Jeffrey is joined by Anthony Horowitz – author of Alex Rider, Foyle’s War, Sherlock Holmes and, most recently, A Line to Kill – to reveal which book and TV series he believes are ‘unputdownable’.
Jeffrey: Hi, I’m Jeffrey Archer, and I’m adventuring out in something I never dreamed I would do, called a podcast!
And mine is going to be called Unputdownable.
I shall be inviting some of my friends to join me to describe what they consider to be unputdownable, and indeed, I will be replying to them with what I consider to fall into that category.
In each episode, they have to select their favourite book, but they will then be allowed to select another moment of culture. It might be a painting, it could be a film, it could be a television series.
We leave them to tell us what that might be. And surprise, surprise, I will be suggesting my favourite books and my piece of culture. But you will find out, as we do each podcast, what my guest has chosen and what I have chosen.
And we have some pretty exciting people coming up. Barry Humphries will be joining me among the great intellects I’ve known in my lifetime. Lucy Foley, a wonderful writer. Ravi Shastri. Well, that may surprise one or two of you. My love of cricket gets in.
And Ayesha Hazarika, and I have to stay very awake when she’s around because she’s as sharp as they come and can’t wait to find out what will be her favorite book and what other part of culture she chooses.
I’m beginning this mad new episode in my life with that distinguished and versatile writer, Anthony Horowitz, a man who seems to be able to do everything. Foyle’s war. Alex Ryder, throw in a novel, do a play. His brain seems to be able to turn in any direction according to what’s exciting to him at that particular moment.
So we’ll start with Anthony, who, by the way, quite hard to interrupt, as you’ll find out.
Welcome to my first podcast. Anthony, I’ve chosen you because I consider you among the most versatile and capable authors in our country today and I also know which is equally important – you’re very good at chattering!
Anthony: Especially when I’m talking to you Jeffrey! I didn’t realize, am I really your first guest?
Jeffrey: You are my first guest.
Anthony: Well, I was flattered to be invited, but now I am privileged and flattered and delighted to be your very first guest. It can only get better from here.
Jeffrey: Now as you know, I’m asking all of my guests to select one book that has made a big difference in their life or they think is important, and one other art section – it could be a painting, it could be a sculpture, it could be a theatre production, it could be a concert, it could be an opera, it could be a ballet.
You get the choice and I want to know what your favourites are, and then I’m going to talk to you about mine and then we’ll intermingle them. So off you go, Anthony, tell me the book you want to talk about.
Well, I’m going to cheat immediately because I’m actually choosing a whole series of books. I mean, if you like, I should say it is Flashman by Geroge McDonald Fraser, written in 1969. But that was the first book in a series where I think about 13 or 14 books starring an extraordinary character.
For those few listeners of yours who have not heard about this character, Harry Flashman was the bully in Tom Hughes’s seminal novel, Tom Brown’s School Days. By coincidence, I was at the school, Rugby, where that book takes place, and Flashman is expelled at the end of Tom Brown’s School Days for being a cad and a bully and for famously roasting poor Tom Brown in front of the fire.
And no one is sad to see him go. And George McDonald Fraser, who was working as a journalist back in the 60s, had the really quite brilliant idea of continuing Flashman’s life and seeing what happened to him next.
And what happens to him next is, is that by accident, really, he gets dragooned into the army and finds himself at the center of pretty much every major event that takes place in sort of imperialist Victorian history.
So from the sort of Indian Rebellion to the Charge of the Light Brigade, which he manages to do with extraordinary flatulence, riding on a horse and poisoning the air behind him, and a Little Bighorn, where he meets General Custer, whom he doesn’t like very much.
He meets a great, great many people in history. Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Bismarck, Florence Nightingale. He doesn’t like her either. And the joke of these books is this: Flashman remains a coward, a poltroon, a liar, politically incorrect in the sense that his attitude to women and to foreigners is Victorian Imperialism at its worst.
But the main thing about him is that he is terrified for every moment of these books and somehow comes through unscathed, time after time after time. These are gloriously, funny, historically accurate, very telling recounts of our history and I can’t think of a series of books that throughout my life have given me greater pleasure, which is why I’ve chosen them today.
Jeffrey: Well, I always enjoyed Flashman as well, and I have a slight connection with Rugby because my first son, William, went to Rugby, so he has that in common with you.
And of course, we remember Tom Brown’s School Days. It was you called it seminal. It’s one of the great novels that describes the public school at that period. And of course, Flashman is of that period.
