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‘Too violent? Blame my children’ says Young Bond creator Charlie Higson

06-Jan-2007 • Young Bond

"Bond," according to the late American crime writer Raymond Chandler, "is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like to have between her sheets." Which might be true, of course – depending on which Bond he was referring to. In his endless mutations from a blunt-edged Sean Connery to the new 007, Daniel Craig, the spy has morphed, grown old, grown young again. But chances are Chandler was thinking of the original Bond, fixed firmly in the realms of the imagination. The creation of author Ian Fleming, the state-sponsored assassin has been a literary fixture for more than half a century, spawning a franchise that has brought with it the fashions and fads of the day, changing, enraging, but always, indisputably, Bond - reports The Herald.

"He's such a cultural icon," says comedian and producer Charlie Higson, who, since 2004, has been the author of the Young Bond series of books. "You could use Bond in any branch of study: sociology, our changing attitudes to maleness, politics, and what Bond tells us about our relations with the rest of the world. Whether or not you like him, there's always something interesting to discuss."

As the man who, along with Paul Whitehouse, brought the Fast Show to television in the 1990s – memorably starring as a country squire with a desire for his Irish estate worker – Higson may not have seemed the natural heir to Ian Fleming. He got his break in the 1980s penning character sketches for the comedian Harry Enfield – who lived on the same Hackney estate where Higson and Whitehouse once worked as decorators – and may well have thought that, when they approached him in 2003, the reps from Ian Fleming Publications were having a laugh. But two books down, and with another released tomorrow, the smiles are all his.

Where the stories differ from Fleming's, and those of the "continuation authors" who carried on the franchise after the creator's death in 1964, is that Higson's pint-sized Bond hasn't yet developed the killer instinct, although it's lurking like a mugger in the margins. The books are set in 1930s Eton, where Bond is a schoolboy, and the familiar structure of the original novels is there: the determined hero, the hell-bent baddies and the victory of the better man. Or, more accurately, the better boy.

Likewise, where Bond girls appear, they are still, manifestly, girls. All fine, of course, given the books are aimed, at least nominally, at young teens.
"I've had lots of mail from dads, saying it's great to find a book to read their kids at night that they enjoy," says Higson. "I wanted them to work as serious novels even if you knew nothing about Bond. People have said they've seen adults reading them on the Tube, although I've yet to spot anyone."

Following SilverFin and Blood Fever, the title of the third book is a closely guarded secret. Fans of the novels were given three alternatives in an online poll and, while it has since been settled, Higson claims the printers, held to secrecy on pain of death, were keeping schtum even to him.

In terms of getting it right, they may well have looked back to the master. Fleming tried Mondays Are Hell and Wide of the Mark before settling on the now iconic Moonraker; Live and Let Die, his second novel, was originally titled The Undertaker's Wind, a name finally dropped in light of its more unsavoury connotations.

Many Fleming traits have been ditched. Though set at the apex of the British Empire, and at a school epitomising the imperialist dream, Bond, with his Swiss and Scottish heritage, is an anomaly. As such, his school friends include a Chinese card shark – who teaches him the skills he will one day need to fend off villains such as Le Chiffre – and the son of a wealthy sheikh.

"Obviously, I pushed it a little on the PC front," says Higson. "I wanted to redress the balance in some of Fleming's books, where his views on foreigners were quite outrageous. Also, I thought it might work well to have Bond's friends not being the typical stuck-up white kids at Eton from posh families, but to mix him with a few other outsiders at the school."

While not quite up there with Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia, sales of the first two books have already topped quarter of a million, and reproduction rights have been sold in 25 countries. It is, Higson believes, a golden age for children's literature – and for the return of old-fashioned adventure stories for boys. Blending the blood-lust of computer games with his own theories on the decline of young male readers, he has found a formula that works, albeit with help from his three young sons.

"Some people have complained the books are too violent but that's entirely my kids' fault," he says. "They insist on high levels of gore, so I have to keep killing people off. But I do try to put the violence in context and show it's not a nice thing – that if you get shot, it hurts. The secret is to write for kids in the same way you would for adults. I think political correctness swung too far, and books possibly got a little bit bland for boys' tastes."

Given his pedigree as a scriptwriter on, among others, the remake of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) in 2000, it's an obvious enough assumption that Higson will also write the first Young Bond film – although he says it's not being discussed at the moment. Nor can he think who would be best placed to play the mini-hero should a film ever come to pass.

But he's in little doubt about the pecking order of the adults: "With Roger Moore, you never felt he was much of a threat to the villains – or even the women, for that matter. My favourite Bond has to be Connery, because he brought a real darkness and physicality to the character, although that's something Daniel Craig has brought back recently. His muscles and fight scenes show you his Bond is actually quite dangerous."

In the mean time, for Higson, work doesn't stop. Book four in the series is already written and due for release on the centenary of Fleming's birth in 2008, with the final book to follow in 2009. He knows how the series will end, he says, but refuses to give any hints.

Otherwise, he is recording a new series of the spoof Radio Four talk show Down the Line, to air later this month, with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse. Also with Whitehouse, he is writing a script which he says will bring many of the Fast Show characters to the big screen, although it will be squarely targeted at families.

"I've found my level and it's writing things for children," he says. "Writing's what I always wanted to do, and what I've mostly done, and I've been very lucky to make a living at it. But then, I never intended to be a decorator for the rest of my life."

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