Writing to be read

7th December 2012 at 00:00
He `wrote' the Olympics opening ceremony and has now become Britain's first professor of reading. Frank Cottrell Boyce talks to Helen Ward about his passion for getting children to love books

The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony began as the sun set, you will surely remember, with Bradley Wiggins ringing a giant bell. Sitting among the 80,000 spectators in the arena was one short, unassuming Liverpudlian, who felt particularly lucky to have secured his family a place - after all, it would have been a shame to have missed the event; he had written it.

"It was all very prim and proper. We had to apply for tickets and pay," explains Frank Cottrell Boyce. "I got four in the cheap seats."

Cottrell Boyce, the writer of arguably the most celebrated Olympics ceremony ever, is an extremely successful screenwriter in TV and film, a career that has spanned more than 20 years. But his life has mostly been spent sitting in the seats at the back - not in the limelight. "Invisibility", he said in a British Film Institute interview, "is a superpower."

Then in 2004, aged 45, he published his first children's book, Millions - a whimsical, touching and hilarious story about two boys who find a bag of money and need to spend it quickly.

It won the Carnegie Medal and, since then, he has written more children's books, picking up plaudits and awards. So much so that when the Fleming family contacted one of this country's foremost screenwriters, it was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, not James Bond, they were ringing about. Taking on a sequel to a story that has already been imprinted on so many childhood memories - although he has followed Ian Fleming's book rather than Roald Dahl's screenplay - has firmly established Cottrell Boyce as a leading children's author. He is now two books into the three-book series, and when he signs his name in copies, he incorporates a picture of the flying car.

"It's been a joyous writing experience," he says. "With Chitty, I don't feel like it really belongs to me. It is like the opening ceremony; it's something that belongs to the country that you're in the driving seat of for a while."

Cottrell Boyce seems to live lightly. He has the kind of face that looks as if he is smiling, even when he is pondering mundane problems such as what to have for lunch. He speaks with a soft Scouse accent and with much use of hand gestures.

"Before we met," says Joe Berger, the illustrator of the Chitty books, "I had heard (Cottrell Boyce) on Desert Island Discs, and he sounded like the nicest man in the world. I was preparing for that not to be the case, but it was. He is just an incredibly warm, open, interesting and interested person."

Born in Liverpool in 1959, Cottrell Boyce grew up on a housing estate with his father, mother, brother and sister. They went to church on Sundays, and the children went to the local Catholic primary school, St Bartholomew's, Rainhill, then West Park Grammar, now De La Salle School.

From there, he went up to Keble College, Oxford, where he read English as an undergraduate and a postgraduate. It was at Oxford that he met Denise, who was studying theology and planning to become a nun. He persuaded her to marry him instead.

After leaving university, Cottrell Boyce found a job in Thames Television's education department, where he met Michael Winterbottom. Cottrell Boyce wanted to become a screenwriter, Winterbottom wanted to direct. Cottrell Boyce soon left Thames Television, but a partnership had been born that resulted in a film for television and eventually Butterfly Kiss, a lesbian serial-killer road movie, which went on general release in 1995.

Until this breakthrough, Cottrell Boyce had earned his living writing for Brookside and then Coronation Street. But now he turned to film. In 1998, he was nominated for a Bafta for Hilary and Jackie, which was directed by Anand Tucker. The collaboration with Winterbottom would continue through six films, including 24 Hour Party People, about the 1980s "Madchester" scene.

A quick run-through of some of Cottrell Boyce's other screenplays reveals not just the tale of a serial killer on the M1 but Welcome to Sarajevo, a tearjerker set in the Bosnian war, a man who sells his wife and child in The Claim and Code 46, a science fiction love story set in a totalitarian regime. They are, it is fair to say, a long way from the happy world of a magical flying car and a nomination for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize.

But his writing is characterised by the way he combines seriousness and lightness. "What distinguishes 24 Hour Party People is that it mixes dollops of irony and nostalgia," explains the film magazine Sight and Sound.

"Surely, the point of writing, drama, books," Cottrell Boyce told Kirsty Young on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, "is to extend people's sympathies, not to play to them. To show people characters whom they might not be immediately sympathetic to and find something to love in them. It is there to extend love, not narrow it down."

He had wanted to write for children, he said, but could not come up with an idea. Instead, he was sending around this script about two boys and a bag of money - which became Millions - and it was Danny Boyle, then best known for directing Trainspotting, who saw its potential as a film and who persuaded Cottrell Boyce that it could be a book. In the dedication, Cottrell Boyce thanks Boyle, for his courageous faith, and his wife Denise, "who is actually a saint".

It was also Boyle who, several years later, invited Cottrell Boyce to join the team developing the Olympics opening ceremony. Cottrell Boyce spent two years working on the four-hour Isles of Wonder ceremony, and revealed that, when he took the job on, he asked Boyle what it actually meant. Boyle replied, "I don't really know".

