Frank Cottrell Boyce interviewed by George Hunt
I met Frank Cottrell Boyce at Glasgow Central Station on his way home to Liverpool after a tiring stint on a dreich Scottish filmset where he had been working on his latest screenplay. This concerned a persecuted community’s attempt to put God on trial during the holocaust, a theme fairly typical of the intriguing material he explores in his movie-making life. I wanted to learn more, but we had little over an hour before the last train to Lime Street left, and we’d met to talk about Frank’s more recent career as a children’s writer. We settled into the bar, and upon comparing accents, discovered that we’d both attended the same St Helens Grammar School in the 1970s. Within minutes, it was as if a third person had joined us at the table: the ghost of Ned Biggs, our quietly enthusiastic and eccentric English teacher. Ned inspired everybody he taught with his love of literature, especially its quirkier manifestations in the work of mavericks like Laurence Sterne and Flann O’Brien. His contagious curiosity about all forms of wordplay and storytelling was expressed in his parallel career as a Punch and Judy ‘professor’, but being a shy man he found presenting the shows difficult. When a willing famulus in the person of the young Frank Cottrell Boyce turned up in his class, teacher and pupil went into a very unconventional partnership.
‘I remember lazy days driving round Lancashire putting on shows at the summer fairs in the little villages round Ormskirk way. It was my first experience with an audience and it was brilliant. I did all the voices, so I had to put this swazzle thing that Ned had made in my mouth. Health and safety wouldn’t let teachers get away with it now: you had to swallow it for Punch’s voice, then cough it up for Judy’s then swallow it again when it was Punch’s turn again. Looking back on it from a writer’s point of view it was all about dialogue and about having a really solid structure to work with – a show where the shape and the big moments are about 300 years old – but that solidity was also something you could just riff off, finding new ways of using the old structure. And it was also about kids: in all my time as a filmwriter I’ve never had the same buzz as I got from peeping out from that booth into the faces of the kids as they’d shout and scream, but now as a children’s writer I’m back in front of that audience at schools and festivals. You know that they’re not 100% happy to be there at first, so you’ve got to persuade them, you’ve got to surprise them, and Ned’s there with me while I’m trying to do that.’
After leaving school and his Punch and Judy apprenticeship, Frank went to Oxford, and read English. He married and began a family with Denise, a woman he persuaded not to become a nun, while they were still both students. He channelled his storytelling into a radio comedy about the medieval papacy, which opened the door to a residency on Brookside. He then turned to cinema screenplays and made several adventurous films with director Michael Winterbottom, including A Cock and Bull Story based on Sterne’s epic 18th-century anti-autobiography Tristram Shandy.
It was not until 2004 that Frank, now a father of seven children, was able to realise his ambition to write a children’s book. He’d completed the script for Millions, a comedy about two brothers, struggling to come to terms with their mother’s death, who find a swag-bag of £200,000 and have to spend it before Britain switches to the euro in a few days’ time. Their discovery detonates a frenzy of greed and suspicion in everybody except Liam, the other-worldly brother who wants to use the money to do good. The story was inspired in part by memories of having to work out how to spend the ‘small fortune in small change’ he’d made from his Punch and Judy tips, but there were also creative links with the tradition itself:
‘It’s like the Punch and Judy thing, riffing off an old theme. The story’s at least 500 years old: it’s the Pardoner’s Tale but it’s also newer ways of telling the story like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and No Country for Old Men. People have told it about gold-diggers and drug money and in lots of other ways, but in all those 500 years nobody’s told a kid’s version, and that was what I was dying to do.’
When he told the director Danny Boyle that he’d always wanted to write for children, Boyle suggested he turn the screenplay into a novel, which won the Carnegie medal in 2004. One of the most striking things about the book is its combination of uncompromising realism about bereavement and avaricious consumerism with skilfully choreographed comedy and a powerful supernatural element. Liam has encyclopaedic knowledge of the lives of the saints, and is regularly visited by them as he struggles with grief and the moral quandaries of his plight. Frank used a book from his own childhood, A Dictionary of Saints, to inform this part of the story.
‘I always say that finding the saints theme was like finding my narrative swag-bag. I borrowed the idea from Flann O’Brien who has somebody talking with St Augustine in the Dalkey Chronicle, so when I read that I went flipping back through my book and I thought, here are all these brilliant stories about these crazy people and they’re all forgotten. In a country where schools and hospitals and skin diseases are all named after saints, we’ve forgotten who these amazing people were. I tell some of the stories when I visit schools these days but you’ve got to be careful. When I was a kid at St Bart’s in Rainhill we had a nun who made a commitment to telling us a saint’s life story on every saint’s day of the year, which sounds like a good idea until you get into all the mad stuff about virgin martyrs who nail themselves to walls or cut their own breasts off.’
