A life in writing: Frank Cottrell Boyce

'If I've got a political axe to grind then it's around literacy. I think we've tragically conflated literacy and reading'

It's not easy to classify Frank Cottrell Boyce. Three months ago he was the toast of the nation, as one of the key collaborators on Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony, a project which included the Bond/Queen sketch. A few weeks before that the Liverpool writer, who has a PhD, delivered his inaugural lecture as professor of reading at Liverpool Hope university. His second sequel to Ian Fleming's classic children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is out now and there is a third on the way.

On the day we meet Cottrell Boyce is at a London film producer's office where, with screenwriting credits including Hilary and Jackie and 24 Hour Party People, he looks entirely at home.

So is he a children's author? A screenwriter? An academic? Or some clever combination of all three, with a handy rapport with the Fleming estate thrown in?

"I'm definitely a children's writer," he says, "that's what I want to be. I'm always trying to get rid of everything else. I'm not particularly mad about doing any other movies. The movies I'm doing are ones that have been on the blocks for a long time." Cottrell Boyce has two films in progress. The Homeless World Cup is a feature about the real-life tournament of the same name which will shoot in Paris next year. The Railway Man, based on the memoirs of Eric Lomax, a prisoner of war, is a gritty story made glitzy by leading actors Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.

Cottrell Boyce calls his role at Liverpool Hope university – where two weeks ago Danny Boyle gave his first public talk since the Olympics – an "obligation", but not in a pejorative sense. He wants to put something back both into Liverpool and into the broader culture of reading. "It's not teaching," he says, "it's more like I'm an entertainment officer, only instead of booking bands I'm booking writers."

We are meeting to celebrate yet another of Cottrell Boyce's recent achievements. On Wednesday night he won the Guardian children's fiction prize, his second major award for children's writing following a Carnegie medal in 2004 for his first book Millions. The Unforgotten Coat, which saw off competition from Roddy Doyle, Eva Ibbotson and Russell Hoban, could hardly be more different from the five-go-mad-in-motor shenanigans of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Originally commissioned by Liverpool charity the Reader Organisation, and inspired by the true story of a Mongolian girl he met on his first school visit, who left her coat behind when she was deported, The Unforgotten Coat is an offbeat tale of a brief crosscultural friendship, illustrated with photographs by Carl Hunter, a friend and bass player in Liverpool band the Farm.

"I thought it was funny," Cottrell Boyce says when I tell him it is a sad book. "You know when they're talking about football and it says 'he was still quite horsey in his thinking', being Mongolian?" It's true the book has some nice jokes, and the deportation does not end in disaster. The Guardian judges admired its humour as well as its originality. But Cottrell Boyce has a tear in his eye when he talks about Misheel, the real girl on whom the story is based, and the pride the local children took in her.

Cottrell Boyce, who before the ceremony was planning to send Misheel's teacher Sue Kendall up to collect the prize, says "the book came out of an engagement with a community and I felt answerable for it in a way that you wouldn't normally. People would stop you and talk about it." The charity wanted a text that would work across all their schemes and for groups including prisoners and addicts. In its original version, published last year, it was more like a pamphlet. "A gift, a very flimsy-looking thing," Cottrell Boyce calls it. Now an attractive hardback, The Unforgotten Coat is his briefest and most melancholy children's book to date. But in truth even his funnier stories – and Cottrell Boyce is a laugh-out-loud writer – have sorrow in them. His debut Millions, which was an unfinished film script before Boyle told him to turn it into a novel, is the story of two brothers who find a bag of cash and become involved in a bizarre robbery. Hilarious about many things including shopping and religion, the book is also a delicate treatment of the boys' loss of their mother: big brother Anthony's solution to any setback is to announce "our mum is dead" and wait for the reaction.

His second book, Framed, took another ordinary boy in an ordinary setting – this time a small town in Wales – and used the wartime evacuation of the National Gallery's greatest treasures to provide the glimpses of transcendence that, in Cottrell Boyce's stories, are the counterpoint to Ealing comedy-style villainy. In Cosmic, the book he says was the most fun to write (now in development as a film), he took a 12-year-old so tall he can pretend to be his dad, and sent him into space.