But what you’ve pointed out, Anthony, is that it doesn’t really matter. Flashman still exists at every level, and they all often come out on top. And I agree with you. Anyone who hasn’t read George McDonald Fraser should be taking Anthony’s advice and finding out more about Flashman because he is one of those great characters in literature who you hate and love, but more important, have to turn the page.
Anthony: Well, that is exactly it. They are wonderful romps, real adventures with fantastic action sequences. And George McDonald Fraser is a very dab hand at describing major battles and big, the sweep of history, which he then can contrast with the little, tiny details that he gets right too and one of the jokes of the books is that they’re all annotated. So, at the back, someone, the person who’s discovered the Flashman documents is annotating them and saying, well, Flashman isn’t right here, you know, Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been in that meeting because he was in Washington at the time. So there’s a sort of a sense of real history and next door to Flashman number two are really close cousins.
And I have to say, if you are interested in that period and interested in British Imperialism, good or bad, however you want to see it, the books are extraordinarily informative.
Jeffrey: It’s quite fun sometimes, isn’t it, when people take a character who never existed and plant him into history, but at the same time politely teach you a little about Lincoln or whoever it might. I always enjoy that because it allows the writer and I’ve seen you do it with your own work, it allows the writer to let the reader know something they might not have realized. I mean, you did that brilliantly with your Sherlock Holmes book.
I mean, I really felt I was reading Conan Doyle and that to me was important because I felt, actually as I’ve said to you in the past, you useless individual, that frankly, you should have said ‘I’ve discovered 20 Conan Doyle books under my floorboards and I’m now going to let you have them for the next 20 years’, because that for me, you talk with such warmth and affection about a Flashman. Your Sherlock Holmes book, I consider to be a masterpiece.
Anthony: You are very kind, Jeffrey, and what is great about writing that book was that it was based on real history.
The story of The House of Silk is actually a true story that I found when I was doing my researches. In fact, I’d known about it all my life. I’m not going to say what it is that he gives away the ending, but I’d always known about this story that took place in London and involved the royal family and all the aristocracy and everything.
And when I wrote that book, I was thinking to myself, why has nobody ever read this book? Why has The House of Silk never been published until now? Watson says in the first chapter that he’s finally telling a story and of course the reason is that it’s a terrible scandal.
And funnily enough there is a connection over Flashman because Flashman also – his books are sort of kept under wraps because he is telling the truth in all its sordid details about his life and all the sort of beds he’s been in and all the mix-ups he’s had and all the sort of crimes he’s committed and can’t really tell anybody until after his death. He’s of a post-mortem publication.
But as your other comment, incidentally, I’ve always thought that variety is the spice of life. And if I was sitting here now facing you, having done, shall we say, 30 Sherlock Holmes’s but no Alex Ryder and no James Bond and no all the other things I do, I think I would be a less interesting guest for you and certainly a less happy person for me.
Jeffrey: Well, I’m delighted to hear that pathetic reply, because my own view is my own view is you’re 100% wrong. I think, dare I say it on this air because someone may hear it. If you’d done ten books, they’d have all gone to number one right around the world.
May I remind you, Anthony, because I’m sure you know the figures – that book received amazing critical acclaim, not just from people like me, but right across the board. I remember reading in the Telegraph, the drama critic – not bothering to write about drama that day, simply talking about your Sherlock Holmes book. So, I wasn’t alone in this opinion, Anthony.
Anthony: And what is the name of this podcast again? The Rudest Podcast in Town?Is that the name of it? I hope you’re like this with my good friend Barry Humphreys, because I think you may find him… I don’t know what he will do or in what persona!
Jeffrey: And God help me!
Anthony: He’ll be a lot less accepting of it than me, taking it on the chin, as I always do with you, Jeffrey,
Jeffrey: I’m going to talk to you about I suspect you’ve read it, because I don’t say this in any way cleverly – you’re one of the best-read people I’ve ever met. I’ve been a lover of short stories since I was a child. They’re not so popular nowadays, Anthony. They’re not in fashion anymore. I mean, when I was a child Somerset Maugham, H H Monroe, Maupassant, O Henry, Scott Fitzgerald were common diet when we were being brought up and I’m going to talk about the man I think dominates even that amazing group: H H. Monroe, known as Saki. And I had to choose between all his short stories, which was almost impossible, and I chose Sredni Vashtar.
When I commend H H Munro, Saki, to anyone who’s listening to us for the first time, it will be a revelation for you. Sredni Vashtar in itself is a piece of genius about a child who has to live with a domineering aunt and what happens. How he single-handed, although only a young child, defeats the dominating aunt. You can’t fail to love it. It’s not only beautifully written, it’s like so many of his stories, a marvellous piece of storytelling.
