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Interview with Frank Cottrell Boyce: forgiveness is just the start

by
12 February 2021

The screenwriter and novelist finds modern lessons in the stories of scripture. Interview by Catherine Larner

Alamy

WHETHER writing for print, television, or cinema, creating live spectacles, or plotting soap operas, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s storytelling is informed by — and, on occasion, infused with — the stories of the Bible.

There are saints in his children’s book Millions, hymns and Christian imagery in the London 2012 Olympic ceremony, and his last film, Sometimes Always Never, drew on the story of the Prodigal Son.

“Our culture is marinaded in these texts,” he says, “so they enrich us but also become invisible. They’re the salt in the meat that you don’t appreciate. Every time you go back to them, they just flare up at you.”

A devout and enthusiastic Roman Catholic, he recently revisited Bible passages when writing a study guide, and says that he found the exercise both enriching and challenging in a way he did not expect.

“You carry these things around with you as a kind of cultural baggage, but, when you go back to where they came from, it’s astonishing how fresh and relevant it all is,” he says.

“It’s like the difference between seeing a tiger in the zoo and encountering a tiger when you’re sneaking out of your tent in the middle of the night! These are very different things, very different experiences.”

He had chosen to investigate the theme of forgiveness, and thought that it would be straightforward. “This was something I had thought a lot about,” he says. “Because I think the Prodigal Son is the greatest work of art of all time. But also it was something I’d watched happen close up.”

For several years, he had worked on the film The Railway Man. Starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, this was a dramatisation of the life of Eric Lomax, a Far East prisoner of war who returned in his later life to confront his Japanase torturer. In the 14 years that it had taken for the film to reach the cinema, Cottrell Boyce had spent many hours talking to Lomax and other former POWs.

“We find acts of forgiveness like this awe-inspiring,” Cottrell Boyce says, “partly because they are awe-inspiring, but also because we know from experience that forgiveness is really hard.”

The film was released in 2013, when Cottrell Boyce discovered that the story he had helped to tell was incomplete.

He met Charmaine, the daughter of Eric Lomax. She told him that her father’s narrative of reconciliation glossed over the suffering that he had, in turn, caused her. She had, in fact, lived with a chaotic and untrustworthy father who had undermined her ability to form relationships.

 

“IT’S one of the most important lessons you learn as a writer,” he says. “Stories need endings. The murder is avenged. The mystery is solved. Love is requited, or tragically unrequited. We think that forgiveness is the end of the story, but it is just the beginning.

“Everything you do has consequences on other people. We are very connected. We pretend not to be, but we are, and we can hurt someone.”

This is evident in the ramifications of a thoughtless or vindictive post on social media today, he says. “We don’t always know what damage we’ve done. And these days we are all each other’s recording angels. Nobody’s allowed to forget anything any more.”

The internet stores our indiscretions and errors for ever, and also seems to polarise our beliefs as right or wrong, good or bad, he says.

“The world is full, on a macro level, of people who think that they’re the good boy and that everybody else is the bad boy. People who hate [Donald] Trump feel that they are somehow holding the line, and that the other person has done everything wrong. That faultline is in all our hearts. It’s there with Brexit, the Scottish referendum; we’re divided into good and bad.”

Recognising that the story of the Prodigal Son is more relevant now than ever, Cottrell Boyce turned to Twitter to solicit and scrutinise responses to it today.

“Without exception they were all resentful of him,” he says of his respondents. “And that’s because they haven’t faced the challenge of the story. If you say you prefer the son who stayed behind, then you’re not really looking at this story.

“It’s so rich, politically, personally, emotionally. You’ve got to keep going back to it.”

Returning to the Bible stories caused him to see many things as new and fresh. “But, if I did need clarification, I asked my wife,” he says. “I have a theologian on call.” His wife, Denise, is a catechist, and they met when they were at Oxford, where she was studying theology.

FAITH has always been part of his story, and, while he isn’t apologetic about his belief today, he admits that it wasn’t always the case. “Like most European Christians, I felt quite shy about my faith for a long time. And then I kind of outed myself.”

His film and children’s story Millions, which won the Carnegie Medal, tells the story of two boys grieving the loss of their mother and turning to the saints for solace. They also discover a bag full of money from a failed robbery, and must decide what to do with it.

A few years later, he wrote a play, God on Trial. “In both of them, I kind of had to ’fess up. But I’ve never met anyone who thought it was a bad thing. People like the fact that you are a Christian, that you’re a believer. You find the strangest people asking you to light a candle for them; people love it. I think there’s a hunger there.”

The loss of church in the lockdowns, then, has been significant for him.

“I’ve really missed it. For Zoom mass, we’ve insisted that everybody put on their best clothes just the same. And we do morning prayers at home. But we would normally be in church a lot more than just on a Sunday.”

Nevertheless, the church community has been evident and active during this time. “The WhatsApp group activates people for shopping or prayers, and that’s been a revelation, I think. The SVP [St Vincent de Paul], which is the world’s most unglamorous charity, has felt like International Rescue, like Thunderbirds.

“The meaning of the word ‘community’ was shifting towards ‘an online interest group’, but it’s definitely gone back to the people who live round the corner. They need you, and you might need them. All that love and willingness is just sitting there ready to be activated.”

WHILE his work life in lockdown has been much like his normal routine, he has sought to reach out to those for whom this crisis has been more challenging.

Each week since the first March lockdown, he has been running online creative writing classes, and reading his books to children. “It’s taken a huge amount of time, but it has been really rewarding,” he says, and has even heeded some of his own advice as he worked on his latest novel.

He told the children to imagine a place where they would like to spend time writing their story. “And I realised that I needed to do that, too. So I set my book on an island off the coast of Donegal, which is where I’d like to be right now.”

The new book is Noah’s Gold, a children’s story where technology has broken. “And we’re at a point when we’ve discovered that we really need it. What would life be like in all this without Zoom, without WhatsApp?

“I think children’s books engage with the big things: death, or loss, growing up or responsibility. There are powerful forces telling children the world is not a wonderful place. But I think as a children’s writer, you have a duty to provide hope.”

Looking to the future means that two more projects will reach fruition this year. Filming will start on The Homeless World Cup, a project he has been working on for nine years. And there will be a television drama of the trial of Stephen Lawrence, the young man who was a victim of a racially motivated attack in 1993.

In this, Cottrell Boyce will be encountering forgiveness again through Stephen’s parents as they confront the lack of remorse and justice for his killing.

“I took this on because it seemed like a really important story,” he says. “It is about people who’ve been able to find some kind of accommodation with the worst thing that could possibly happen to anyone.”

So, what has he learned from again being close to someone who has lived through trauma, and sought the grace to forgive?

“I think it would be arrogant to say it’s taught me anything, because I’m just not in their position. But it is resilience, I suppose; the power of faith and forgiveness. It’s humbling being around them. You come away feeling blessed.

“Forgiveness is a rich subject. We think of it as being about niceness. Actually, it’s a very complicated thing that you work on together.”

Forthcoming Events

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

More events

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