A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Four years ago, when we were still a baby blog, we ran our first ever ‘In Conversation with’ feature – an interview with the comedian Harry Enfield. At that time we had a handful of regular readers, attracted about 3,000 hits a month and were very surprised if anyone commented on anything we wrote. In the intervening four years, things have changed quite dramatically: we have many new subscribers for one thing, and we thought it was worthwhile re-running the interview for the people who might not have noticed it, buried in our archives …
(Interview originally published: 10th March, 2008.)
We’ve interviewed writers, we’ve interviewed publishers, we’ve interviewed the Chairman of the Romantic Novelists’ Association – so we thought, why not have a go at the people who actually consume the end product of all this feverish activity? The readers?
In the first of what we hope will become a regular feature on VL – “In Conversation With …”, we got writer/comedian Harry Enfield to stay still at the other end of a internet connection long enough to ask him about life, the universe and everything (but chiefly books).
VL: Welcome to VL, Harry and thank you for making the time to answer our questions. The first is very easy and very basic. What did you read as a child? (Be honest …)
HE: If I’m honest I read comics, especially Sparky and Whizzer and Chips. Then I moved on to things called books where people spoke like this ” ” rather than having balloons coming out of their mouths. I got addicted to Alistair MacLean – South by Java Head, Guns of Navarone etc. Most were made into terrible films in the 70s. My idiot father took myself and his godson to see one of these, Puppet on a Chain, when I was 11 (it was an ‘AA’ certificate – I should have been 14). It was about heroin smugglers in Amsterdam and featured lots of pretty girls being hanged. It terrified the life out of me and put me off heroin for life, sadly. I got hooked on MacLean instead. Oh, and it starred an actor called Sven Bertil Taub. Say it out loud, it’s fun. I hated The Hobbit by the way.
VL: Have you ever revisited any of the books you loved as a kid and been sadly disappointed?
HE: Yes. Agatha Christie. I used to love her but I picked up one recently and she’s a wittery old bag. Margaret McGillcuddy indeed. Who ever heard of anyone called that? Not me or Sven Bertil Taub. Pippi Longstocking‘s still quite good but the humour’s odder than I remember.
VL: What do your own children like reading? Or DON’T they like reading … shock, horror?
HE: My ten year old son reads a book an hour, about. He’s on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night at the moment, and loves it. He keeps on showing me a baffling logic puzzle and saying “Look at this Dad – that’s clever”, whereupon I stare at it for twenty minutes totally flummoxed. My 8 year old daughter’s on the fourth Molly Moon book by Georgia Byng. They are fantastic. And my 5 year old tries to read – and makes me read – the Daisy Meadows fairy books. She loves them but I’m fed up with the pesky goblins.
VL: What do your reading tastes run to now? And what – if anything – are you reading at the moment?
HE: Well I’m reading Britain’s Forgotten Wars by Ian Hernon. I’m on the slaughter of the poor old Tasmanians. I tend to drop off quickly when I go to bed so stay clear of novels when not on holiday. The last I read was Sebastian Faulks‘s Human Traces. With factual stuff I’ve read everything ever on the First World War.
VL: Have any of the books you’ve read really influenced you in a profound way?
HE: Well, I don’t know if this counts, because it’s a book of plays – but my Great Aunt Nancy gave me a collection of television screenplays by Alan Bennett when I was 16 and I think that had a huge influence on me. I’d never been interested in theatre, everything seemed to be old that I saw – George Bernard Shaw and stuff. These were modern, real and funny.
VL: Any best sellers/critically-acclaimed books you’ve really hated? (I’d like to nominate Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Lisa’s opting for The Celestine Prophecies, if that’s any encouragement …).
HE: I’m afraid I find Stephen Fry’s books deeply irritating. He’s one of the nicest codgers you’ll ever meet and the Nation’s Favourite Person, but whenever I read his written word I want to club him like a baby seal.
