Frank Cottrell Boyce on The Return of Colmcille

He entertained the world with the London 2012 opening ceremony, now Frank Cottrell Boyce has written a new story for Derry~Londonderry and its beloved patron saint

The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games dazzled and impressed the world, and established the tone for the Olympics and Paralympic Games that were to follow.

Profound and playful, rich and resonant, it reached out to all those watching and told them of a different Britain, a different London. It was a pageant of and for the people. Miners, nurses, patients, factory workers, fictional characters. The Queen of England declared the Games to be open only after she had taken off her parachute and said goodbye to Mr Bond.

Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote that opening ceremony. Now, he’s writing The Return of Colmcille, a weekend-long celebration of the saint and the city of Derry~Londonderry, and the stories that surround them both. It begins on the night of Friday, June 7 and is the centre piece of the UK City of Culture 2013 programme.

'For me,' says Cottrell Boyce, 'standing in the Olympic stadium on that opening night, it felt like London was speaking to me, in all its many tongues. And what would be fantastic is if you felt Derry was speaking to the world. Derry speaks.'

Cottrell Boyce’s involvement in the event dates back to before the 2012 Games began, when he was approached by the Culture Company and asked to write the pageant. This was, of course, before anyone knew how good the opening ceremony was going to be, so he credits the company with 'foresight, and insight, and courage'.

He said yes after reading the Life of St Columba. 'It’s a fantastic story. And such an important story, a massive, massive thing. Europe was on the brink of collapse, and Colmcille saved Europe from the dark ages.'

Stories and their power grip Cottrell Boyce with a joyous intensity. The more he read of Colmcille, the more he became convinced of his story's power and relevance, and the more he became seduced by its adventure and heroism.

'It was amazing that a little group of monks [led by Colmcille], from this city, right at the edge of Europe, could light that fire. That’s something Derry should be really proud of.' Colmcille’s story is, according to Cottrell Boyce, 'amazing, full of beautiful imagery. And it’s got the Book of Kells, the most beautiful book in the world. I started thinking what a show you could do using those images and colours'.

Cottrell Boyce uses the word 'amazing' time and again, almost boyishly, but with complete seriousness too. Not all writers regard the events of a narrative with such respect, but Boyce does. He looks upon stories with a sense of awe and fun, wonder and mischief.

All that shines through when he talks of the saint’s life. 'Colmcille’s own story is a very big story, very accessible. But also incredibly beautiful. It’s fantastic – full of regret and bloodshed and repentance. Very dramatic. And it’s also got the Loch Ness monster in it!'

Cottrell Boyce’s own story, as a writer, began in the early days of Brookside. He moved on to Coronation Street, and subsequently has written plays for the theatre, and numerous film scripts such as Welcome to Sarajevo, 24-Hour Party People, and Grow Your Own. But he regards himself first and foremost as a writer of books for children.

As well as Millions and Framed, and The Unforgotten Coat, he has also written sequels to Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His novel, Cosmic, sees a young boy rocket into space. He talks with love of fiction for the young. 'Children’s stories are big.'

There is a magical quality to much of his work. His characters discover new worlds and new possibilities. His readers laugh and gasp and find themselves sharing their amazement with the heroes and heroines.

When he read the story of Colmcille, Cottrell Boyce says that 'two things jumped out: the Book of Kells and the Loch Ness monster. Whatever you do with it, it’s going to be great fun.' He talks with glee about The Return of Colmcille and his plans for the weekend.



'Friday night starts with a mysterious arrival at the quay. A boat will come from Iona, where Colmcille lived. A strange cargo will be unloaded. The next day that cargo will be opened in a ceremonial opening that will be amazing. Then there will be lots of little events and it’ll become a pageant as they join up.'

He talks of the weekend’s events like a story-teller gathering his audience closer and closer. 'We’re going to enchant and transform and put a spell on the city.' And there’s a mischievous bravado too. 'On Saturday night we’ll all come together and bring possibly the biggest puppet ever built down the Foyle. A gigantic Loch Ness monster.'

When asked how the monster would compare with the giant spider that stalked the streets of Liverpool in 2008, during it's tenure as European City of Culture, or the figure that rose from the Mersey in the Titanic story, Cottrell Boyce scoffs. 'Oh yeah, we’ll dwarf that. We’ll own those.'

That idea of sharing the experience of a story is extremely important to him. It’s one of the things he finds most exciting about The Return of Colmcille. 'Thousands of people are going to be involved. It’s like throwing a massive party.'

But it’s a serious thing, this sharing. It’s magic, alchemy, when a story is shared, when a tale is told to a crowd, or a book is read to a child, or when an adult listens to Book at Bedtime. New things happen, the story becomes something else.

'Art at its best helps you discover the wonder of where you are. That’s what a great story or poem can do. It opens a little door and says look at this thing that’s so familiar but looks so magical in a different light. Hopefully that’s what we’ll do for the city.'

The whole city of Derry is being called upon to contribute too. Four story-gatherers, based at Derry’s Verbal Arts Centre, are currently collecting stories from the people of the city. Big and small, thunderous and quiet, significant and trivial, they are looking for stories of siege and surrender and Saturday nights on the town. These will be poured into the saint’s weekend, as Colmcille returns to hear news of the city he left so long ago.

Cottrell Boyce knows Derry quite well. He sees it as a unique place, a European city. It’s a youthful city, but one on which 'history has a very profound grip'. And he sees the importance of narrative in Derry.

'Look around. People’s attitudes to each other are determined by what stories they’ve heard and what stories they believe. We’ve got the chance to tell a completely different story about this city. There’s a tiny pool of stories told about Derry – sieges, Bloody Sunday, Civil Rights. Three or four stories. But there are other, fantastically important stories that are being forgotten.'

Alongside the sense of fun, alongside the glee, there is a real earnestness about Frank Cottrell Boyce, a passionate belief in the importance of stories, of reading for pleasure, of listening and being heard. 'Story-telling is something we’ve done since we first lit a fire,' he beams.

His work on The Return of Colmcille will, he hopes, keep the fire burning. He repeats the saint’s words: 'Life is a story. Death is a story. Everything is just a story. So we must find the most enduring story.'

The Return of Colmcille takes place across Derry~Londonderry from June 7 - 9. Watch this space for more information in the months ahead.