Frank Cottrell-Boyce: 'Mr Biggs never paid much attention to the curriculum – and he was great'

The award-winning children's book writer remembers Sister Paul and Mr Briggs: the teachers who shaped his childhood

Frank Cottrell Boyce

I went to St Bartholomew’s Primary Primary School in Prescot and although it was a suburban school it was run by nuns. They all lived there so it had a very holy feel to it.

In Year 6, I had a great nun called Sister Paul. She was Irish, and was just amazing. She laughed really easily and had an innocence about her and she told lots and lots of stories.

For some reason, I was held back a year and I did two years in her class, so in the second year I was kind of her consiliari, and I think that was my big education break. Because I was so stupid I never realised that I did the same year twice. Throughout the second year I was like, I don’t know how these kids can’t get long division?  

I completely forgot that I had done it before, and honestly I was in my mid twenties before I realised. So in the second year of Sister Paul’s class I just felt like a genius.

I wasn't a brilliant pupil by any means. One day she picked up a piece of work that I wrote and read it out to the class. It was a huge moment for me. If she had asked me to read it out or pinned it up on the wall I wouldn’t have thought any more about it. But there was something about someone else reading your words that was incredibly powerful.

That’s when I started to think, oh words are something you can be good at. There were kids in the class who were good at football, music or drawing but I wasn’t particularly good at anything. I mean I was good at words but it was that moment when you think, oh! Words are a thing are you can do. They aren’t just streaming out of your mouth, you can think about it and choose the right ones.

Frank Cottrell Boyce

In sixth form, I had an absolutely, jaw-droppingly amazing teacher called Mr Biggs. He’s very hard to describe. He was very big, hugely big, and he loved rugby league. He was very, very gentle, and so politely spoken.

I hope this doesn’t come out wrong but he didn’t seem to pay much attention to the curriculum. He got us through our books, and got us through the exams and did everything right, but that didn’t feel like the core thing. He would bring stuff in that he liked and we’d read that and he would talk about lots and lots of things.

It makes it sound like he wasn’t pushing us, but he was, just from a different direction. He gave me a copy of Tristram Shandy, and said I think you’ll like it and I started to read it and thought what the hell is this? I didn’t have a clue, I didn’t know what it was. But I wanted to be the person he thought I was.

So I headbutted my way through, and kind of made polite noises about it. Then when we had our first baby I thought, woah that’s what Tristram Shandy is about. It’s about wanting the best for your child and how things go wrong, and it’s amazing, one of the most important books in my life. I ended up writing a film about it. He knew what he was doing, he knew if he dropped a pebble in the pond the ripples would spread out.

When I was gearing up to go to university I remember him giving me a lesson on how to wire a plug and stuff like that, to make sure you were OK when you went away. He was very practical, he liked making stuff and was very involved in the school drama, but it was making sets and painting. He was just a maker you know?

He was supposed to be teaching English, but he taught us how to wire a plug and how to build stage sets.

In fact the big bond I had with him, which would never happen now, was that he made a set of Punch and Judy puppets which were exquisite. He thought it was a shame that no one was using them, so he sort of blagged me into going around to summer fairs, and school fetes and things like that. I did that right through sixth form with him and he had a collapsible booth in the back of his van and we would drive around doing Punch and Judy shows.

I wrote him some letters a couple of times but he died quite young. I’m in touch with his daughter now but I do owe him a huge amount of gratitude. It’s an odd thing to take from a teacher but the idea that exams are not everything really stayed with me.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a judge for BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words children’s writing competition – entries close on 8 March. He also has written a new World Book Day book, The Great Rocket Robbery and standalone book out in May, Runaway Robot.

CV

Born: 1959, Liverpool

Education: St Bartholomew’s Primary, Rainhill and West Park Secondary, Derby.

Career: Frank Cottrell Boyle is an English screenwriter, novelist and actor known for his children’s fiction and collaborations with film director Danny Boyle. He was the writer for the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, and has written a sequel to the Ian Fleming classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

 

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