Millions was written quickly: ‘It was a doddle; after all I’d redrafted the screenplay 30 times so I knew the story inside out. I was also lucky because I got a real insight from the auditions we’d done as to how kids now actually think about money. When people try to write books from a kid’s point of view they tend to do it from the perspective of their own childhood. Because we’d talked to about 500 real life children when we were casting the film, I was able to look straight down the barrels of modern childhood. We asked each of those children what they’d do if they had £200,000 and they all reeled off long lists of the latest products in Toys R Us, and it probably did amount to roughly that sum of money, and it could all be spent in a couple of hours at the Trafford Centre.’
Money, materialism and transcendence all feature in Framed which followed in 2006, and was shortlisted for the Carnegie and Guardian awards. Based on a true story about the National Gallery using Manod Slate Quarry in north Wales as a store for its masterpieces during the Blitz, it describes how a revival of this plan brings a troubled family running a failing garage in an impoverished community into close and tempting proximity to a collection of priceless paintings. Frank conceived the story as ‘a caper’, contemplating what might result in and from the whimsical vision of a genuine Van Gogh being used as a pub-sign, but the story has deeper roots in his own adolescence.
‘When I was about 13 or 14 my dad did the Open University, studying the Renaissance. He’d start watching the lectures on the tele at about 6 in the morning and I’d get up and watch it with him, so I felt like we were doing the degree together. It was only after I’d finished the book I realised it was about me and my dad.’ The story also incorporates earlier memories of childhood visits to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, the radiance of paintings illuminating everyday spaces as they do in the story when the masterpieces are brought to the community. I observed that the artworks in Framed perform the same role as the saints in Millions, linking a seemingly grim reality with a sense of timelessness and redemption.
‘Yes. I wanted to contrast the rundown family garage with the colour and sensuality and wealth associated with those paintings, but I also wanted to show that there’s a kind of moreness to life that a painting can show you. There’s a bit in there about the still-life painter Melendez, who was ruined at court but kept on painting fruit and nuts and kitchen cutlery and making all these ordinary things astonishing. A lot of fantasy fiction for kids leaves the real world seeming pallid by comparison, and a lot of so-called realistic fiction tells kids that the world is crap. I believe that the real world is absolutely full of things that are absolutely magical if you can learn how to look at them properly. It’s like what happened to you in that biology lab at school: you can take a privet leaf – there might be millions of them in every hedge – but if you look at one properly you realise there’s all those layers of cells and something so ordinary is really incredibly complex and beautifully arranged. I’d come out of that lab like I’d been tripping, and I think that that’s what art should be about as well, showing people there’s more to life than they thought rather than less.’
In Cosmic, Frank’s most recent book, ‘an exploration of dadliness’ this vision of the underlying miraculousness of the world is intensified, but so too is his satirical critique of the pressures which impinge on children to ignore it. The story is about four ‘exceptional’ children and their ‘exceptional’ dads who win a competition to pioneer the world’s most exciting theme park ride. This turns out to be a secret pilot for a tourist exploration of outer space, run by a sinister corporate entrepreneur, and the winning team soon ends up drifting helplessly between earth and the moon. The winning children and their fathers are all victims of the 21st-century fast capitalism in one way or another, including the narrator, an exceptionally tall and precocious 13-year-old who has disguised himself as the father of his celebrity-addicted school friend. It is through his desperate eyes that we see the world as less than a single pixel against the backdrop of infinite space, but at the same time as a unique and precious microcosm of that vastness. I found it astonishing that an idea like this could be conveyed in the convincing language of a schoolchild, and in sharply quip-packed prose that made me laugh aloud on almost every page.
Frank thanks his large, supportive and critical family for this, whose comments caused him to rewrite the book several times. He concluded our talk with a restatement of the need for this kind of dialogue.
‘There’s billions spent these days persuading kids to addict themselves to crap, and to convince them that if they don’t have crap, then they’re going to be miserable. We’re in dangerous times, but in dangerous times it’s morally indefensible to be pessimistic. When you’re writing for kids you’re working with dangerous chemicals. What they read at that age stays with them for life.’
George Hunt is lecturer in Education at the University of Edinburgh.
(published by Macmillan Children’s Books)
Cosmic, 978 1 4050 5464 5, £9.99 hbk (publishing 6 June 2008)
Framed, 978 0 330 45084 3, £5.99 pbk
Millions, 978 0 330 45292 2, £5.99 pbk
Photograph of Frank Cottrell Boyce courtesy of Macmillan Children’s Books.