"There are no words in a silent film - but it is very structured, there is narrative, it has a flow," he told TES. "To be honest, I was a writer `on' the Olympic opening ceremony not the writer `of' it. Danny put together people from different disciplines in a room and just said `I don't really care what you come up with.' "

The team came up with flying bikes, factories rising like fireworks, Voldemort v Mary Poppins, children dancing on NHS beds and, of course, the Queen and James Bond parachuting into the ceremony. "I wouldn't like to say which bits are mine," Cottrell Boyce says. "I just feel very proud to have been a part of it."

The ceremony may be over but Cottrell Boyce is no fan of peace and quiet. He and his wife have seven children, aged 8 to 26, and the youngest two are currently home-schooled ("Denise does it all"). As well as attending to his family and books, he still writes films - his latest screenplay is for The Railway Man, which stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman and is out next year. Added to this, he also recently became professor of reading at Liverpool Hope University, a role that has grown from being a patron of the Reader Organisation, a charity with the stated mission of "building a reading revolution". It wants to make it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy reading and share what they love.

Continue the fiesta

The Reader Organisation is behind the Liverpool Reads (now Our Read) giveaways, when the city is "flooded" with free copies of a book, in the hope that everyone reads and discusses it. In 2009, the book was The Savage by David Almond, and for 2011 the group asked Cottrell Boyce to write something. And so he came up with The Unforgotten Coat: 50,000 free copies were distributed in Liverpool.

"It felt like a low-level fiesta about books," he says of the experience. "It was amazing. And people loved seeing their own street mentioned. There were a lot of streets in it and that was a big, big thing."

At Liverpool Hope he wants to continue this fiesta feeling among would-be teachers. "These students are 18, 19, 20, and there's no culture of reading for pleasure among them," he says. "I remember that feeling very strongly as a teenager, of wanting to be part of the bigger world, wanting something beyond where you are.

"But these students hardly read at all. That sounds really harsh, but that's terrifying, because they are going to be teaching soon. I'm talking about sharing stuff you love - not knowing the best children's novels to introduce to children but being able to say: `This is fantastic, you've got to read this,' having that kind of excitement that I really remember coming off my teachers."

Cottrell Boyce took part in a TES webchat last month where he answered teachers' questions. "I think there's such a lot of emphasis on literacy, as opposed to reading, and it's sort of been disastrous for reading," he said, during the chat. "We need to think about what is the motivation behind learning to read?"

For Cottrell Boyce, reading is about sharing, and sharing without an agenda in mind. He gave Boyle a copy of Humphrey Jennings' Pandaemonium, and it was this book - a series of accounts of the industrial revolution - that inspired a multimedia spectacular to open the Olympics. It was this decision that got him on to the opening ceremony gig.

"For any kid, you need to open that box of delights and enchant them. Show them what reading will be like when they can read," he says.

This is a man who believes in the power of reading. "It is a strange thing that we kind of limit them to reading what they can read," he says. "It doesn't happen in any other field. No one says to you, you can only watch football up to the level at which you can play football. Little boys watch dazzling football and it makes them want to play football. But children are not seeing the Lionel Messi of books until they're old enough to be Lionel Messi, which is bizarre."

When writing Welcome to Sarajevo, Cottrell Boyce learned about the children who were taken from their families and put in institutions as part of the "ethnic cleansing" during the Bosnian war. He describes what happened as epiphanic.

"I met a girl who'd been snatched when she was very young and had been brought up in an institution. It was very rigid, very loveless - everything that it shouldn't be - and she had a lot of problems," he says. "But she was very affable, articulate and had a very big world picture. I said, `Can I just ask you? You grew up in a really emotionally deprived environment but you're this very outgoing person. What happened to you?' And she said, `Oh, I read a book.' I asked, `What book?' It was Heidi.

That was a life-changing moment for me. It taught me about the subversiveness of happy writing, of saying to people that life is good and if yours isn't good, it should be. You have a right for it to be good and you should go out and find out what's gone wrong. Don't just sit there.

"If you ask why I write children's books, it is for that as much as anything."

CV: Frank Cottrell Boyce

1959: Born in Liverpool.

1979: Studies English at Keble College, Oxford.

1982: Scriptwriter on Brookside.

1991: Scriptwriter on Coronation Street.

1995: First feature film released: Butterfly Kiss, directed by Michael Winterbottom.

1998: Bafta-nominated for screenplay of Hilary and Jackie.

2004: Film of Millions is released, directed by Danny Boyle.

2004: Millions, his debut children's novel, based on the screenplay of the same name, wins the Carnegie Medal.

2005: His second book, Framed, is shortlisted for the Whitbread children's book award and the Carnegie Medal.

2008-09: His novel, Cosmic, makes the Guardian children's fiction prize and Carnegie Medal shortlists.

2010: He comperes the Hyde Park Papal vigil, with Carol Vorderman.

2010: He appears as a guest on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

2011: The Unforgotten Coat is published as part of the Our Read book giveaway.

2012: He is appointed professor of reading at Liverpool Hope University.

2012: Cottrell Boyce is credited as writer for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.

2012: He wins the Guardian children's fiction prize for The Unforgotten Coat, and is nominated for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again.

Photo credit: Getty

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