Under ‘Occupation’ on Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s passport, it must say ‘Writer‘.
It’s a fairly loose term but, over a 30-year career, he’s explored a variety of aspects of that job title. Hailing from Merseyside, Cottrell-Boyce first made a name for himself in the late 80s as a scriptwriter on Brookside (and its fondly-remembered ‘soap bubble’ spin-off, Damon and Debbie, set in York). During the early 90s, he became a regular contributor to Coronation Street, as well as co-creating the unhinged fantasy soap opera Springhill where he counted Paul Abbott and Russell T Davies among his collaborators. Then he migrated over to feature film work with great success, writing the likes of Hilary and Jackie for director Anand Tucker and Welcome to Sarajevo and 24 Hour Party People for Michael Winterbottom.
Another project was his family-friendly 2004 film Millions, directed by Danny Boyle. It was Boyle who suggested to Cottrell-Boyce that the screenplay might work well adapted as a children’s novel. Intrigued, he set about it, and thus kick-started a whole new strand to his career. His latest children’s book, The Astounding Broccoli Boy, was published last week. It’s a highly original comedy-adventure about a young lad, Rory Rooney, who falls into a river on a school trip and promptly turns green – but this compels him to believe that he might have super-powers, with assorted remarkable consequences involving his school arch-nemesis, Buckingham Palace and a stolen penguin.
On the face of it, the book sounds anything but autobiographical but, as Cottrell-Boyce explains, there was an initial spark.
“It sounds mad, because it’s such a crazy book, but it is actually really personal, because I have this blood disease myself, so I do change colour,” he says. His condition is such that his skin turns yellow under stress. “Obviously that was really embarrassing when you were a kid. But at the time my dad said to me, ‘Well, you know, superheroes change colour…’ So I thought it might actually be quite cool that you can do this.”
Although Cottrell-Boyce says he is a fan, the book isn’t intended as a send-up of the current fashion for superheroes. “It’s more about how enabling stories are – if you believe a good story about yourself, then it’s fine. It’s the old thing, isn’t it? It’s Don Quixote. He believes that he’s a knight, so he is.”
Publication of The Astounding Broccoli Boy is something of an event, as this is Cottrell-Boyce’s first stand-alone children’s book since The Unforgotten Coat in 2011. Over the past four years, he’s written a series of three sequels to Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and been involved with a host of other non-book projects too, as we’ll see. But Broccoli Boy has been slowly on the boil.
“I’ve actually been writing this book all that little while. It just took a long time to get it right, if I ever did get it right. It’s funny – it’s so unpredictable – but yeah, it’s been on my desk all those years. And obviously I’ve done a lot of big things in those years, but I kept coming back to it. It kept niggling away at me.”
Cottrell-Boyce still lives in Merseyside, with his wife and seven children. Evidently, he’s no adherent of Cyril Connolly’s dusty maxim that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. In fact, his offspring get actively involved in the writing process, and Broccoli Boy was no exception.
“They read loads of drafts of it and they had loads of ideas and everything, so it feels like it’s something that they’re sharing. It’s good to have someone to talk to.” They’re his initial audience, then? “And they’re my sternest critics – but when it’s right, they really do relish it. They’ll quote lines at you and stuff, so it’s nice.”
He does confess, though, that having such a large family can get in the way of his writing work sometimes. “That’s one reason it took so long. I have to write on trains and buses and at the backs of things.”
Something about Cottrell-Boyce’s work suggests a genuine, unquenchable love of writing, rather than some jaded careerist just going through the motions. Certainly he seems happy to turn his hand to any form of the written word, from occasional pieces of journalism and Guardian book reviews to short stories for Manchester’s own mighty Comma Press. “It’s like my life is so busy domestically and I’m involved in things in the community and film, that writing always feels like a treat, you know? It always feels like” – he exhales contentedly – “like a hobby.”
This feeling, he says, never flags, even after all these years. “No, not at all, no. Chekhov was like that, wasn’t he? Chekhov carried on working as a doctor and said, ‘Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress’. And it always has got that thrill thing. I can’t believe I’m allowed to do it.”
He reckons the big moment of revelation, when he fell hook, line and sinker for life as a children’s author, wasn’t so much the writing of Millions, “but do you know, it was going to schools and reading it and thinking, ‘I love this’. I’d love my life to be Jackanory, where I’ve got that big chair. When you’re reading out loud to children, you’re sort of transported back to when you were a kid and people were reading to you, and just how intoxicating and empowering and magical that was. It’s just an amazing privilege to be part of that way of passing things on.”
