Books Entertainment & Culture Famous Fathers

Worst. Holiday. Ever.

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

International bestselling author Charlie Higson speaks to Tim Barnes-Clay about his latest book, Worst. Holiday. Ever.

Stan is going on holiday to Italy with his (fifth) best friend Felix and a load of strangers. Stan is absolutely terrified. Luckily, his mum’s given him an emergency list that includes how to survive a shark attack, and what to do if he gets kidnapped. Stan thinks that a better list would include how to cope with odd food, and what to do if he accidentally calls Felix’s mum ‘mum’ in front of everybody. And it soon turns out Italy is full of dangers and things that can go wrong. One thing’s for certain, Stan’s not going to come back the same boy he left. He just hopes he comes back at all …

Charlie chatted to Tim Barnes-Clay about how his book is a story about facing fears, dealing with worries, and how it’s OK to be anxious, scared, and sometimes a little bit brave.

Worst. Holiday. Ever is a bit of a change of direction for you – why is this?

I’ve spent my life changing direction. It keeps you young and stops you getting bored. But the way this book came about was that I’d been working on a big project that was going nowhere and wanted to break off and write something quick and light and funny. I’d had an idea bubbling under for a while about a shy boy going on holiday with a friend’s family. It was a nice simple story and I thought it might amuse me. If I could make someone else laugh along the way, that was an added bonus.

Many dads reading this will have loved the Adrian Mole books back in their youth. Could your main character, Stan, be the Adrian Mole for a new generation?

Well, who wouldn’t want to be as popular and successful as the Adrian Mole books? They really were a phenomenon. I have an awful confession to make, though – I could never get into them. Adrian wasn’t like any boy I’d ever met, and the books didn’t really resonate for me. It’s probably an awful, sexually stereotyping, thing to say, but I think the books are probably more popular with girls than boys. My book is vaguely similar, in that it’s about a boy observing and trying to make sense of the adult world, but whether Stan will be as beloved as Adrian I simply couldn’t say. Once your book’s out there, it’s out of your hands.

Which writers inspired you in your career?

I think every book you read is an inspiration, particularly if you really enjoy it – it drives you to try to bring some of that enjoyment into the world yourself. That’s why it’s particularly fulfilling writing for kids, because your book might be the first full length novel they actually read for themselves. That’s a big responsibility but it’s also very rewarding if you get it right.

Did you read as kid?… and have you any tips on getting children to enjoy reading?

I read all the time.  I loved any book that took me out of my mundane little life and away on an adventure – myths and legends, stories about knights and wizards and Robin Hood, Asterix and Tintin they were all great… As Emily Dickinson wrote: “There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away…”

I wish I knew how to get kids reading, though. I’ve got three boys and my wife and I read to them every night when they were small. Our house is full of books. And, when the boys were young, they all read a lot – now they hardly ever even look at a book. The allure of the screen is so much greater. I’ve got nothing against screens, I think the digital world is amazing, but kids need to get a balance in their life. Books offer them a different type of mental activity and way of engaging with the world. All you can do is read to your kids, share your love of books with them and try to get across what an amazing thing a book is – it can contain the universe.

Back to Worst. Holiday. Ever – how much of your childhood experiences – and maybe even your experiences as a parent – have gone into creating the book?

A lot of what happens in the book I’ve taken from life. From the holidays I went on with my parents, from holidays as a parent – all the funny things that happened to my boys and their friends.

We have a house in Italy, and, in the summer, it would always be packed with family and friends. The boys would often bring pals out with them, and I used to wonder what it must be like for those kids, being away from their families and thrown into this alien world.

Also, Stan is shy, and I was awfully shy as a kid. I still am, it never leaves you, you just learn how to deal with it – which is kind of what Stan has to do in this book.

Sons of fathers and indeed fathers of sons will relate to Stan and his worries. Do you think Worst. Holiday. Ever might help us all realise it’s normal to have ups and downs in life? And could the book remind parents of the sort of worries kids have – and how we’ve forgotten how we once felt?

One of the themes of the book is very much that of adults forgetting what it was like to be a child. It’s also about adults misreading their children and imposing their own thoughts and anxieties onto them – and vice versa, kids often misread adults. As the book develops, Stan begins to realise that the adults actually aren’t that different to him and in fact behave even more childishly a lot of the time. In the end its about why we all need to try to connect.