And I don’t know how you feel, Anthony. I’ve written 92 short stories in my lifetime. Six books of short stories. They don’t sell as well as the novels, but I just enjoy the process. And often I find, as I’m sure you do, someone tells me a story and frankly, it’s worth ten pages, it might be worth fifteen. You couldn’t expand it into a novel, or if you did, it wouldn’t work.
Anthony: That’s absolutely true. It’s funny, isn’t it, when an idea falls into your head, and my head, I think both of us know automatically what it is.
Is it a play? Is it a television series? Is it a novel, or is it just a short story? And I think I often say that in a funny way. For me, a novel is a bit like that row of dominoes you see on a television program where somebody flips over a domino, and it knocks the next one over and the next one over.
A short story is four dominoes or three dominoes. A novel is 30 or 40 dominoes, and you can see the pattern forming. And so you know that it’s just a little thing. And I think what is so great about the story you’ve chosen is that it’s almost one domino.
I mean, it is a piece of absolute perfection. Very macabre. It seems to me that it inspired and may have inspired Roald Dahl. Mrs. De Rock, the guardian cousin figure of the little boy in that story, is very much a Dahl-ish figure. And he, of course, was something of a master of the short story.
Jeffrey: Brilliant. No, he’s brilliant. He’s brilliant. I’m going to move on to you picking whatever you like, and then I’ll pick whatever I like. But we’re going to start with you, Anthony. Of the many things you could have chosen, and heaven knows you’re a man who lives in Greece, who lives in England, who travels a great deal, will have seen the great sculptures, the great galleries, read the great books, seen the great theatres and film. What is the thing you have chosen?
Anthony: Well, that build up suggested I’ve become something of a philistine in my choice, but in a way, I think I have chosen a masterpiece. I write television, Jeffrey. I’m still watching television. I’m very interested in television and the influence it has on us and the way television is changing with the arrival of Netflix and Amazon and all the big platforms. So, I’ve chosen a TV series, a box set, if you like, and that was one of your choices you offered me.
And I’ve gone for Breaking Bad, which is a masterpiece of television. It ran for five seasons. It finished a few years ago. Now it’s actually almost receding into the past. And one of the things that interests me about that show is that television is very, very temporal. It’s ephemeral. It comes, it goes. People tend to remember very, very few big TV shows. I mean, The Sopranos is one that springs to mind. The Wire is another. Breaking Bad is certainly another of them.
And what I love about this show is that it breaks almost every single rule in television. The main character is an antihero. He is a chemistry teacher. He is a failure in life. He has no money. He has a sort of a so-so happy marriage.
He has a handicapped son. He is in many, many ways, struggling. And to add to that, he finds he has a year to live. He has lung cancer. And he responds to this by becoming a dealer, a manufacturer in crystal meth.
And the setup is simply that he breaks bad and becomes a bigger and bigger criminal as the show goes on. Brilliantly played, incidentally, by Brian Cranston. And this show should not exist. In England if you pitched a show with that as its premise, you would not get a hearing because it is such an anti-television show. It’s not feel good, it’s feel bad television, and yet it is gloriously shot. The story is fantastically compelling. The characters are fascinating. The development, season after season, makes sense. Unlike Lost, it has a perfect ending. So you don’t feel you wasted six years in life watching it, if that’s what you’ve done. And I’ve just watched it for a second time, and I hold it up as an example of how profoundly good television can be.
Jeffrey: Well, I’m fascinated because I gave it up after one series. I became bored, which is interesting in itself. Whereas I think I’ve watched every episode of Foyle’s War, which you wrote so brilliantly, partly because I was born in 1940. So that particular period of history of Britain, which you captured so brilliantly with, I might say again, a truly outstanding actor playing the lead. So, when this was presented to me as your choice, I confess I was a little surprised.
So I’m now going to present my choice and see how you react. I quite recently came across well, I’m talking about two or three years ago, because I’ve now seen every series like you’ve seen Breaking Bad, the lot.
And I’m sitting here waiting for the film and will happily walk away from this podcast to watch it immediately. I absolutely think Call My Agent, which is in French, and you watch with subtitles, unless, like you, you’re so well educated you can see it in its original language.
I think Call my Agent is a masterpiece. And I say to people watching this, if you haven’t watched it, do what I advised my editor at HarperCollins – know you’ve got a weekend for it – don’t slot it in in an evening when you’ve got an hour. It’s so captivating, it’s so demanding. It’s the story of an agency in France that take care of actors. The four main characters are those agents, and you see the people they deal with.
