Here to extend love

by
06 October 2017

Frank Cottrell Boyce talked to Stephen Brown about faith and film-making

Twentieth Century Fox

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Frank Cottrell Boyce

ONE of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s heroes is a fellow Roman Catholic, G. K. Chesterton, whose spiritual journey found expression in the aphorism “We shall perish not for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.”

It is a theme that runs through his work as an author, actor, and screenwriter, including his latest project, Goodbye Christopher Robin, an account of how the birth of A. A. Milne’s son inspired a new direction in the writer’s work, and a renewed sense of awe.

Cottrell Boyce’s script for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics was entitled Isles of Wonder. Last month, we sat down to discuss how themes of wonder, suffering, and redemption are woven into stories that have taken him from 1980s “Madchester” to the horrors of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

Among his credits as a writer are various pieces of criticism in Living Marxism. Perhaps it is no accident that politicians from both main parties saw the 2012 opening-ceremony spectacle as a socialist tract. It is rumoured that, when he was writing for Coronation Street, there was always a copy of the magazine on display in Rita’s Kabin. “I’ve no idea where that story came from,” he chuckles. Perhaps his working-class Liverpool background, allied to a socially conscious faith, or his Oxford doctorate on English Civil War pamphleteers gave rise to the legend.

One of his gifts is his ability to write authentically without preaching. “I was never terribly upfront for ages about my faith,” he observes. Yet people responded positively to his Catholicism when it emerged in the public eye. The 2004 feature film Millions, based on his novel of the same name, is a good example.

Two brothers, following their mother’s death, find solace petitioning the saints. When they discover a sack of money next to a railway line, Damian, the younger brother, believes that it is a gift of God to be distributed to those in need. The other wants to keep the stash for himself. It is the little boy’s communication with the saints — something that defies reason — that triumphs.

“The idea that people are rational is bizarre,” Cottrell Boyce says. “We’re here to extend love, not narrow it down.”

Danny Boyle, who directed the film Millions, always wanted it to be a musical. It’s rumoured that a Broadway show may be in the offing. The novel is already beloved by children, and won the annual Carnegie Medal, the top award in children’s literature.

Cottrell Boyce’s other children’s books include sequels to Ian Fleming’s Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. In 2012, he was awarded the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for The Unforgotten Coat, a warm, funny, and touching account of a Mongolian girl’s clash with the immigration authorities.

 

A RECURRENT theme in his work is our opportunities to share God’s love with the world, and the leap of faith required to take those opportunities. His screenplays invite an enlarging of the audience’s sympathies, an opportunity to glimpse the divine in flawed characters.

His script for 24 Hour Party People (2002) portrayed the record producer Tony Wilson — sometimes regarded as an ambitious hedonist, shallow-minded and unscrupulous — as a man of huge generosity. Cottrell Boyce believes that it was a beneficence of Franciscan proportions. In the film, Wilson has a vision of God. In real life, the man was a somewhat wayward Roman Catholic, who nevertheless returned to his faith.

Twentieth Century FoxWonder: Domhnall Gleeson and Will Tilston in Goodbye Christopher Robin The film 24 Hour Party People was one of several that he wrote for the director Michael Winterbottom. He adopted, for reasons described as a “complicated metafictional twist”, the nom de plume Martin Hardy for their final collaboration.

This film, A Cock and Bull Story (2005), is based on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The novel has been regarded as unfilmable, full of digressions, non-sequiturs, and what Bertolt Brecht would have described as alienating devices that defy suspension of disbelief. The film does the same, only differently, translating the novel’s literary tropes into cinematic grammar.

A Cock and Bull Story is a tale about the making of a film based on Sterne’s book. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play fictionalised versions of themselves, forever sparring between takes in the manner to which we’ve since grown accustomed in their spin-off television series The Trip. What comes across as a series of ad lib exchanges was in fact heavily scripted by Cottrell Boyce, who believes that “much of the film concerns itself with the wonder of having a baby.”

There is a strong sense in this film that humans will be continually frustrated till all our strivings cease. It is clear that one of the places where Cottrell Boyce finds respite is in church. He has spoken of a childhood in which it was a magical thing: how sacred music such as Allegri’s Miserere (the record he chose to save from the waves on Desert Island Discs) is like “stepping into gold and lapis lazuli”.

His wife, when he first met her, was studying theology, and intended to become a nun. That changed, and the couple now have seven children, ranging between teenage years and early thirties. He writes well not in spite of these “distractions”, but because of them, he says.

 

HIS work carries echoes of the faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote of a world “charged with the grandeur of God”, which, despite being “bleared, smeared with toil” contained “the dearest freshness deep down things” because of the Holy Ghost’s warm brooding.

Cottrell Boyce is not a Pollyanna: his output regularly addresses the challenges of suffering. Sometimes he explores the redemptive qualities of music-making: cellos in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) or Hilary and Jackie (1998).

There’s also a look at suffering in The Railway Man (2013), this time in the context of forgiveness. Eric Lomax’s account of his experiences of being held by the Japanese as a prisoner of war begins with a passage from Revelation: “Write the things which thou hast seen.” The film, however, also quotes another verse from the book: “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” The starting-point in Cottrell Boyce’s script is the capacity for forgiveness rather than retribution.

In the television drama God on Trial (2008), he explored Elie Wiesel’s experiences in Auschwitz, in which the camp’s captives tried God for deserting his people. The Holocaust victims find God guilty, but faith-filled inquiry continues. They pray despite their verdict.

Citing suffering as an argument against God overlooks the fact that faith thrives in dark places, Cottrell Boyce observes. “The creative process means loving the questions without knowing where you are going.”

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