Charlie Higson interview

From writing spy novels to co-creating iconic comedy shows, Charlie Higson can do it all. We caught up with the actor, comedian and author to find out about making The Fast Show, his memories of the late, great Caroline Aherne and which character he enjoyed playing the most.

Charlie Higson interview

Was it fun to get the gang back together to make The Fast Show: Just A Load Of Blooming Catchphrases?

Absolutely. It was lovely to be back together. Everyone was up for it, in a very good mood and proud of what we had achieved together.

The Fast Show still has legions of fans, doesn't it?

Yes. People on Twitter talk about it a lot. At the moment, a lot of people are doing Swiss Toni analogies about things and sharing sketches. It still seems to have relevance.

Why do you think it has lasted so well?

A lot of the characters were fully rounded. They were real people. People don't go out of fashion, but jokes might. As a producer, I was quite strict. I had a set of rules - for example, no drag. As we had Arabella and Caroline in the cast, it would have been insulting to write a woman's part and get Simon to put a dress on. We also said we would have no TV parodies. As soon as the show you're parodying isn't on TV anymore, the sketch becomes meaningless. People forget things very quickly when they're not on TV anymore. Shows that were big with one generation don't register at all with the next. We never did political satire or impressions of politicians. That was not what we wanted to do. We liked social satire instead. Our shows were always about people and how they react to things.

The Fast Show was ground-breaking in its speed and brevity, wasn't it?

Yes. We were very aware that the way people were watching television at that time was changing quickly. The advent of VHS meant that people were taping programmes and watching them over and over again. The Fast Show was designed to be watched over and over again. We didn't spoon feed you or hit you between the eyes with sketches. But if you watched three or four, you'd soon start to enjoy them. That was a real novelty. The sketches never outstayed their welcome. They were short and sharp. It's almost as if we predicted YouTube! It was a case of, "Come on, say your line and get off." Sketches sit very well in that space. As good as The Two Ronnies were, they had sketches which were eight or nine minutes long. You could work out the punchline, go away, make yourself a cup of tea, come back and the sketch would still be running. Ours were much shorter. We thought that if we were on and off quickly, people wouldn't notice that there was no real punchline!

Which character did you relish playing the most?

I did very much enjoy playing the painter Johnny. Just for the sheer joy of performing, he was my favourite character to play. I could go to beautiful, scenic places in the countryside and just go nuts. What more fun can you have? I adored the bits where he loses it and goes off into this weird, paranoid fantasy world. I loved coming out with those lines and being able to smash everything up! I also used to love seeing if I could make Arabella corpse. But she never laughed, which was fantastically professional of her.

Did you take great pleasure from performing with the other cast members?

Definitely. One of the real joys of The Fast Show was playing with other people. Doing Ted and Ralph with Paul was always great fun because we knew each other so well and trusted each other.

Which other performers did you enjoy watching?

They were all brilliant, but I loved what Simon was doing, because he was coming at things from a different place. One of the strengths of the show was that all the different performers were bringing their own stuff. Simon always brought stuff where you thought, "I could never have written that." I loved some of the lines he came up with for Dave Angel and Billy Bleach.

One of the strong points of The Fast Show was its poignancy, wasn't it?

Yes. As audiences got to know the characters, you could move some of them into the area of drama. On one level, you could say The Fast Show was a load of short sketches. But on another level, you could say it was one very long sketch, cut into little bits. With Ted and Ralph, for instance, in some series we had unfolding stories. In one series, we had the scene where Ralph told Ted about his wife's death, the funeral scene, and then another scene about the aftermath. We were able to explore these characters and get into storytelling and drama. That was a lot of fun.

What makes Paul such an outstanding performer?

He's a brilliant character actor. He can get to the heart of a character very quickly. He can impersonate a character without it being a caricature or a cartoon. He doesn't have any formal acting training and doesn't even see himself as an actor, but he can properly inhabit a character and express so much through it. He is a fantastic writer, too. He has done several characters who speak complete gibberish, like Rowley Birkin or Julio Geordio or the Channel 9 presenters. With all those characters, even though they are speaking gibberish, you can still fully understand what they're saying. That's quite a skill.

As this documentary reminds us how superb The Fast Show was, might you now consider bringing it back?

I'm not sure I'd want to try to remount a full-on sketch show. We hit on a good way of doing the characters in this documentary by having them as talking heads discussing their former selves on a clips programme. I don't think we would try to get the whole machine back up again. I'm more excited about doing new things.

What are your memories of Caroline Aherne?

She was unique. She was such an extraordinary performer and person. As soon as we met her, we thought, "She's so special. We have got to use her." It was fabulous to work with her and then see her go off, come up with something as extraordinary as The Royle Family and become such a big star in her own right. We were just happy that we'd been able to work with her. She went off like a rocket, and we just held onto the stick.

Were you worried about bringing back any of the characters, such as the lascivious "Suit You" gentleman's outfitters, for The Fast Show: Just A Load Of Blooming Catchphrases?

No. Times have not changed. Of course, the "Suit You" characters could come back today. People making inappropriate sexual comments will never go away! Also, we were never supposed to think, "Aren't they marvellous?" They were always appallingly creepy.

Do people still call out Fast Show catchphrases at you in the street?

I don't know. I haven't been out for six months. When I do finally go out, maybe they'll chase me down the street shouting catchphrases at me!

What you do you hope the takeaway from The Fast Show: Just a Load of Blooming Catchphrases will be?

I hope people switch on and think, "Oh my God, that was a lot in it, wasn't there?" Anything that is about sharing laughter is great, especially at the moment. I hope people will really enjoy the boost of laughter that this will give them. And it will make a change from watching another TV comedy filmed on Zoom!