What do your sons think of your books? Do they have any input?

When I started writing for kids the only feedback I could get was by reading my books to my boys as bedtime stories as I wrote them. So, for the Young James Bond books, I’d know the plot wasn’t exciting enough if they fell asleep, and they’d always insist on more violence and gore. They’re all in their 20s now, and I’m hoping they’ll read this new one for themselves and recognise quite a lot of the incidents in it.

You’ve been writing since you were a kid, but how did you manage to get into writing for TV?

I’ve always written for pleasure. I love the idea that you can take a blank sheet of paper and just by making some squiggly marks on it create characters and places and tell stories that weren’t there before. I never dreamt I’d ever be paid to do it; I just loved the creativity. I also never dreamt I’d get into TV. At school in the 70s we didn’t have media studies or the like, but I met a few people at University who changed all that. At first Paul Whitehouse, Harry Enfield and Vic Reeves were just mates, but we somehow all got involved with the comedy world and, more by accident than design, ended up making TV shows together. People often ask me at events how to get into TV, and I have to confess, I have no blooming idea. The big change now, though, is that young people can make their own stuff, film it on an iPhone and distribute it via YouTube or whatever, so the access is so much easier – but making money out of it is a different matter.

 Of course, we’re desperate to ask you about your massively successful television comedy series The Fast Show. In our eyes, that is THE TV sketch show of the nineties. What was that period of your life like, and how much do you miss acting?

No two ways about it, the 90s were great. There was so many brilliant comedy shows on TV and there was a great team of executives at the BBC who were really into comedy and entertainment and realised what an important part of the BBC it was (something which seems to have been lost now). I was working with mates, I was producing my own shows… As Orson Welles said, filming is the biggest and best train set a boy can be given. It was huge fun creating those characters, putting on daft wigs and costumes and making people laugh. It was really magical.  I love performing and would love to do more, and I get lots of offers, but the writing side of things has completely taken over my life these days.

A couple of The Fast Show specials hit our screens in 2000 and 2014 – is there a likelihood of anymore?

It was great fun meeting up with all the team again and doing some more filming. We talked about whether we should try and do something else, but the best comedy is made by young people – in their 20s and 30s. Does anyone really want to see a bunch of pensioners making a sketch show? However, we have got a few ideas knocking about…

Before all that, you were a singer – do you have time to sing still?

I loved being in a band (The Higsons). I was a pretty good front man, but I was sadly a pretty rotten singer. It was more like shouting in tune (mostly out of tune, actually), and I always knew I had no future in it. Occasionally, at parties, because I know a lot of musicians, we’ll get together and knock out some songs, but my son, Jim has a band called Kawala that’s doing really well – or at least they were until Covid derailed the entire music industry. He can really sing. It was the thing he always loved doing as a kid and he’s got the sort of voice that means he could be a singer all his life and always entertain people.

Anyway, we can’t wait to read Worst. Holiday. Ever – and we bet we haven’t seen the last of Stan – do you have plans for him to appear in a sequel?

Publishers are always on the lookout for a franchise. A series of books is easier to sell than a one off, and if you get kids hooked, they just keep wanting more. I’ll have to see if Stan’s adventures are a hit, which would give me the impetus to write some more books about him. So, let’s see how it goes.

Finally – and this is possibly a bit random – but how has fatherhood changed you? Has it impacted the trajectory of your career? We only ask because, at FQ, we all agree fatherhood changed us – probably for the better.

I’ve always thought that having kids is simultaneously the best and the worst thing that can ever happen to you. It completely changes everything – you’re suddenly responsible for someone else and your life is not your own. That causes huge stresses and adjustments, and you have to make huge sacrifices, but the rewards are extraordinary. Bringing new people into the world, watching them grow and develop and go off to have their own lives, is just amazing. But you never stop worrying, you never stop being fearful that something might happen to them, they will always be your kids no matter how old they get.  

Also, it stops you being totally obsessed with yourself, and it means that life goes on, it passes down through the generations and leaving this world will not be such a sorrow.

Charlie Higson started writing when he was a child. After university, he was a singer and painter and decorator before he started writing for television. He went on to create and star in the hugely successful comedy series The Fast Show. He is the author of the bestselling Young Bond books and the incredibly successful horror series, The Enemy. Charlie’s latest book, Worst. Holiday. Ever, is available in paperback by Penguin now.

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