VL: Have you ever considered trying your hand as a novelist – á la Ben Elton and Stephen Fry? What do you think of comedians who write books? Does comedy in novels work differently to films and television? (Sorry – I know that’s three questions in one, but feel free to ramble …)
HE: Oh dear – I answered the one above before I saw this. Lucy (my wife) reads Ben’s books for me. The last one of his I read was Popcorn and it is a properly good light read. A good plot and a good moral pretext. Ruby Wax’s autobiography – it’s probably called Ruby Wax (Note from Mhairi: I checked this – it’s called ‘How Do You Want Me? – Ruby Wax’), it’s one of those one that come out at Christmas with a White Cover and a mug shot – is the funniest thing I’ve ever read for the first few chapters about her parents. Then she’s into showbiz and it gets boring. I don’t have any thoughts about comedians in general who write books. There are obviously too many who do, though Frank Skinner‘s was good and David Baddiel’s The Secret Purposes is a work of genius. But Russell Brand called his My Booky Wook. Pass the sick bucket. Actually pass the noose, he should probably be hanged.
VL: There’s been a lot said recently about the fact that the biggest literary prizes seem to be won almost exclusively by the bleakest books. Have you any theories about why that might be? Perhaps humour isn’t taken seriously (if that isn’t a daft way of putting it …)?
HE: Well, humour is lightweight isn’t it. That’s the point. I don’t have any theories about this. But yes you’re right. I only read “proper” modern literature on holiday, and tend to find myself on a beautiful beach somewhere having a horrible time as I immerse myself in a Victorian asylum or Greek leper camp .
VL: Making people laugh is actually extremely hard work … especially when you have to do it to order. Do you snigger at your own material as you’re writing it, or is the writing of comedy actually a gloomy and angst-ridden occupation, to be undertaken only by introverted people with suicidal tendencies?
HE: Part gloomy, part sniggerful. Sometimes it’s like Maths – you have all the parts of the equation but you can’t simplify them to make them funny. Sometimes we snigger all day. Usually when we’re writing something un-PC.
VL: Do you consider yourself primarily a writer who performs, or a performer who writes?
HE: Well the latter. I’m a performer who only writes because no one else will write for him. I’m not very good at doing other peoples stuff. So I have to do my own.
VL: When you’re working from a script you’ve written yourself, or at least had a hand in, do you stick to it? Or do you sometimes improvise as you go along? The corollary of that is, when you’re working from someone else’s script (on Skins, for instance), do you ever suggest tweaks?
HE: Well yes to both – things are always different off the page. I’m not precious about what I write. If it doesn’t live when said out loud I change it or chuck it away. Same with anyone else’s stuff.
VL: One or two of your characters have taken on a life all of their own … the completely obnoxious Loadsamoney for one, and Kevin, of course. Every time a journalist writes a piece about how horrid teenagers are, it’s inevitably accompanied by a photograph of him at his acne-ridden best. He and Perry were launched onto the unsuspecting film-going public a few years ago, but have any of your other characters ever threatened to develop beyond the sketches? (Perhaps “threatened” wasn’t quite what I meant, but never mind …)
HE: Paul Whitehouse and I did some DJ’s years ago and the head of Radio One saw us and sacked all his DJ’s, which was a stupid thing to do. They were fun. So that was a development out of our control. But none recently. That’s Sasha Baron Cohen’s job now.
VL: You literally killed Loadsamoney off, didn’t you, because you felt he was becoming too much of a role model? Serious question coming up – when you create characters, do you have it at the back of your mind that there are some people out there who could be influenced – for good or ill – by your what you do?
HE: No I killed off Loadsamoney because I was bored of doing him and was becoming typecast. I felt if I carried on doing him I’d not be able to do anything else. I don’t think people are influenced by comic characters. The characters mirror society, not the other way round.
VL: Our North American Fox thinks that British comedy-writers are more “intellectual” than their American counterparts. Do you agree? (Here is a minefield … please feel free to step straight into it …)
HE: No. In fact I strongly disagree. The Simpsons is better – and more intellectual – than anything we produce over here. As is Larry David.
VL: Finally, it’s become customary to ask our guests to recommend their five favourite books, with reasons. So: Five Favourite Books? Reasons?
Crime and Punishment: The most dramatic piece of writing I’ve come across.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby: A book about me by a man I’ve never met.
101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith: The book I’ve most enjoyed reading to my – and several other – children
Money by Martin Amis: His best book. About the wickedest of times.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks: The best novel about the Great War.
VL: Interesting choices. Thank you very much indeed for doing this, Harry. I know how busy you are.
HE: You’re very welcome.
(Harry very kindly agreed to answer our questions on condition that we slipped in a quick mention for and link to the charity he is Patron of – The Centre for Complementary Care near Ravenglass in the Lake District. There. We’ve done it.)