. I'm working for the Ian Fleming Estate, and they very much want to remind the world that James Bond started with Ian Fleming, that originally it was a literary thing and not a cinematic thing,'

Sean Connery portrayed James Bond in the 1965 spy adventure 'Thunderball'. (Credit: United Artists)
Sean Connery portrayed James Bond in the 1965 spy adventure 'Thunderball', which was the first Bond film Higson watched. (Credit: United Artists)

They were moving towards the centenary of Fleming's birth [in 2008], and the films were being rebooted with Daniel Craig, and they said, 'we're looking at doing some more adult continuation novels with top authors'.

So there was a big interest and big rebirth thing with with James Bond... Kate had suggested me to them because she thought that my writing style would work with kids.

She knew I had three boys of the sort of target age for these books, and so she approached me and luckily I got the job.

Did you enjoy the experience of writing these books?

James Bond (DANIEL CRAIG) in the 007 action adventure CASINO ROYALE, from Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures through Sony Pictures Releasing.
2006's Casino Royale introduced Daniel Craig's James Bond at the start of his career, but Charlie Higson's books went even further into his back story. (MGM)

Having grown up with James Bond, to actually sit down and write the words on my computer 'The name's Bond. James Bond' was an incredible thrill.

There was room for me to add something of my own, because Ian Fleming didn't really write about James Bond's childhood. He didn't give him much of a backstory.

He created this fantastic fantasy figure. He's got no wife, he's got no kids. He's on a mission and M says there's a villain go sort him out and he does. He travels internationally, which in the fifties when the books were written was incredibly glamorous. He lives in hotels, he eats in restaurants, he sleeps with beautiful women, he drinks heavily, he smokes heavily, he drives fast cars and he gets to kill people.

So it is the ultimate male fantasy, and yet it's not bogged down with backstory. I could use all those elements of James Bond and any details that were in Fleming's books, but there was still room for me to add my own thing and make my own teenage James Bond.

What was it like writing 2023's On His Majesty's Secret Service?

Author Charlie Higson signs his new Young Bond book during Spy Day at the Science Museum in London, being held to celebrate the opening of The Science of Spying exhibition.   (Photo by Ben Stanstall - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Charlie Higson wrote five books in the Young Bond series (Getty Images)

Having so totally immersed myself in the world of James Bond and Ian Fleming, I was kind of itching to do an adult one, and I had to wait for Anthony Horowitz to finish and to get out of my way. But it all came together very quickly for the coronation.

Read more: James Bond to tackle King's coronation plot in new book On His Majesty's Secret Service

This year it's the 70th anniversary of the publication of Casino Royale, the very first James Bond book. And they approached me, because I've been involved in some of the events, and we also realised that it is 60th anniversary of [Ian Fleming's book] On Her Majesty's Secret Service and there was a coronation coming.

They said, 'We want to do something for the coronation. We want to do a charity book and all we've got is a title — On his Majesty's Secret Service.' And, so, they wanted a contemporary Bond story that had something to do with the coronation.

IVER HEATH, ENGLAND - JUNE 20: Prince Charles (R), Prince of Wales meets British actor Daniel Craig as he tours the set of the 25th James Bond Film at Pinewood Studios on June 20, 2019 in Iver Heath, England. The Prince of Wales, Patron, The British Film Institute and Royal Patron, the Intelligence Services toured the set of the 25th James Bond Film to celebrate the contribution the franchise has made to the British film industry. (Photo by Niklas Halle'n - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Daniel Craig with the future King Charles on the set of No Time To Die in 2019. (WPA Pool/Getty Images)

I only had a month to do it, so they said probably it would be a short story, but when I started writing it I had all these years of James Bond stored up inside me, waiting to come bursting out like James Bond in an Aston Martin, and I kept ringing them up saying, 'I think this might be a bit longer.'

Charlie Higson's interest in the monarchy

Charlie Higson's History of the Monarchy
Charlie Higson's History of the Monarchy podcast delves into the British Monarchy from its beginnings to now.

How did your love of history first begin and why did you want to make a podcast around the British monarchy?

I grew up and went to school in the 1960s, and history was taught very differently... in a way that it now is considered quite old fashioned.

It was a very narrative approach. It was kings and queens, battles, great men, inventions, and you would start at the Romans and kind of move forward through Anglo-Saxons, through the monarchs and I, at the time, learned a rhyme as a way of remembering all the British monarchs from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I.

