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Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2494

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Frank Cottrell Boyce on the duty of a Christian writer to his culture: audio and text

The following address was given by the Catholic writer Frank Cottrell Boyce at the faith and culture symposium at Aquinas College, Stockport, on November 10, one of a number of events planned to mark the Year of Faith.



Please click on this link to listen to an audio recording of the speech


As a writer the debt I owe to my Church is profound and ineradicable. I grew up in what to most people would have looked like a dull suburb of Liverpool – a sprawl of new build semi detached houses, exactly the kind of houses which were being satirised in song as “little boxes”. But my parish Church was a replica of byzantine masterpiece. You opened the door from the A57 into a world of lapis lazuli, gold leaf, cool shadows, candle wax, quiet and incense. The door to Church was the door to the imagination. We were connected to the wider world by visiting Jesuit priests from the seminary at Loyola Hall. We were cossetted and cared for by the nuns who ran our primary school and whose day moved to a different rhythm from that of the World – we always stopped for the Angelus. We were encouraged to come and serve early morning Mass.

But running alongside the Church was the cinema. In fact these two things were often tangled in my head. My Dad used to take me to a city centre cinema which later became a Church but kept the cinema seating. So to this day I will sometimes find myself spilling my popcorn as I absent-mindedly genuflect at the end of Row H in the Plaza, or sitting in Benediction, looking at the altar, waiting for the trailers to start.

The Church has a long love affair with cinema. Scorsese, Capra, Hitchcock all explored their faith on screen, as did the mighty Leo McCarey, the man who put Laurel and Hardy together. At Mass once during the Cannes festival, the priest clocked my ‘In Competition’ accreditation and lifted a complimentary eyebrow as he gave me communion. Cinema – unlike television which is in love with “reality” – is built for transcendence. Anyone who has ever spent any time on a film set knows that the heart of the process is not acting, or directing, but waiting. And what you are waiting for is the Director of Photography to get the lightning just right for his shot (There’s an old joke – Q: How many DoPs does it take to chance a light bulb? Ans: It can’t be done). Of its very essence cinema is about putting people under a different light. It’s a kind of electric transfiguration.

Even so, people are often surprised when I admit to being a practising Catholic. Not that anyone’s ever taken issue with it but there is always that moment of surprise that tells you they had an image in their head, and it wasn’t you. And because people are polite you never quite know what that image is: did they think I was going to be St. Francis – poet, environmentalist, genius – or did they think I was going to be Mel Gibson?

The mis-fit between my World view and that of the people I’m working with can create problems – not social or moral or ethical ones (people are always very polite and understanding about that) .. but epistemological ones. Screenwriting is a highly conventional business. Screenplays are 105 pages long; there are three acts, a hero journey and a moment of redemption at the end. These conventions are taught as though they were purely pragmatic, but of course they embody a very specific set of values that I just don’t happen to share. I wrote a film and novel called Millions for instance, which is about a little boy who – having lost his Mother – starts to see various saints. The idea came partly from noticing how when people die young there’s often a lot of metaphorical talk about health workers as saints and angels. I thought a boy whose mother died might want to think about where she was without the pain of thinking about her directly. And maybe one way to do that would be to think about those people with whom she was now living – the saints. It’s an idea with huge comic potential. It also allowed me to tell a story about the safe, ordinary kind of place in which I had grown up – but to bring to it the colours of Umbria, or Nigeria, or the desert of the early fathers. To add the lapis lazuli, gold leaf and stained glass that the church had added to my own life. In meetings with backers and editors however, people were constantly telling me that the boy hero needed to “get closure” on those visions, to “grow as a person” and leave all that transcendence behind. Whereas I thought he was a great place! I talk to the saints a lot. If I lose my car keys I ask St. Anthony. The idea that he might be there in the room with me and I could hear him saying, “Where did you last have them?” seemed totally advantageous to me. I did find myself recently working on a script about St. Paul and thinking, ‘That conversion on the Road to Damascus, that comes a bit out of the blue, I probably need to set that up a bit’.

Conventional storytelling is all about consequences, about the merciless chains of cause and effect; but the great religious stories – The Prodigal Son, for instance, or Gawain and the Green Knigh – are about how mercy and grace will cut you free from those chains. I believe strongly in unearned surprises and discontinuous glories. To me these are the work of grace. To the Hollywood trained script doctor they are continuity mistakes.

I didn’t have to change a word on Millions because I had a great defender in the shape of the director, Danny Boyle who came from a similar background. Identical background really. And who – though he is not a practising Catholic any more – talks a great deal about faith. He is fond of saying, “Do I believe in God, no. Do I believe in people who do? Yes absolutely.” I had the fantastic privilege, and exhausting pleasure of working with Danny on the Opening Ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games. People found it remarkable how much religious imagery was there in that ceremony. The hymn – Abide With Me – created one of the most profound and moving and – from our point of view – daring moments of the whole ceremony. It wasn’t the only hymn in the show – we also had Jerusalem and Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer. We created two separate one minute silences. I had letters from people asking me if the hill with the tree on it was supposed to represent Calvary. Perhaps more importantly, the show was performed mostly by volunteers and where do you go to recruit altruistic, joyous, up-for-it people – faith groups and churches. Our children’s choir – the amazing Dockhead Choir – was a faith-based choir. I noticed that on more than one occasion its leader – Mags – would refer to the opening ceremony as The Liturgy!

