Frank about Faith

Frank about Faith Damian and St Peter in the Danny Boyle-directed Millions (2004).
Gratitude to the stories that formed him drives one of England’s leading Catholic writers, writes Greg Daly


Liverpool, that most Irish of English cities, is still a place with Catholicism in its bones, and a natural home even now for the Liverpool-born writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce.

“I have been other places,” he says, having studied and earned a doctorate in Oxford where he met his wife Denise, and having spent a year with the family in France, “but I came back. It was cheap – it was very cheap – and if you’re a writer that’s quite a factor. And then there’s the company: I like to have a parish, to be somewhere where Catholicism is fairly normal, if you like.”

One of the things the Merseyside city is famous for is talk, perhaps a legacy of its Irish heritage.

“There’s a lot of talk,” says Frank. “On the train you’d talk to each other. Everyone’s got a story. It is a talkative city, and I do enjoy that. I enjoy the fact that if you’re sitting next to someone on the train, on the Merseyrail, they are going to tell you something. You don’t have to do that Alan Bennett thing of listening in to people, because they’ll talk to you anyway.”

Even readers of The Irish Catholic who haven’t heard of Frank’s name will know at least some of work, not least the spectacular 2012 opening ceremony of the London Olympics, which he wrote in collaboration with director Danny Boyle, designer Mark Tildesley, and a few others.

Over the years, though, he’s written screenplays for a host of films, episodes of Doctor Who, and children’s books ranging from The Unforgotten Coat and The Astounding Broccoli Boy to sequels to Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


With such a pedigree in children’s writing, not to mention seven children, it’s hardly surprising that Frank takes a keen interest even now in Christmas stories and is a huge fan of the 1984 BBC series The Box of Delights, based on a 1935 John Masefield novel, as well as Susan Cooper’s thrilling childhood fantasy The Dark is Rising.

These are “the great childhood winter books”, he says. “Those two and A Christmas Carol, obviously – they’re my three. Every Advent we re-watch The Box of Delights on Sunday evenings. We watch it episode by episode throughout Advent. It’s just brilliant. It’s just fantastic.”

Returning to traditional stories are a natural thing over the Christmas period, he explains.

“The stuff that we read every Christmas? I definitely read The Dark is Rising,” he says, reiterating that it’s a “great winter book”.

“My wife always reads the kids The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder – he’s the guy who wrote Sophie’s World,” he continues. “That’s like an Advent calendar book. It travels back through history to the Nativity. It’s an amazing piece of work, actually. It’s staggeringly ambitious.

“That’s what I love about children’s fiction: it’s so much more ambitious than adults’ fiction. Well, that’s a terrible thing to say, but it can deal with big ideas and big concepts,” he says.

“I like personally Tove Jansson, who wrote the Moomin books,” he continues, citing one particular Moomin story, ‘The Fir Tree’.

“It’s set in the middle of winter, when they hibernate, and someone says ‘Oh God, Christmas is coming’ and they wake up to this atmosphere of panic, and just assume that Christmas is this monster that has to be placated with a tree,” he says. “So they have this tree, and they put all their possessions around it and leave it outside to kind of scare the monster off.”

Such stories, he says, did a huge amount to form him.

“The reason I’m a children’s writer is that I think the books that I read when I was between nine and 11 really shaped me, and I feel really grateful to them. They would definitely be the Moomin books – what I love about them is that they’re all about family. Quite a lot of children’s books are not about family, they’re about escaping from family.”

Roald Dahl might be an obvious example of this, with the dramatic opening lines of James and the Giant Peach, but he’s hardly alone in taking this approach.

“It’s with everyone! Roald Dahl does it with more panache – so this kid’s parents were killed by a rhinocerous – but there are realistic ones too, where a kid is evacuated or sent away with measles or Mum and Dad are away or whatever. But when I look at Moomin books, the whole family’s on the adventure. So they were big for me.”

Another key influence on him was Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea novels,

“They’re just staggering,” he says. “I just thought they were amazing, and they’ve really, really, really stayed with me. And then I read the fourth one, The Tombs of Atuan, recently, and it’s a brilliant book about faith, the most brilliant book about the nature of belief.”

He wrote his first novel, 2004’s Millions, in connection with his screenplay for the film of that name. A sweet though far from sentimental film, it tells the story of two children whose mother has died and who come across a huge bag of stolen money. The recurring role of saints in the book might seem surprising to some but for Frank they make perfect sense.

“I think that kind of goes back to how if you’re a Catholic, the first fantastical stories you remember hearing are stories about saints,” he says. “You might watch Dr Dolittle, but Dr Dolittle wasn’t the first person to talk to animals in my life. I knew all about St Francis talking to birds and talking to wolves and so on.

“Those stories, those amazing adventures, you used to hear them when you’d hear the stories of the saints,” he says. “Or that used to be the way anyway. I kind of wanted to save those stories because I think they aren’t told anymore, and they’re brilliant, brilliant, brilliant stories.”

These stories were the narrative fabric of ordinary people’s lives, he explains.

“For 2,000 years of saint stories, that was European popular culture. That was culture for ordinary unsophisticated people. It was accessible, and if you walked into a church and saw a statue of a woman with a wheel or a man with a grill, you knew that was St Laurence or St Catherine, because that’s how popular culture works. Saints were popular culture for 2,000 years, and it’s kind of being lost, I think.”

Unfortunately, he adds, it’s very obvious in England that there’s long been a post-Reformation rupture in English popular culture, one that until recently hasn’t been visible in Ireland.

“I think you’re really aware when you spend time in Ireland that you’re a country that’s got a continuous history, and ours is a country that’s got this huge rupture in it, this massive rift in which stuff was literally destroyed and lost,” he says, pointing to a recent Doctor Who episode that reflected a modern tendency to gloss over this reality.

