Charlie Higson – author, scriptwriter, actor and musician – returns to UEA to share ideas on breaking into a creative career

A guest blog from Emily Walker, current UEA postgraduate researcher in comedy television, and Curatorial Assistant for the TV Comedy Writing Collection, within the British Archive for Contemporary Writing, as part of her CHASE-funded placement.

On October 17, the UEA’s British Archive for Contemporary Writing (BACW) hosted Charlie Higson: writer, actor, director, and Archive depositor, for interactive student sessions discussing scriptwriting, novel writing, television, and the creative industries.

Higson, whose prolific credits include the BAFTA winning classic TV sketch comedy The Fast Show, and the bestselling book series Young Bond and The Enemy, is a UEA undergraduate alumnus and received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 2014.

Since his graduation in 1980, Higson has been a frequent visitor; during my six years at UEA he has appeared at three separate student-oriented events (all of which I have been lucky enough to attend) but his willingness to help students extends much further back. I recently found a letter from a UEA student dated 1997 thanking Higson for his visit and advice.

With a nearly 40-year history with the university, UEA is the natural home for the Charlie Higson archive, a huge collection of Higson’s writing drafts, notebooks, sketches, and the occasional drawing. The archive material is revealing of Higson’s creative methods and his career development and is already used in teaching. In discussion with the BACW Archivist, Dr Brett Mills, Curator of the Comedy Writing Collections at UEA, felt it was a natural progression for the Archive to host seminars and masterclasses with the writers themselves.

Based on my own experiences, I suggested students would benefit most from working with Charlie in smaller groups. Students from across Humanities were encouraged to apply for the opportunity – from foundation year to post graduate. Successful applicants were then offered the chance to meet the man himself and ask personal questions about his life and work.

Higson ran a Q&A session chaired by Brett Mills and a series of three small-group sessions tailored to the research interests of the applicants (scriptwriting, comedy, and fiction). The students were aspiring novelists, stand-up comedians, film-makers, and actors, and they were encouraged to ask specific questions about their career aims.

Over three hours, Higson provided so much insightful and practical advice that to list every piece would fill volumes. Instead, I have picked out five key points:

1. Do your research (but not too much). If you are looking to write a script, read them as well. Higson specifically recommended the Withnail and I script (written by Bruce Robinson) and the book How Not to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn (currently £0.01 used on Amazon, so there’s no excuse). Still, be prepared for the research to end because otherwise the writing may never begin.

2. Find a writing partner. “I definitely think it is much easier to write comedy with someone else”, a statement that chimes with his many collaborations in television comedy, especially with long-time comedy partner Paul Whitehouse. Higson met many of his writing partners at UEA, and believes that complementary skills, such as organisation and ideas, can be very beneficial.

3. Create world, character, and story. Higson listed three elements to writing a novel or screenplay: start by creating a world (it can be a vague image, no need to be Tolkien-esque), then find the characters, and the story should grow out of this combination. It is also important to know the ending, because “you can take as many detours as you want along the way”, and “it is the everyday things” that can make a world seem real.

4. If you have writer’s block, work on a few projects. Instead of struggling with one story, why not try working on a few projects at once? James Cameron, when tasked with writing Rambo and Alien sequels at the same time, would work on one until he ran out of ideas, and then swap to the other and repeat the process. However, “if you’re really stuck,” Higson suggests, “something is fundamentally wrong”.

5. “Have a life”. Imagination will play a big part in crafting stories, but having experiences will be vital in creating believable situations and dialogue. Since Higson started writing after UEA while working as a painter/decorator, he had a bank of experiences to draw on. Family can be a big help too: Higson says that reading his young adult horror fiction to his children helps to gauge whether the stories are scary enough.

The student response was overwhelmingly positive. On the anonymous feedback forms, attendees all classed the sessions as “Very good” or “Excellent” and considered the sessions creatively and professionally inspiring. Here are some of the comments:

“Charlie was friendly and easy to talk to while also providing wise and valuable advice. I loved the casual setup of the session.”
“Practical with humorous anecdotes: interesting insights on the creative process.”
“First-hand experience in hearing from an accomplished writer and former UEA student.”
“Just hearing how a career can develop fairly organically was incredibly reassuring.”
Many of the students said they had gained “confidence” in their abilities, felt more “energised” by the experience, and were encouraged to ”write more” and “collaborate” in the future.

One student even said Higson had inspired him to “enjoy life!” In fact, the only repeated recommendation was that they wanted more time, a factor we will be absolutely delighted to increase next time (Higson’s schedule permitting).

Dr Brett Mills (AMA), who chaired the event, in his role as curator of the comedy strand of the Archive, said:

“It’s fantastic to have Charlie on campus again, giving invaluable advice and support to our students who are keen to do all kinds of creative work. The student feedback shows how much such events are valued. I’m particularly glad that comedy – often an ignored genre – is given its prominence here, and Charlie was able to give encouragement to students keen to make others laugh.

The Archive’s comedy strand represents a significant intervention into the kinds of culture and creative activity that typically gets kept for posterity – and events such as this show how invaluable it is for teaching and research. I know I’m looking forward to Charlie’s next visit as much as our students are.”

For those who didn’t attend the seminar, there are still plenty of ways to find out more information. The Charlie Higson Archive in the BACW collection http://www.uea.ac.uk/bacw  is full of fantastic material from his extensive career, which would be an excellent starting point for any budding writers. In addition, as part of my work placement with the archive, I conducted an interview with Higson which will eventually be available in the archive for researchers. And of course, since Higson is a frequent visitor, it would not be unreasonable to hope for another seminar very soon.

Emily Walker, current UEA postgraduate researcher in comedy television, and Curatorial Assistant for the TV Comedy Writing Collection, within the British Archive for Contemporary Writing, as part of her CHASE-funded placement.