Charlie Higson defends Young Bond criticism from fellow continuation author John Gardner
The fans are worried, angry, upset - reports The Scotsman
"James Bond for kids?" spluttered Jonathan Ross when Charlie Higson told him about his next project. "Shame on them and shame on you!"
On the Bond websites - there are more than 100 - Higsonâs novel SilverFin, about a 13-year-old James Bond at Eton - is arousing deep suspicion ahead of its publication this week. "Messing with Bond is like messing with Superman," says a typical entry. "It touches a nerve." "Iâve got a bad feeling about this," warns another fan with bad memories of the sheer awfulness of The Young Sherlock Holmes.
John Gardner, the English thriller-writer who wrote 14 Bond novels after Ian Flemingâs death in 1964, also scorns the whole notion of Bond as a childrenâs hero. "Itâs just the last desperate attempt to draw in a new audience," he says. "The films have little to do with the Bond we used to know, and now the books are going the same way."
Over to you, Charlie Higson.
At first sight, the 45-year-old across the table from me, whose thick-framed glasses make him barely recognisable from his appearances in The Fast Show, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and Swiss Toni, might seem an odd choice to write a series about James Bond in his early teens. Look, 007 purists could say, here is a man whose track record on writing about the worldâs greatest fictional spy is to reduce him to ironic irrelevance.
And theyâd have a point. Consider Swiss Toni, the bouffant-haired garagiste for whom everything in life can be compared to making love to a beautiful woman. If he could have done a Sean Connery accent, says Higson, thatâs how we would have first heard him. "Because for Swiss Toni, Bond is his ultimate idol, a perfect aspirational figure - a suave, sophisticated ladiesâ man who knows all about fine wines and Belgian chocolates. Itâs no accident that in the first series, the bar they go into is called Flemingâs and itâs James Bond-themed."
Highlighting the disparity between the James Bond dream and lifeâs grim realities - in Swiss Toniâs case, a dead-end job in a grotty car showroom - was something Higson had already done before in his first novel, King of the Ants. "I wrote it in my twenties, after Iâd just finished reading a lot of Bond novels, and the plot mirrors theirs, although itâs a grimy thriller set in London. In the book, the character reads James Bond, and heâs also called Sean because his mother named him after Connery - so, yes, there were quite a few echoes."
At this point, if I were in charge of the Ian Fleming estate and picking which writer would win the millionaire-making franchise of writing about worldâs best-known spy, Charlie Higson would be talking himself out of a job. On this evidence, I might have judged, he wouldnât take Bond seriously enough. Yet Iâd be completely wrong.
Because this time Higson writes Bond completely straight. He tested it out, a chapter at a time, on his own three sons (aged 12, ten and six) and, apart from his middle son always wanting Bond to kill everyone in sight, it passed the test. Iâm not surprised.
His Bond isnât too knowing, not a mini-me version of the film Bond, always ready to deflate tension with a cool quip or a deadly pun. Nor is he, like Anthony Horowitzâs Alex Rider - the nearest contender to the Bond title on the young adult shelves - a whizz with hi-tech gadgets. Instead, Higsonâs Bond takes us straight back to Flemingâs books - and an altogether different kind of superhero than the one we know from the multiplexes.
"The Bond of the books is a far more interesting and complex character than he is in the films," says Higson. "He is more real in his motivation, more vulnerable. He has thoughts about death, gets hurt, gets cross, and knows that he has to keep himself separate from other people because of his job. I wanted to put all of that in a book, and for it to be a proper book, not a jokey spin-off."
Instead of something like Spykids, in other words, SilverFin takes us straight back to the old-fashioned physical adventure stories of the 1930s. His 13-year-old James Bond is more like a young Buchan hero or a proto-Bulldog Drummond than a Superman-in-waiting. Thereâs even a bit of depth and flashes of humanity - not normally qualities anyone readily associates with Bond.
SilverFin begins as Bond starts his first term at Eton. His parents have died in a climbing accident and - just like that other orphan confronting the mysteries of Hogwartâs - James has to work out his place in a particularly eccentric parallel universe. This Eton is a place which is so cold that pupils wear gloves in the classroom, where there were all kinds of strange rules about collars never having to be turned down or umbrellas rolled, and which direction certain streets can be walked down.
"Iâve read as much as I can about Eton and the 1930s, but in a way Iâve had to create my own versions of both, because a real 13-year-old boy like James Bond would have had attitudes that were completely insufferable to todayâs children. So, itâs a kind of fantasy Eton. We can all relate to starting at school, but this is a particularly weird, interesting place."
At Eton, Bond is bullied by George Hellebore, whose father turns out to be the villain of the piece, with a Scottish castle at which he conducts horrendous genetic experiments. Some of these involve eels, but their main purpose is to breed aggression. And, without giving away too much of the plot, it is sufficiently frightening to hold the interest of young readers. My 12-year-old son adored it.
Even if he hadnât met Paul Whitehouse at university in Norwich in the 1970s; even if he hadnât met Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer through mutual friends there; even if he had never gone on to be a key figure in British TV comedy, Charlie Higson would always, he says, have been a writer.
Whatever else he has done - which includes being the lead singer in the Higsons, a "poor manâs Talking Heads" in the 1970s, as well as all his Fast Show roles - writing matters most to him.
"At university I specialised in American Gothic literature and started writing all these dense, post-modernist novels that were completely unreadable. Iâd always been quite snobbish about reading popular fiction, but a friend turned me on to American crime fiction. The turning point came when I thought why, instead of all these bits of fake genre thrillers I was writing, donât I just write a straight thriller instead?"
It worked. Writing thrillers instead of flash po-mo magic realism meant that his books had a powerful running motor, instead of disappearing up their own exhaust pipe. The trick was to learn how to tune up the plot while still fleshing out the characters. "In The Fast Show, thatâs what we were always trying to do too. Some of the characters, like the âSuits you, sir!â guys [two camp tailors with the most annoying catchphrase of the 1990s] we couldnât do much with.
"But with all the other characters, at least we gradually tried to show a personality behind them."
Indeed, by the end of The Fast Show, with characters such as Ralph, the tongue-tied aristocrat unable to express his feelings for his Irish gardener, had established a humanity that transcended the limits of a rapid-fire gag show.
Sometimes, the more limits there were on a project, the more fun it became to work on. "The worst thing is someone coming up and saying - Can you write me something, anything at all, and weâll do a film deal. Paul and I get that quite a lot. But with Swiss Toni, it was the opposite: probably the most constrained writing it is possible to get. Youâve got the same set every week, and everything has to happen within it. It only makes you more imaginative."
So look again at SilverFin. It has another personâs character. More than 100 million people have bought books about him, millions more seen the films. They know what to expect. No writer could have greater limitations than that.
Higsonâs triumph is that he both meets those expectations and yet surprises his readers. Itâs a tough act to pull off, but on this occasion at least, perhaps nobody does it better.
Thanks to `JP` for the alert. Discuss this news here...