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Novel experience for a screenwriter; Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce has written his first children's novel. Peter Elson visits him in his natural family habitat.

Byline: Peter Elson

HIS name was Banjo. Although only a small bit-part player in the entertainment world, he performed a pivotal part in launching one of Britain's most successful screenwriters into the business.

Banjo was the assistant to a leading Punch and Judy man in the Rainhill area. That Banjo was a forlorn-looking mongrel dog (wearing a ruff), wasn't important. Banjo played the key role in collecting the cash at the end of the performance by carrying a cap around.

That was how Frank Cottrell Boyce learned about the problems of earning a fortune ins mallchange. It is unclear where in the Punch and Judy management hierarchy Frank was with regard to Banjo, but he believes that this was a turning point in his career. Children's entertaining is not so much a thread as an upgraded dual- carriage way with service station and play areas running through Frank's life. These early fiscal experiences have also provided the springboard for his first novel ( for children) called Millions. With his seventh child, Xavier, born in December, and his eldest son now on a gap year in Sicily, keeping children busy has been a time consuming occupation.

About Millions he says: ``It's a bittersweet story that's funny, clever and exciting. In other words, it's the seminal Widnes novel.

``It's about a couple of children who were rich, well,for a few days anyway. A bag crammed with cash from a robbery came tumbling out of the air and lands at their feet.

``I love children's fiction; I've had 18 years of reading bedtime stories by just about every author. Britain is to children's fiction what Brazil is to football. We've done amazing things,'' says Frank.

``Even the classics are unusual books. Alice in Wonderland is right at the limit of what is mentally possible -the prose equivalent of Bach.

`WIND in the Willows is really 10 books in one and Winnie the Pooh makes pounds 36bn for Walt Disney which is half the gross national product of Africa. ``The authors of these works operated in a different time when the establishment was protected from the wider publicgaze.

``Would Swinburne have become poet laureate if people kn ew his hobby was whipping? William Pitt was Britain's most effective prime minister, yet for most of his premiership he was drunk. What would the media havemadeof a PM who was totally stocious? But the result was great works.'' Frank's wife, Denny, had planned to become a nun before he intervened. Their rooms at Keble College, Oxford University were opposite each other. Seven children later there's probably no going back. Frank chuckles: ``I've rather burnt her bridges.'' Although Frank started his career in television script-writing for Brookside and Coronation Street, there is no television downstairs in the family's large Victorian villa in Crosby. Intriguingly, his children have not unduly suffered sensory deprivation. Certainly the representative sample of four Cottrell Boyce offspring that. I met seemed beguiling.

Both Frank's parents were teachers and he was born in Stanley Road,Liverpool, but moved to Rainhill at an early age. ``My time at St Bartholomew's RC Primary School was idyllic. I was in Sister Pauline's class and she told me to become a writer, so I had to take her at her word.

``It was only later that. I realised what adoss it was,'' he says.

After attending West Park Grammar in St Helens, and Oxford, he landed his first job as a scriptwriter on Brookside. He appears to have started at the top (''Well, they'd hire anyone for Brookside back then'') and stayed there (``it's just luck'').

``The nearest to a nine to five job I've had is writing Coronation Street. Becauseof the family,I cannot get out of the house between nine and five, so I can't do a nine to five job. I was quite big on science and I fancied being a marine biologist.''

During our interview he nipped out to collect a daughter from school and rustled up lunch for eight of us, explaining: `` In spite of living in Crosby,I'm very metrosexual.''

At 42-years-old, the film world regards him as an old man. He says: ``Thankfully, this is the age of the first-time novelist and you can be older and achildren's writer.''

Curiously, the story of Millions started life as a film, directed by Danny Boyle, best known for Trainspotting, his Edinburgh young druguser's opus (``He was looking for something different,'' says Frank). Danny Boyle suggested to Frank that the script would make an excellent novel. ``The film is for older children. There's a bit more edge to it than Finding Nemo,'' says Frank. ``I've always wanted to do achildren's film, but it takes ages to get such a project off the ground. No idea where stories comes from, but technically, you are looking for a ticking clock to drive the plot forward.'' The film was shot in Netherley by PatheFeatures. The studio head flew into Liverpool in his private jet. Frank says: ``The film really works as a thriller. Unlike the book,it's very sweaty and tense towards the end as you worry about thechild.

``After Danny read the novel, he found extra money to shoot new scenes from the book for the film.

``These are very unusual circumstances, but there are precedents. GrahamGreene wrote the Third Man, starring Orson Welles, while they were making the film. ``My problem was there aren't many leading male comedy actors around any more. It's either Hugh Grant or James Nesbitt. Hugh Grant brings a class issue thing, so we were really lucky tog et James Nesbitt.

``I wanted Ricky Tomlinson to play St Peter,but he was busy, so instead we've cast Alun Armstrong who is really, really good. His St Peter is like aGeordie bouncer, saying: ` I'm on the door,man'.'' The story's leading young character has an obsession with saints, which may explain the host of figures along the mantel piece (for research purposes?). Elsewhere the Cottrell Boyces have a penchant for crucifix-es. Frank loves the subject: ``If you open a dictionary of saints, it's like looking into a big treasure box of incredible toys. Nobody in Britain seems to know they live in a country full of saints. Especially since the Catholics have been cleaned up no one is aware of these visionaries.

``One of my favourites is the early Celtic St Pyr, who was found dead at the bottom of a well after a drunken brawl and became a saint after some kind of clericalerror. ``Or St Simeon Stylites, who lived on a pillar -what a great character. They are not about people who do good works or are nice. It's about being difficult and wearing hairshirts; they're people possessed, but by gooddemons.`SOMEONE like St Francis of Assissi is among the easiest to relate to; in modern terms he's an Italian ecologist,but even he's rather unnerving. ``Even Mother Theresa, who indisputably did great things, is someone who you wouldn't want to go out to supper with. ``Luckily, saints are a fairly recognisable genre worldwide. Surprisingly,even the Japanese get it as it keys into folk religions, like Shinto with its demi-gods. ``I've been lucky, as this is not a book about fantasy, which is a subject saturated with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. ``Neither is it a JackieWilson-style kids' soap opera style story. By chance, I've got a boy in the lead which is very controversial, as trying to get boys reading is a big thing.

``As we speak, the story is being read as a radio serial in Poland and the book is due for a big release in America.'' Frank graduated from television soap operas into film, writing hits such as Welcome to Sarajevo,Hilary and Jackieand 24-Hour Party People. ``I don't like soap operas. Whatever happens in soap opera it's got to keep going. Emily Bishop in Coronation Street has led the life of Moll Flanders,but is still very boring.'' Compared to most show business colleagues,Frank's life is unusually stable and family-orientated. He says: ``To them,I'm the weirdo,but the family tradition suits me. I don't want to quote Flaubert,but I will; he said: `You should write like a revolutionary,but livelike abourgeoisie'.'' So what about the follow up to Millions? Without missing a beat,he says: ``I've got to deliver it in October, so I'm starting this afternoon.'' 8MILLIONS,by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Macmillan, pounds 9.99


BRANCHING OUT: Screenwriter turned novelist Frank Cottrell Boyce relaxes with some of the family while his wife,Denny,and baby, Xavier, keep an eye on Benedict at lunchtime;; below, James Nesbitt stars in Millions; Main picture: FRANK LOUGHLIN
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 5, 2004
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