Although his work is aimed at children old enough to read by themselves, roughly the eight to twelve age group, Cottrell Boyce's "dream reader" is a parent and child doing it together. "It's a fantastically joyous thing to be read to," he says. "What is incredibly powerful about books is that they break you out of the prison of the present and you need someone to do that with you, I think." The disarming trick of his narratives is to give away more to the adult reader than the young narrators are aware of revealing.

He wanted to commemorate that first school visit because it helped to crystallise his belief in reading aloud. "I think it's really important who you write for," he says. "A lot of writers say they write to please themselves, which is really pure and good, but I was taken aback when I went to Misheel's school by how much I wanted to reach the children, please them, make them laugh."

In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the flying car with a mind of its own, he was presented with a readymade vehicle with which to attempt all these things. Compared with the highly personal ideas and experiences that lay behind previous books, the continuation of the Fleming brand looks baldly commercial. But there is charm and humour in Cottrell Boyce's two sequels (the original was published in three instalments: the plan is to copy this formula and call it a day). This is partly drawn from his pleasure in the fact that the original is that rare thing, an adventure story in which the parents are invited along.

"That would certainly never happen in Roald Dahl," he says. "The problem I had with Chitty is that people remember the movie, which is a Dahl movie [Dahl wrote the screenplay] … there's a supercar, a supervillain and lots of sexual perversity." The Fleming original, by contrast, is "very sweet". It was also based on a real car, and Cottrell Boyce had a wonderful time unearthing the story of the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, built in the 1920s by motor-racing daredevil Count Zborowski. He shows me a photo: "I met a man in Canterbury who helped build this monster when he was a little boy – he held a bag of rivets for his dad."

In the past Cottrell Boyce has said that compared with the impact of books on susceptible young minds, culture for adults – films, books, whatever – is basically a "pastime". Did the Olympics opening ceremony change his mind, or does he think its content didn't much matter – or matter enough to change anything?

"I don't think films ever change people the way books change people. But I know what you mean. I do see now doing things with the Reader Organisation that anyone can be saved, it's never too late. But there is something very porous about the years between eight and twelve. That's the debt I want to pay off, because it's the books I read then that really stayed with me."

Cottrell Boyce was born in 1959 into a Roman Catholic Liverpool family and remembers an idyllic childhood. The church loomed large, a physical as well as spiritual presence, and he was one of those to whom its rituals and miracles made perfect sense. When he appeared on Desert Island Discs one of his choices was Oliver Postgate reading Noggin the Nog. Another was a 60s recording of Irish children recounting Bible stories, their voices full of wonder and conviction. In this world of expanding opportunity it felt natural enough that he, first in his family to make it to university, should go from his Catholic grammar school to read English at Keble College, Oxford.

There he became so interested in the upsurge of popular radicalism that followed the execution of Charles I that he stayed on and took a doctorate. There, too, he met his wife Denise ("who actually is a saint" according to the dedication in his first novel), a similarly bright theology undergraduate who was then thinking of becoming a nun. She was Cottrell, he was Boyce: they married and joined their names together. Living in Oxford was blissful, romantic: "To have a baby when you're a postgrad student at Oxford, what a doddle. Looking back it was the wisest thing ever."

But he wanted to be a writer, not an academic, and was soon working for Phil Redmond's new Liverpool-based TV soap Brookside ("it wasn't difficult", he says, "they were taking anyone with a Liverpool postcode, the hard thing was to be kept on"). More TV commissions followed, and work as a critic for Living Marxism magazine, then a stint on Coronation Street and the meeting with Michael Winterbottom at Thames TV that led to Cottrell Boyce's first screenwriting credit, in 1995, for serial killer road movie Butterfly Kiss.

Cottrell Boyce wrote several more Winterbottom films including Welcome to Sarajevo, about the journalists who covered the Bosnian war, and 24 Hour Party People, about the 1980s "Madchester" musical scene and Factory Records boss Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan). Other credits from this period included the Jacqueline du Pre biopic Hilary and Jackie that controversially revealed the cellist's affair with her sister's husband.

