My Story: Frank Cottrell-Boyce
From soap-opera to screenplay, Doctor Who to children’s fiction, Frank Cottrell-Boyce packs an astonishing richness of humour, pathos, joy and beauty into everything he writes. The thread that binds them together? All human life is here.
From the joyous, wise and warm Millions to the fatal forward propulsion of 24 Hour Party People, Frank Cottrell-Boyce listens, decodes and lays bare life’s universal themes. His particular skill? To do so with writing that’s both delicate and monumental, laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreakingly poignant.
“The early 80s, in Liverpool, was an incredibly thrilling time. You had the feeling that anything was possible…”
His first book, based on his Millions film script, won the Carnegie Medal – the UK’s premier children’s literature award. The Unforgotten Coat – a story originally written for Liverpool’s Reader Organisation – won the Guardian children’s fiction prize. The master mechanic of words even launched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang into the skies again, when Ian Fleming’s estate commissioned Cottrell-Boyce to fire up the spark plugs of the children’s classic.
But it’s perhaps his role as story writer to London’s 2012 Olympics that Cottrell- Boyce’s work saw its greatest ever audience, when a billion pairs of eyes teared up at Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises’ speech. When the time came for our most public state of the nation address, under Cottrell-Boyce’s astute stewardship, we rose to the occasion. He took the words right out of our mouths.
Cottrell-Boyce’s latest book, Sputnik’s Guide To Life On Earth, continues to articulate the child within – rendering the commonplace extraordinary, casting light into his young reader’s minds from surprising and our huge, extended family. When I was about ten, my teacher read my story out to the class.
There was really something magical about that. That idea that it doesn’t really matter if you’re not there. The story had a life of its own. That it made people laugh. I suppose my lucky break was that my Dad did an Open University course when I was in my early teens. I used to get up early in the morning and sit with him – just to be with him, really – and watch the programmes. They switched me on to learning – ignited my curiosity.
When I went to Oxford University to study English, everyone in the neighbourhood was excited. I remember people coming to talk to me as if I was going off to war! I never felt like a fish out of water – that funny Scouser thing is an easy role to play! Back then, in the early 80s, was a time of greater social mobility.
I tried comedy at University, but I knew that writing was really the wavelength that I communicated on. I write things. I fiddle with words on a page. That’s what thrills me. When I’d finished my doctorate, I returned to Liverpool. The early 80s, in Liverpool, was an incredibly thrilling time. You had the feeling that anything was possible.
Writing for Brookside was amazing. I actually only applied for a secretarial role – I filled in form the same week our first child was born. I taught myself to type! Back then, no one had laptops – they had a typing pool to print out the scripts. The producer said I was massively overqualified, and gave me a trial as a scriptwriter. I suppose that was the start of it. It was easy to get on Brookside but harder to stay.
I never for a moment thought about moving to London. The idea of uprooting was alien to me – the kids loved it here, their friends were here. Our friends were here. I’m connected to people here. The city has always been the well from which I draw my inspiration.
I’d written the script for Millions and no-one wanted it. Every director had seen it and passed. Studios didn’t want to know. Commercially, it’s very difficult to make a low budget family film: why would you willingly put yourself up against Pixar? Then Danny Boyle came across it by accident. And he loved it. He’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever worked with. He comes from a similar background. Unlike me, he’s not a practising Catholic any more – but faith is something that fascinates him.
It was him who told me to make it a book. I’d never thought of it before. But it was like coming home. Books have remoulded me. It’s why libraries are crucial. We live in an age when there’s a real assault on social mobility.
I meet loads of people who’ve taken very unusual pathways in their career. Joiners who’ve become set designers – people who’ve invented their own job description, like Toby Sedgwick – the movement director for the horse in War Horse. Every one of them, when you sit them down, will tell you that it starts in a library. It starts with reading.
That’s why my role as Professor of Reading at Liverpool Hope University is so important to me. I’m trying to get trainee teachers to read more, in the hope they’ll pass habits on to their pupils. I’m as passionate about writing as I’ve ever been. I’m painfully aware of the passing of time. Everything just feels like you’re hurtling towards the end at any moment in time – so it’s up to me to make a record of the funny things the kids say, or it’ll be lost forever. And I know that, just sometimes, a perfect alchemy happens: a collection of words, placed in just the right order, has the power to nudge someone’s DNA in a new direction.
When we rehearsed the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, and we heard Kenneth Branagh’s Caliban speech I remember my daughter teared up. I did too. The whole stadium fell quiet. There were costumes, lights, millions of pounds worth of effects. And these 150 words, from 400 years ago changed the temperature in the stadium.
That’s why I keep writing. That hunger to write something truly magical. I don’t think that will ever change.
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