Frank Cottrell Boyce: 'Mr Biggs made me a puppeteer'

The bestselling author's English teacher made Punch and Judy puppets – and then roped his pupil into touring with them all summer

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Mr Biggs was very, very good with his hands. He made things and brought them in. 

He made a pair of Punch and Judy puppets, then decided he didn’t want them to go to waste. 

Basically, he talked me into being a Punch and Judy man for the summer, driving around small Lancashire villages with him. You’d never be allowed to do that now.

It was the making of me. It was such a big deal to me: that I was a Punch and Judy man.

You were working a crowd that wasn’t parents in a school. It’s like doing stand-up: having to catch their eye and win them over. 

Winning over the crowd

Some lines hadn’t changed since the 18th century. It was tradition: an 18th-century celebration of domestic violence. But it was also about saying, “Hello, Halsall! Are you having a great day?”

You have to watch the audience and win them over. It’s like going into schools now, and talking to kids: this is not an audience that’s been prepped. You have to win them over.

Mr Biggs was an English teacher at West Park School, in St Helens, near Liverpool. He was just an incredible teacher: he just had a very evident enjoyment for what he was teaching. 

I just think he felt that was a really important criterion: if something was enjoyable or not.

He would just hand us books he liked. At the end of two years, I wasn’t sure which book we were going to be examined on. 

We were doing, I think, Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn. But we did as much Yeats and Keats as those. He’d bring a poem in and say, “This is great. You’ll like this.”

He was not perhaps brilliant at opening up the mysteries of literature. But he was brilliant at connecting literature to life: “You know someone like this, don’t you?”

Poetry dies for a lot of people: it’s just something to be studied. He was just ruthless about it: “That’s not very good, that one.”

A really good poem is really hard to write. A really great poet might write five great poems, and that makes you a great poet. And the rest you have to wade through.  

About prepping you for life

Because he was honest when things weren’t good, we’d trust him when he said, “This one, is amazing.” And you’d say, “Yes, it is.”

You get the sense that people who write poetry are very different from you and me. So it’s worth looking through their eyes for a while.

A great teacher isn’t equipping you to pass an exam. It’s about prepping you for life.

Mr Biggs would come in and say, “Do you know how to change a plug?” He wanted to make sure that you knew how to look after yourself.

It was just the opposite of the way the kids are drilled now. He gave us a lesson on netsuke once. Just welcomed us in, and said, “This is netsuke.” No one said, “Is this going to come up in the paper?” We just talked about Japanese ivory carvings. 

He loved rugby, loved wrestling. He spoke very slowly, and you really wanted to please him.

I remember writing him an appreciative letter. But he died quite young. He had a heart attack and died quite suddenly. I’m in touch with his daughter: she still has the Punch and Judy puppets.

It’s only later, talking about it, you think, “That wasn’t very…hmm.” But what an education it was. About how things work, and the tension between tradition and occasion.

When words are like football

My Year 6 teacher – a nun called Sister Paul, at St Bartholomew’s Primary, in Liverpool – was also amazing. She was quite giggly all the time. She clearly really enjoyed teaching us.

I wasn’t exactly struggling at school, but I wasn’t brilliant by any means. I had one piece of work – I can’t remember anything about it, except that it was about Vikings. 

She read it out in class, and everyone laughed in the right places. Hearing people laugh just meant too much to me. That moment was just, “Oh! So words are a thing, like football is a thing, or piano is a thing.”

I was painfully aware that there were people in my class who were good at things, and being good at things usually involved being good with a physical thing: a guitar, a football, a paintbrush, your fists.

There were a couple of kids in my class who were very good with their fists. 

I hadn’t thought of words as a physical thing. Words were just something that came out your mouth. 

What you get all the time with sport: you do something good, and people go, “Yes!” You don’t get that with pen and paper. 

That was a real revelation to me. I still relive it, if I’ve got a movie out. I sit at the back and pretend I’m in Sister Paul’s class. 

Lives of the saints

I went to visit her when she was old, and had moved to a convent in Edgbaston, in Birmingham. 

I remember going to see her and taking my then girlfriend, and her being very upfront. “Isn’t she doting? You’re going to get married any day now.”

All these clever people around her were eye-rolling and tutting at her being so naïve and childlike. But, actually, we did get married, and are married to this day. So she was right.

She was like a big kid. It was lovely.

I was in her class for two years, because I was held back for a year. I considered myself her confidante, because I knew her. 

She said, “I’ll give you a story of a saint every day.” After about two days, she had to stop, because, “Here’s another saint who castrated himself,” or “She was a virgin martyr,” or “She chopped her breasts off.”

I remember thinking: these are great stories, but they’re not very enlightened.

She was very, very Irish, and very proud of being Irish. She directed me to stories that probably weren’t that mainstream.

Then the first book I wrote was Millions, about a boy obsessed with saints.

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Adi Bloom

I am one of the reporters at the TES, specialising in educational research, eating disorders, sex education, gender issues and, worryingly, teachers who appear on reality TV.

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