And it’s been so successful, that when you get to the third series, all the leading French actors in France are desperate to get on to play cameos.
Now, I absolutely loved it and recommend it. And don’t worry about the fact that it has subtitles. It’s so witty, I have to say, translations I don’t know how you find about this with your work, Anthony. Translations sometimes annoy me because I know just enough French to think of a better word than they’ve used. But in this one, I thought the translation was absolutely brilliant and had me laughing while I read it. I hope you felt the same way.
Anthony: First of all, I think that the subtitles and the French language helped the show. You can, I think, put it on in dubbed. You can have a dubbed version. Don’t do it. Watch it in French. Watch it with the subtitles. It is such a wonderfully French show. Now, when I first watched it, I saw three episodes and I didn’t enjoy it. I gave up on it. Unlike you, however, I have a touch more resilience and stamina and I’m willing to give things a second chance.
So I went back to it, and I did think it was outstanding and brilliant. I loved it. I loved the characters. I will say I thought the fourth season, there were only four seasons. I thought the fourth season was disappointing. The show partied company with its creator. I don’t quite know why, but there was some kind of difficulties in the relationships. And I think that once she had left the show, it declined a little bit.
They shouldn’t have killed the dog. That’s one thing I would say to give the spoiler there, but it’s not a very big one. But I do agree it’s an absolutely brilliant show. It’s a wonderful character piece. All the characters, particularly my favorite was Naomi, the assistant who becomes bigger and bigger as the show goes on. And it’s utterly lovable. I mean, I fell completely in love with her. And I’ll add this, Jeffrey, you may not know this, but they are planning to make an English version of it.
They’ve been shooting it over the summer. An English Call My Agent. And if there is one show I am not looking forward to, and I wish them all the best and I hope it is absolutely wonderful and all the rest of it. I can’t bear the idea of it being in English and having English actors doing cameo appearances like they used to do in Extras and everything. Just stick. As you said, put a weekend aside, watch, Call my Agent. It’s a fabulous show.
Jeffrey: I agree with you totally, Anthony. Because when I saw Le Diner de Cons, I was overwhelmed. And indeed, at the end of the film, I unashamedly cried and applauded. That happens, if I’m lucky, once every three years. I literally cried and applauded. And then it was announced there’d be an American version, to pick up your point. It was rubbish, and I can’t imagine why they bothered. So I pick up your point that to have English version of Call My Agent probably won’t work, and like you, I will avoid it.
Anthony: Well, I wish them all the best with it. But it is true, isn’t it? I mean, the Scandi dramas, remember the Scandi-noir detective dramas about the bridge and the eye and the other ones, they were translated into American television shows and they just lost something in the mix. Something goes. And what has gone is the strangely innate nationalistic character of these shows.
I cannot imagine Call my Agent without the language, without the Paris streets, without the little cups of coffee all the time, that whole world, it’s part of the past, and you remove it at your peril.
Jeffrey: And aren’t they different to us? So what you bring up, of course, is they are different to us. And that genius comes out in the series. You can’t miss the fact that the French and the English are not alike.
Anthony: I would say that what makes the show so wonderful is that all the characters in it, the French people, are so damaged and so difficult and so… they’re not great people. I mean, they’re agents. And you and I know, Jeffrey, that what agents are like.
And they are flawed human beings. And the actors, too, who turn up – the people, the clients, who are all flawed, with terrible problems, issues. I loved it for that reason, that there was nobody in that show who was 100% good apart; from a dog.
Jeffrey: You’re quite right. A hero or heroine you’re dying to see next week. But the standard of the acting is so high.
Anthony: But I want to say before we run out of time, that if you go back to Breaking Bad, which is admittedly very slow and also it has the greatest villain ever created in drama, Gus, who turns up in season four and then season five or season three, season four, sorry, is outstanding as a creation. And you might like to know, but the show was very nearly cancelled after two seasons in America. Nobody was enjoying it. People have the same view as you.
Then something clicked and it became this huge hit. So, it’s an interesting story about how television can survive and shows that Foyle’s War, you mentioned very kindly was cancelled. Thank goodness that the audience got so stroppy about it, that they brought it back again.
But it is interesting that in modern television, just surviving is so much harder than it ever was.
Jeffrey: Well, I am going to go back to it because I’ve now reached a time where I’m desperate to see good stuff. It’s so rare. I’m desperate to see good material.