But the Winterbottom relationship came to an abrupt end: Cottrell Boyce asked that his ingenious A Cock and Bull Story screenplay based on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy be credited to a pseudonym. Looking back, Cottrell Boyce describes it as a parting of ways. While Winterbottom had found a niche on the film festival circuit that suited him, Cottrell Boyce was impatient to reach new audiences. By the time his debut novel Millions and the Boyle film of the same name were released in 2004 a new chapter had begun.

Meanwhile Cottrell Boyce and his wife, now back in Liverpool, carried on having children. In all they have seven, aged between eight and 27, four boys and three girls. From his account it is a warm and close family, with the youngest children home-schooled mainly because their parents like having everyone together in the house, but also to shield them from the highly commercialised peer pressure Cottrell Boyce describes as "weaponised advertising". His view of celebrity culture magazines such as Closer borders on disgust.

These days the relationship with Boyle, who recruited him for the Olympics project, is a big thing. "I do genuinely think Danny's head is a very special head, partly because he's a voracious reader. Danny loves popular culture, he loves movies, but at the same time he loves them because he sees what they can be. I guess that's the good thing about being a children's writer. You try to do something very accessible but substantial as well."

Boyle brings out the best in everyone, gets them to do things they didn't know they could. A svengali then? "A teacher," says Cottrell Boyce; "he'd have been a brilliant teacher." But the relationship is not one-way: it was Cottrell Boyce who bought the second-hand copy of Humphrey Jennings's compendium of writings on industrialisation, Pandæmonium, which inspired the smoking chimneys and burning metal of the opening ceremony.

Cottrell Boyce once named education secretary Michael Gove on a list of "dislikes", but generally prefers to keep Westminster at a distance. "Politics itself is so depleted, isn't it? To me it's all about seeing things I can do something about, like the Liverpool reading thing. I kind of wish I hadn't said that about Gove because I can't imagine the Labour guy is going to be that different. It's as much a New Labour thing, the measurement and statistics. If I've got a political axe to grind then it's around literacy. I think we've tragically conflated literacy and reading and that there is a whole generation now that doesn't read for pleasure.

"Being read to at school changed my life. I really became aware of that during the Olympics because we were all of us in that room drawing on stuff we'd read as children and none of it was stuff we were examined on, it wasn't anything measurable. It was stuff that people had shared with us that we went on to share. If you look at that ceremony and what was in it, it was a sense of wonderment in storytelling. We found we had this common heritage – Mary Poppins and so on."

A Liverpool supporter, he has strong views about the findings of last month's Hillsborough report, although he has turned down requests to write about it out of deference to those writers who were there. "It's a defining event for Liverpool, in the same way that Bloody Sunday is a defining event for Derry," he says, adding that the conspiracy to blame the fans was "like John Webster, it's something from The Duchess of Malfi". At times he seems startled by his own vehemence. "I'm really ranting here, aren't I?" he says at one point. Although he probably wouldn't say so, Cottrell Boyce is a writer with a clear moral purpose, who believes the whole point of books is to extend our imaginative reach, and give us pleasure in the process. Recently he has been reading stories by George Saunders, recommended by his adult sons, and the children's books of Rumer Godden with his youngest. "I'm on this mission to read all the books I've given people the impression that I've read or fooled myself into thinking that I have read, all the stuff I've bullshitted about, that's my mission."

He says he is slow, prone to distractions, and when asked why he did something often names a person or a favour ("I'm very big on loyalty, very big on friendship maybe"). Writing can be "isolating, you have those days when you've been working on something for a year and you suddenly think actually this doesn't add up at all". One of the joys of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang books is that everyone knows the story and can talk about it. It's also the first time he has worked with an illustrator, Joe Berger, who agreed to make the family a mixed-race one.

So what would he have done if he'd never met Winterbottom? Or Boyle? Or been recommended by a neighbour to the Fleming estate? "Writing is a compulsion, so I'd still be writing. I might be a better writer if I'd been stuck in a room somewhere instead of poncing about the Olympic stadium or the Homeless World Cup or whatever. But I wouldn't have had such a good time."


Susanna Rustin

The GuardianTramp

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