He treasures fond memories of being read to as a child. “At school we had a nun who read us loads of Irish myths and legends that really stayed with me. My dad I can remember reading lots of different things: classic kids’ books, Narnia and so on. And then Jackanory – just those voices really, more than the stories almost. Kenneth Williams, Bernard Cribbins, those amazing voices just kind of coming into your head and buttonholing you. When I think about all those things, that’s when the software was loaded into my brain.”
Though scriptwriting is no longer Cottrell-Boyce’s major occupation, it’s certainly something that he keeps coming back to. Recent years have seen his extraordinary 2008 television drama God on Trial, set inside Auschwitz; a TV adaptation of his second children’s book, Framed, for BBC One in 2009; and The Railway Man, his 2013 film version of Eric Lomax’s aftermath-of-wartime memoir, which Cottrell-Boyce himself took great pains to shepherd to the screen.
Then, last year, he contributed a fairy-tale like episode entitled In the Forest of the Night to Peter Capaldi’s first series of Doctor Who. Explaining Cottrell-Boyce’s involvement to the readers of Doctor Who Magazine, the series’ showrunner Steven Moffat wrote: “I once had a meeting with Frank that wasn’t in Liverpool. Those of you who know Frank will, I suspect, have gasped and clutched the furniture for support.”
Cottrell-Boyce chuckles at this. “Did he say that?” But it does highlight the fact that he’s pulled off a noteworthy media career without leaving the North. As he admits, this sometimes has its practical advantages.
“With writing, I think it’s good to be a little bit hard to get hold of, because you’ve got to protect your time and you could spend the whole time at meetings. So I think it sort of gives you an edge to be away. But then, I gave the Tony Wilson Memorial Lecture the other day, and of course Tony was so keen on people not going to London and I completely bought that.”
But Cottrell-Boyce is not consciously leaving the world of scriptwriting behind. “No. I mean, I have to say, writing children’s novels is what I really, really feel that I’m here to do. That’s the thing I feel I’m good at.” He sighs. “But, I do love the movies.”
At present, he has three separate film projects in the pipeline: one about the Homeless World Cup project, slated to star Colin Farrell, plus a biopic of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne, as well as a big-screen version of his own 2008 children’s novel Cosmic. He’s also eager to make a return to Doctor Who sometime soon. “I’d love to do another one. I’m still in touch with them. I’m not doing one for this next series. But I absolutely loved doing that, it really was like a holiday.”
For the time being, then, those two career strands are set to continue side by side. He feels no burning desire to try writing a novel for adults, though. “I don’t, to be honest. I love writing those short stories for Comma, and I’d keep that going. But I’ve never been affected by an adult novel the way I was affected by, say, The Secret Garden or Finn Family Moomintroll, or any of those books that completely blow you away when you’re 10 or 11.” Instead, he suggests, “if I had a career ambition it would be to write five more cracking kids’ books – or for one of them to be an all-time classic, to write Tom’s Midnight Garden or something”.
One of his biggest achievements in recent years has, of course, been as writer of the much-acclaimed 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, directed by Danny Boyle. But was there perhaps a downside to the massive success of that, too? Has it proved to be a hard act to follow?
“Yeah, a little bit,” he concedes. “And then I kind of thought, ‘Well, OK, so you’re never going to top it, so what?’ It’s like, a billion people saw it – as career climaxes go, it’s pretty satisfying. I just remember that Eddie Braben, who wrote all the Morecambe and Wise scripts, said that he got depressed when they did ‘Grieg’s piano concerto by Grieg’ [Eric Morecambe’s hilarious musical showdown with conductor ‘Andrew Preview’]. Because he remembered sitting in the audience for the filming of it with everybody rolling around laughing and he was just thinking, ‘How am I supposed to top that?’
“But then, kids’ books work at such a different pace. They’re a slow burn and they stay in your head. In a way, someone who reads Broccoli Boy aged 11 probably won’t know what it really means to them until they’re 35, and I’ll be dead and buried. And that’s a great feeling, you know? It kind of doesn’t matter if the world forgets the books, if somebody remembers them.”
By Andy Murray
To read Andy Murray’s review Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Sean O’Brien at the 2014 Manchester Literature Festival, click here
The Astounding Broccoli Boy is published by Pan Macmillan and is out now. For more information click here
Follow Frank on Twitter: @frankcottrell_b