“It was about the Pendle Witches, and you can see that being rewritten, because if you spend five minutes in Pendle it’s really obvious what was going on at those witch trials, which was a kind of Puritan mopping-up operation to try to get rid of the last vestiges of popular Catholicism from country areas,” he says.

Stressing that the show was “a cracking episode”, he nonetheless says the modern trend is to paint Lancashire’s ‘witches’ as effectively being “New Age therapists who were wiped out by the forces of religion”.

“It’s absolutely not the case: they were intensely pious religious people who were wiped out by the forces of capital,” he says.

“We can’t get past that rift,” he says, citing how even things like Robin Hood stories have kept a certain anti-Catholicism alive, with rich abbots being the stereotypical villains.

“You walk around Britain and see all these great monasteries, and no-one’s really got any image of what’s going in in them, apart from that the monks drank too much,” he says.

Reflecting on religion in British culture naturally takes us to the Olympics’ opening ceremony, which he describes as “pretty much like a requiem Mass, because we had ‘Abide with Me’, and people often play ‘Nimrod’”, adding “it was very liturgical”.

A religious aspect seeped into the performance simply because of the people working on it, he explains.

“Faith came in because there were five people working on it, and two of them were practicing Catholics and one of them was a lapsed Catholic, so it was just part of our vocabulary. I don’t think it was conscious, really – it was just natural,” he says.

Director Danny Boyle had wanted the ceremony to be “visceral”, Frank says, and to have a big emotional impact, with the image of rings being forged and the work involved in that leading naturally to the Industrial Revolution.

“But the rest, the kind of more religious thing, just sort of bled into it. I never really thought about it,” he says. “Danny’s obsessed with that hymn ‘Abide With Me’, but that does have strong sporting associations. It’s often sung at FA cup finals and rugby matches, so that’s how that got in.”


The profoundly religious nature of one piece of imagery in the ceremony had to be pointed out to him when it was being rehearsed, he adds.

“To me the big moment was when we tested Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron, which had all these petals coming up. I was sitting next to Mark Tildesly – there were seven of us: it was an 80,000 seater stadium and there was only seven of us watching this – and as it closed up, Mark turned to me and said: ‘There you go. Pentecost.’ And I’d never really cottoned on to it until that moment, but yeah, tongues of fire.”

Christian imagery has had a tendency in recent years to slip into Doctor Who, which Frank’s written a couple of episodes of, and not just in his own writing. Frank highlights one episode where the Doctor’s then companion Martha Jones travelled the world persuading everyone to think the same thing, the same prayer in effect, at the same time.

“That’s not my favourite episode of Russell T. Davies’ run, that’s ‘Gridlock’, where they sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ to keep them going. It’s a beautiful episode, amazing,” he says.

It shouldn’t be surprising, he notes, that religious elements slip into such tales, he says.

“Stories have their own energy, and they take you places. If you’re truthful, they take you to the truth,” he says.

A large part of their energy – and it seems a fitting observation in Advent – comes from suspense and anticipation.

“Stories are about waiting, I think that,” he says. “I do think there can be a kind of an architectural and static approach, whereas someone like Hitchcock would have said I’m going to ask a question, and in 90 minutes you might have an answer. What are the 39 Steps?”


For Frank, Catholicism and Christianity more general aren’t simply things to be allowed seep naturally into stories, however; he’s a serious and deliberate Catholic, outspoken about his debt to the Church and what the Church can do. All seven of his children have gone to Catholic schools in Liverpool, three after being homeschooled till they turned 14. What value does he see in England’s Catholic schools?

“Oh, I feel really passionate about this!” he says, starting by pointing out that that they’re “completely counter-cultural”.

“A good Catholic school is counter-cultural, and anything counter-cultural is innately valuable when you live in a culture that’s so, so conformist,” he says. “I think kids are under enormous pressure to conform. So for anyone to say, actually, money isn’t everything, success isn’t everything, this little country isn’t everything – I think that’s huge.”

They link in with a wider world, in a way that’s contrary to a narrow nationalism, he says.

“Every Catholic school’s going to be twinned with somewhere, they’re going to be raising funds for some village far away, aren’t they? They’re going to have a very direct connection with the Catholic community somewhere else, so you’ve that beautiful thing: think global, act local,” he says.

On top of this, he says, they’re profoundly tolerant places.

“Toleration doesn’t mean anything if you’re not tolerating different beliefs,” he says. “People can tolerate different skin colours, but have great difficulty in tolerating different beliefs. And I find Catholic schools incredibly tolerant places, and that’s basically because they put belief at the centre.”


In Britain, he points out, very few Catholic schools have a majority of Catholics attending them, but still, at their heart is the notion that people see the world differently.

“And also they’re just yanked into things,” he adds as a fourth factor in how valuable they are. “They’re just automatically yanked into doing stuff that you don’t find that often in secular schools. You find a lot of nice charity things going on in secular schools, but you’re not going to end up going to Lourdes and pushing wheelchairs, which my kids have done. That’s the graft, isn’t it?”

The challenge, he says, is to convert these benefits into something more directly evangelical, which he says could start by organising Mass times to benefit schoolchildren more than pensioners with less regimented days.

“In Liverpool, Catholicism’s got a massive cultural reach, well beyond the religious one – everyone wants to be married in Church, everyone wants first Communion, even a lot of them will want Confirmation,” he says, but as his wife Denise says: ‘You’ve come after a ticket for the match, but we’re offering you a place on the team’.”

“From where I’m standing, all I can do is carry on being an example,” he says. “People say why are you so cheerful, but you can only answer from where you’re standing!”