Anthony: Don’t do it on the strength what I’ve said, because I just am passionate about the show. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that it may not be your cup of tea and I can understand why it is what I said, a very dark, negative show without any characters you can really like. I mean, that’s the thing about it. It is a very dark universe.
Jeffrey: It’s interesting you say that, Anthony, because I keep reading brilliant reviews about Sopranos, the film. Every review has given it four or five stars. The idea of violence, bad language, I hate. But I am going to watch it because the reviews have been I mean, the Sunday Times came out saying not the film of the year, the film of the decade. So I’ve got to watch it, even though I don’t like that genre.
Anthony: Well, I, here is a confession for you. I never loved The Sopranos. I tried and tried, and it’s a bit like War and Peace, a book I’ve always wanted to read but have never quite got through. And I keep every ten years I go back to it and say, this time I’ll do it. It’s the same with The Sopranos. I don’t know why not, it just never hooked me. And the funny thing about modern television is that it asks for 80 or 100 hours of your life.
I mean, it’s not a sort of a small put inside a weekend for Call My Agent, but that’s actually quite a lot of TV viewing. You’re not going to have anything much else on that weekend. I’d say put aside a week and watch two episodes a day or something would be enough for me.
But The Sopranos was a lot of episodes and I just couldn’t find myself investing enough of my life in it to keep watching it. And I know it’s my failing because, of course, it’s what they say, it’s one of the greatest shows ever made for television. But there you are.
Jeffrey: Now, Anthony, what are you doing at the moment? I want you to bring me up to date.
Anthony: Well, A Line To Kill, which is the third Hawthorn novel, came out about a month ago and I’m still sort of doing appearances and podcasts and things on the back of that.
I have just finished my third James Bond novel, and so I will be doing some editing on that. I’m about to start work on a ten-part series called Nine Bodies in a Mexican Morgue, which is a sort of a murder mystery show, which I’ve devised, which I’m writing for Sony Productions.
And our Magpie Murders, which is a novel I wrote some years ago, has just been filmed, and I’m sort of working on the ADR and final bits and pieces for that.
Jeffrey: So clearly, you’re, as ever, doing six things at once.
Anthony: I’m doing four or five things.
Jeffrey: Well, I want a 6th, I want another Sherlock Holmes book.
Anthony: Well, curiously, I’ve been working with a company called Storytel, who are a huge audio company in Sweden and Denmark, and that part of the world, but they sell millions of stories and I have created three Sherlock Holmes stories for them.
This is a very, very different take on Sherlock Holmes. It’s not traditionalist, it’s not pure. It’s everything, actually, which in some respects I don’t like. But there was an opportunity to see Sherlock Holmes in a new light, a little bit like the BBC did with Benedict Cumberbatch, but to do it in a way that is true to the books, but which is based on, inspired by, rather than, the purist, which is what you and I like reimagination of. Not even reimagination. Retelling of.
Jeffrey: Fascinating. And may I thank you, Anthony, for being my first guest and what fun it’s been, as it always is when we do battle, because, you know my admiration for your work. And may I wish your latest book, every success on the bestsellers list and whatever you’re doing in the future, because when I said six things and you said, no, Jeffrey, I’m only doing five because you’re such an accurate man, I had in my mind Alex Ryder – has he disappeared?
Anthony: He’s back on television. The second season will be starting, I think, in a month or so, and we are working on the third season. So actually, Jeffrey, you were correct. That is number six on my list. I’m only an executive producer. I’m not writing it, thank heavens, but I am very involved on a day-to-day basis talking to Guy Burt, who is the writer, and we Zoom and we talk to each other pretty much every week.
Jeffrey: Well, we wish you every luck and hope you will continue producing your outstanding work, again and again. Thank you for being on the show.
Anthony: It’s been a real pleasure, as ever talking to you, Jeffrey. Thank you.
Jeffrey: So, once again, thank you, Anthony Horowitz, whose recent book, A Line to Kill is available in all bookshops now.
And also, thank you to you, for listening to this first episode of Unputdownable. The ridiculous people who write notes for me have put, ‘I hope you found this suitably gripping’. I didn’t write that, but I hope you found this suitably gripping.
And there’ll be future episodes, because I’m doing six of these to begin with. And we’ll have some amazing guests, just like Anthony, who will give you their views on their favourite book or their favourite moment in culture.
So please subscribe now to the podcast Unputdownable with me, Jeffrey Archer. Also, my publishers have added a final sentence, which I am told I have to deliver. Over My Dead Body, which is my latest book, is now out in hardback, ebook and audiobook.
They’re so vulgar, aren’t they?
Still, until the next time. Goodbye.