Charlie Higson: ‘Jekyll and Hyde is about showing how we’re all monsters’

ITV presents Jekyll and Hyde

ITV presents Jekyll and Hyde - Credit: Archant

The former Fast Show star tells Tony Padman how he has updated Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic horror tale for a new ITV television series.

From comedy and acting to producing, directing and as author of the Young James Bond books, it’s fair to describe Charlie Higson as a Jack of all trades.

But there’s one skill on his list of attributes that I hadn’t bargained for. He was once a painter and decorator to the stars.

“We did very well out of it,” Higson, explains proudly. “But it was back in my twenties when I was in a punk band for several years. We did that when we weren’t touring to help buy food and clothes. For our first job, we had to do wallpapering – which we’d never done before, so we got hold of some books and read up on it.

“Later on, Paul Whitehouse joined us as a plasterer so that we could offer customers – like Stephen Fry, a full service. When Stephen moved out, he sold his house to us, so it was nice to buy somewhere that we felt, was well decorated. Our business ended up being so profitable that we had to knock the band on the head.”

Since then, he’s come a long way and right now, he’s multi-tasking again, this time as creator, writer and executive producer of an ambitious new 10-part series, Jekyll and Hyde.

At the centre of the drama is Dr Henry Jekyll’s grandson Robert, a young man who is on a mission to discover not only his own true identity, but also the family curse that threatens his very existence. We see how Robert slips from light into dark; out of one personality and into the other, which is devious, horrific and ultimately destructive.

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But with such a classic text and a character that is the third most filmed – after Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, surely he thinks audiences will be surprised that he is behind it all, especially as he is best known to older audiences for comedies like The Fast Show and to children for his books? He explains: “Children read my books at school, while adults are aware of my comedy shows from the nineties. But people have got it into their heads that I do many different things and my shows have always been about creating strong interesting characters, so when they see Jekyll and Hyde with its combination of fantasy, horror, drama and humour, they’ll get that it’s me.”

He concedes that some have admitted to thinking a Jekyll and Hyde series “might be a bit dull”. Then quickly as an aside he adds: “They also said that they’re excited that Charlie is involved”.

With a writing portfolio that crosses from comedy in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) to his dramatic whodunnit screenplay for Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery, he thinks what he’s done with this story will have “a broad appeal for all ages”.

Higson got the gig, after TV bosses saw his screenplays and children’s books. They invited him in for a discussion about creating something “big and bold” aimed at a family tea-time audience and he suggested Jekyll and Hyde updated from Victorian times to 1930s London.

Higson admits he put the idea forward “without ever having read” Robert Louis Stevenson’s original Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. “But my adaptation is different to the book,” insists Higson, who says it’s the biggest project he’s ever taken on.

He’s combined elements of what he enjoyed watching as a kid growing up in the sixties in episodic dramas like The Prisoner, Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes. “We all remember the shows we used to watch that frightened us, and they’re the ones we enjoyed the most. All of them were fantastic, along with Indiana Jones they were strong influences in how you can set a story in the real world with lots of action, adventure and supernatural horror.” But most pertinent of all perhaps is the emotional theme running through the newly qualified Dr Robert Jekyll’s character, who we first meet saving the life of a young girl in Sri Lanka – until the curse of Mr Hyde strikes.

“I’ve written a very modern story because it’s about how we can all be monsters and essentially, we all have the monster within us. It’s a universal thing that we all have a dark side with dark impulses that we keep under wraps. Most of us present a different face to the world than is going on inside our heads and you see this in many dramas.

“That is what the book and my story is about, that the original Dr Jekyll had these horrible compulsions, yet he was an upstanding Victorian doctor. He didn’t want anyone to know, but he thought he could create another character who does these awful things for him, so I think it’s a very contemporary idea.”

Somerset-born Higson, 57, loves books and says it’s a tragedy that they’re a dying breed. He adds: “It’s good that some of the smaller ones are still clinging on; I’m not interested in clothes and the like, but wherever I am, I’ll spend hours in a book shop.”

Married to Vick, with three grown-up sons, he’s lived in Tufnell Park for 20 years. “As an area, it’s fantastic and easy to get around – well at least it was until they closed Tufnell Park tube station for nine months to replace both lifts. But you live somewhere for the people, and I know there are some who take the piss out of us for being north London liberals, but I think you can’t find a greater breed of person than a north London liberal.”

With rumours of a second series being planned, Jekyll and Hyde boasts a strong cast that includes Richard E. Grant, Donald Sumpter and Tom Bateman, who plays Jekyll and Hyde in such a way that you really care and empathise about his plight.

With Bateman playing dual characters, you have an actor who is as appealing and charming as Dr Jekyll as he is threatening and frightening as Mr Hyde.

Jekyll and Hyde begins this Sunday on ITV1 at 6pm