Frank Cottrell Boyce - Keeping the faith

Frank Cottrell Boyce's new play for television puts God on trial for the Holocaust. But despite impassioned denunciations of the Almighty throughout the thought-provoking work, it failed to shake his own belief. Interview by Paul Whitelaw

MOST writers tend to stick to what they know. After all, sitting still is far more comfortable than stretching yourself into all sorts of unpredictable shapes. Acclaimed author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, on the other hand, prefers to zip eclectically from one different genre to another, like a man trying on as many hats as possible before the shopkeeper throws him out.

But Cottrell Boyce is no dilettante. He's equally deft at writing children's fiction as he is with harrowing biopics, wildly ambitious metatextual adaptations of unfilmable novels, or politically imbued treatise on the human condition.

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The Liverpool-born Oxford graduate began writing for Brookside and Coronation Street in the late 1980s, before going on to work with acclaimed directors such as Danny Boyle, Alex Cox, Julien Temple and Michael Winterbottom, with whom he's made seven films including 24 Hour Party People, A Cock And Bull Story and Welcome To Sarajevo.

The esteemed American film critic Roger Ebert has described him as "arguably the most original and versatile screenwriter in England". You could argue that he is also one of the most creative writers currently working anywhere in film.

His latest project, God On Trial, is a powerful feature-length television play co-produced by BBC Scotland and based upon the (possibly apocryphal) tale of Auschwitz prisoners setting up court and charging God with having broken his covenant with the Jewish people. Intelligent, thought-provoking, and unashamedly weighty, it's welcomingly reminiscent of the sort of compelling, dialogue-heavy plays that seemingly faded from our screens years ago.

"I recently looked back at some of those Play For Todays," says Cottrell Boyce in his softly spoken Liverpudlian burr. "And it was interesting because there were massive long scenes and brilliant acting going on, and I think telly seems to have lost confidence in that now – one set with people rattling around in it."

The notion that modern audiences can no longer commit to such uncompromising fare is an obvious fallacy. It's the programme-makers who have dumbed down, not the viewers.

"There are some amazing television programmes being made now," he says. "But overall television doesn't have that mission to bring culture and debate into your living room any more. The only thing I can think of that's like that now is The Wire, but that has viewing figures of about 38,000. It should be on ITV or the BBC, but it's never going to be."

God On Trial tackles the age-old question of why a supposedly merciful God repeatedly allows appalling atrocities to occur. Cottrell Boyce's choice of subject matter is perhaps more surprising when one takes into account his own Catholic faith.

"I took it on because I thought I sort of knew all the answers to those questions," he explains. It wasn't until he spoke to some Rabbis and immersed himself in the Torah and the Talmud that he realised just how difficult his task would be.

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"Like most non-Jewish people I hadn't really taken on the enormity of the Holocaust, or rather I'd not really thought about its philosophical implications before. It was much, much more challenging for me personally than I thought it would be."

Despite the impassioned denunciations of God that erupt throughout the play, Cottrell Boyce feels that his is ultimately an affirming story. So after all he's read, does he still believe that faith cannot be vanquished by inexplicable horror and lack of reason?

"Well it wasn't, you see," he counters, referring to the inarguable fact that Judaism hardly died out after the Second World War. "And how could mine be vanquished by sitting in a room reading some books about it, when I was reading the words of people who had been through that and come out with (their faith] burning in them?

"I obviously wasn't being challenged in the same way as people who had lived through it. Some people found faith during it, some people hadn't known they were Jewish until they were taken away. I came across several stories like that, where people had found something new in themselves."

But what of the wrathful, merciless, murderous God featured so heavily in his screenplay. Doesn't that sit uncomfortably with his own belief in a benign deity? "If you're a Christian you tend to only read the Old Testament in conjunction with the New Testament, as it illuminates it," he says. "But it is very, very violent, it's so extreme. It's a fantastic read, but very unsettling."

As a child, Cottrell Boyce was first turned on to the wonders of fiction by series of books written by Finnish author Tove Jansson about the Moomins. "I just had this vague awareness that they weren't like other children's books, that there was something extra about them. They were a bit unsettling and weird, and that was the first time I thought: there's somebody writing these. It was the first time I read a book and felt that somebody in particular was speaking to me."

Perhaps surprisingly, the 47-year-old didn't really begin to appreciate cinema until he saw Julien Temple's Sex Pistols movie, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, in the late 1970s ("it felt like: yes, you could go out and do that") and not long after, the immortal Gregory's Girl by Bill Forsyth. "The climax of my professional career came when The Scotsman compared my book, Framed, to a Bill Forsyth film," he smiles. "I once tried to get Bill Forsyth to mentor a community project I was helping out with. He sent an e-mail saying, 'Barbra Streisand directs films. How hard can it be?'"

Not that hard, obviously, especially when any old hack can write a hit movie using a building-block collection of hackneyed tropes and clichs, something that understandably irks the more imaginative Cottrell Boyce. And, he argues, it's not just a problem particular to mainstream movies. "It's kind of depressing the way that's crept into American indie films recently. I think a lot of them have become almost as formulaic as multiplex blockbusters. There's always got to be someone in it who's read Proust, y'know?"

Quirk by numbers?

"That's it exactly."

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Being original and interesting doesn't mean that you have to be self-consciously offbeat, does it?

"No, and that's what I really admire about Danny (Boyle], he always tries to connect with an audience every time. He's not reviewing the audience."

Those ridiculous 'How To Write A Hit Movie' books are largely to blame for the standardised nature of so many screenplays, aren't they?

"I guess so, but who am I to say that, as I've never written a hit movie."

Maybe you should buy one of them then?

"Yeah, I should do a kind of KLF thing and make a No 1 movie, just so I can say: 'Look, it's easy.'"

"What depresses me is when British films try to imitate (the American model]," he continues. "They think they've got some idea of how that works, but apart from Richard Curtis, they clearly haven't. We're much better off trying to do our own thing. You see those British or European independent films that are pale imitations of Hollywood, but to make those films people put an insane amount of work into it, they're just really committed to every full-stop and comma. And you can't compete with that, so it's so much better just to be yourself."

Not that he's averse to working with the big studios: at the moment he and Boyle are working with Dreamworks on an adaptation of the Terry Pratchett novella, Truckers. "It's about these garden gnomes who think there's nothing outside their department store, that's their religion. It's actually not unlike God on Trial," he laughs. "The store is about to be demolished, so they've got to face up to this incredible idea that there is something else out there. It's a story about tiny philosophical gnomes, basically."

From Auschwitz to Factory, Sarajevo to garden gnomes, Frank Cottrell Boyce is no more likely to be pigeonholed than an emu.

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"I sometimes think it's because I haven't found out what I'm good at," he smiles. "I'm still looking. Sometimes you think it would be great to find something you knew that only you could do, like if you were Herg writing Tintin or something. But apart from that, it would be crap doing the same thing over and over again, wouldn't it?"

• God On Trial is on 3 September, BBC2, 9pm