The rhyme is 'Willie. Willie. Harry. Steve. Harry. Dick. John. Harry. Three. One, two, three, nine, three, two, etc.' and it sort of stuck with me.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Bayeux Tapestry 1067. William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) told of the death of Edward the Confessor and the crowning of Harold II as king of England. Sitting on right is William's half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux. Textile (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Charlie's new podcast covers the history of the British monarchy from William The Conqueror to King Charles III, and features new experts every week. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

And I found it very interesting when my kids went to school that history now is taught very, very differently. You get sort of intense studies of different bits of history like the Egyptians and American civil rights movement... so they know a lot about those things but they don't necessarily know what order those things happened and how we got from one to the other, because there is this extraordinary story.

And, being a dad, there was a lot of dad-splaining to the kids and I realised that most people younger than me don't have that narrative thread to history.

For a few years I've been doing events like the fantastic history festival in the Chalk Valley where I host a comedy history quiz, [and] doing talks and people seemed to enjoy my talks and, like everybody else in Covid, I thought maybe I should start a podcast.

But it was a couple of years before I got around to it, and my final impetus was the coronation of King Charles III, because there was a lot of talk about the monarchy and 'why is this man on the throne? What right as he got to be a king?'

And a lot of people talking about the history of the monarchy and most people didn't really know much about it. So I thought that was a perfect time to launch it, for the coronation. I can now, Dad-splain to the world, I have been thoroughly enjoying it."

Charlie Higson: Quick fire questions

Comedian and author Charlie Higson is surrounded by 'zombies' as he signs copies of his new children's book 'The Enemy' at the London Bridge Experience.   (Photo by Carl Court/PA Images via Getty Images)
Charlie Higson pictured during the launch of his children's book The Enemy, the comedian shared insight into his biggest influences in movie and TV. (Getty Images)
  • First album you bought: The first album I actually bought with my own money was a Fats Waller album. Make of that what you will.

  • First cinema trips: Disney, James Bond, any sort of adventure films.

  • First film that made you cry: Probably The Jungle Book. There's a bit at the end where Baloo the bear — this is a big spoiler here— appears to die. This rain pouring on everybody so it looks like the whole world is crying, and, yes, I cried. And then he came back to life and I cried even more.

  • First TV obsession: Monty Python's Flying Circus. It was like nothing else on television, and it very much felt like these people had made this show just for me.

Final thoughts with Charlie Higson

Charlie Higson (b.1958) Actor, author, television writer, comedian, producer. Know for the Fast Show. Charlie is behind a series of James Bond novels for the younger reader - the Young Bond novels. Charlie pictured during a visit to The Edinburgh International Book Festival. Edinburgh, UNESCO Inaugural City of Literature. Sunday 13th August 2006.; Job : 14207 Ref: ZB2854_166545_365DFL;    (Photo by Drew Farrell/Avalon/Getty Images)
Charlie Higson revealed his most important mentor in his life was producer Geoffrey Perkins (Getty Images)

Was there anyone in your life or career you would say had a defining influence on you?

The greatest television comedy producer of all time: Geoffrey Perkins, who I first worked with when we did Saturday Night Live before its heyday.

He'd started in radio and he'd been behind things like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy... he was the producer on Harry's sketch shows.

I went in unqualified, not that there's any way you can be a qualified comedy writer, but the world was new to me and he was very generous with his time and with his advice because a lot of people in that world [say] 'We don't want writers around. They're just annoying.' But he said, 'No, I like writers' and he took me under his wing and so I learned everything there was to know about making a comedy show, making a sketch show, producing a sketch.

I would sit with him in the gallery when we were shooting the show... and he had very strong and clear ideas about [it],. He was always trying to find new people and nurture them and train them up.

That was what he loved more than anything, and he was very good at spotting new talent. He was involved with The Royle Family, with Catherine Tate, and it was only having worked with Geoffrey that Paul and I felt able to produce the show, which we did never having actually produced anything before.

Unfortunately, he died very suddenly about ten or 15 years ago now, and I've looked back and I've realised I haven't really made any comedy since he died because I did rely very much on his advice. He was a fabulous mentor.

If you could go back in time and give young Charlie any advice, what would it be?

I've been amazed at how nicely things have worked out without any planning through my life: I've met some fantastic people. I've been able to work on some very funny shows and to make people laugh, which is a brilliant thing to do.

I've written books that I've loved writing and everything has gone well, so I would probably go back and say: 'don't make any plans, don't change anything. Just let things happen to you and go with it, and go with the good things and avoid the bad things.'

It's even harder now for anyone to make plans about the future, I've seen it in my lifetime that one of my kids has ended up doing a job that didn't exist when I was younger... you've just got to be aware of what's going on and take your opportunities when you can, which luckily I was able to do, completely accidentally with no clear path.

Written and presented by Charlie Higson, Willy Willy Harry Stee is available to listen on all good podcast apps.