One of my most profound and moving memories of the whole adventure … It was after midnight. The performers and the audience had all gone home. The stadium was dark and eerily deserted. Anxious little knots of people were meeting in doorways and technical areas. There was a sudden hush and everyone drifted out into the seating areas. We sat in ones or twos in the vast, empty stands. We were about to see “Betty” for the first time. “Betty” was the codename given to Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron. It was made of 204 “petals” – one for each nation. Each national team brought their petal to the Stadium with them. During the parade of athletes, the petals would be fitted to their metal “stems” and, at the lighting of the torch, these stems and petals would rise up to create – from each nation’s spark – a single flower of flame. At the closing ceremony, each nation would reclaim its petal and take it home. It was a simple, beautiful idea, an idea with a story to tell, an idea in which so much could go wrong. In the deserted stadium that night, the flames were lit. They formed a circle on the floor like a huge campfire. One by one, the tongues of flame lifted into the air. The gas was making an oddly familiar noise – a syncopation of hisses and clicks. I suddenly remembered where I’d heard it before. As a little boy I’d lain on my grandmother’s hearth rug, looking at the underneath of her gas fire – watching the spectre-blue flames chase each other up and down, clicking and hissing in fascinating sequence. As more and more of the flames rose up, until they were almost all joined together, Mark Tildesley – the ceremony’s main designer – leaned over my seat and whispered, “There you go, Frankie, Pentecost”. How did I miss that?! How come Mark’s head was Acts of the Apostles, when mine was in a flat in Kirkdale!?

I’ve never – and never will again – work on anything as big or as successful as the opening ceremony. It was an extremely frightening process. Film making is all about the snakes and ladders of reputation. If you’re seen to be successful you go to the top of the ladder. But one failure sends you right down the snake to square one. If it hadn’t worked, Danny would never have worked again. And we would have wasted years of our lives. And damaged our country’s reputation. In the weeks building up to the ceremony, it looked like it would be a failure. The press previews were incredibly hostile. Here are some comments that I remember reading …

It’s going to be a huge embarrassment with the eyes of the world on us and falling about with laughter

– Fed up Taxpayer (Former Tory Voter) now UKIP all the way, Plymouth EUSSR,

This will be the worst opening ceremony in olympic history. And i’m glad it’s in london.

– Paul Sullivan , leeds, england, 19/7/2012 18:19

It’s still astonishing to me that neither Danny – nor Lord Coe – blinked at that point. We never had a meeting about how to spin or change things. They just lead us forward. I’m still humbled when I think of that courage. I drew some of my own courage from my experience on the papal visit – where there was a similar bad press. At one point I thought it might be just myself and the Holy Father in Hyde Park sharing a packet of biscuits. That turned out to be a great triumph. I also feel keenly the debt I owe to all the people who gave me the cultural, moral and spiritual equipment to deal with that pressure, who told me the story of Pentecost for instance, and how St. Peter unskilled in public speaking, not knowing any language but his own, and speaking that with a broad, recognisable accent, an accent that marked him out as not only uneducated but also trouble, and he put his vulnerablity in front of the nations, and spoke.

So I thank my parents, the De La Salle brothers, various inspirational priests, the nuns who taught me – Sister Paul and Sister Thomasina in particular – for all the blessings that they bestowed upon me.

But in this Year of Faith, I want to end with a question. Are we now bestowing those blessings on our young people, as those who came before us bestowed them on us?

I live in a city where the Church has a cultural reach that vastly far exceeds its spiritual constituency. People who never come near the church at any other time feel the need to come to her – and spend fortunes on – Baptisms, First Communions, Weddings and funerals. They clamor, campaign and connive to get their children into Catholic schools. But when they come to us then, how do we react? My wife has a wonderful phrase, “They come asking for a ticket to the grandstand. We know what have is a place on the first team”. Do we do that? I have sat through – and my wife has sat through many more – seminars and conferences about how we are going to reach young people. But the young people are there – they are in our schools, day in, day out. They are sitting in our benches – in their unaccustomed suits and inappropriate dresses, unsure when to stand up and sit down. They are our homeland. When did we decide that that homeland was stony ground? What do we offer them then? They know what Catholic schools offer – a better education, a more benign pastoral environment. We are happy to share that fruit but embarrassed to show them the garden where it grew – the roots that fed it. Our faith. When the Wesleys began their great missionary work, because the people they wanted to reach were not in church so they went to where the people were – they preached in fields and tents. They shared the joy that their faith had brought them. It seems to me that we are in danger of doing the very opposite – people are coming to us! They come to us for education and for festivity. They knock at the door. When we answer, do we ask them inside? Or do we simply give them what they were asking for and send them on their way?

There’s a huge debate going on now about the legacy of the Olympic Games. What did they mean? What did we learn. I’ve heard people say that the Opening Ceremony was an advert for nationalised public services. I’ve heard people say it was a triumph for Jeremy Hunt – the man who in a poll about whether he’d been a good minister scored a mighty Zero percent. I’ve heard Boris Johnson say that the opening ceremony’s sequence in which Mary Poppins dispersed nightmares was an allegory of Margaret Thatcher defeating the miners. There’s a debate. Where is the debate about the legacy of the Papal Visit’s glorious moment. Who is working to keep that flame alive?


(Pictures by Simon Caldwell, St Gabriel News and Media)