Persons of Interest
A semi-regular feature on the underappreciated, the promising, and the very cool
Frank Cottrell Boyce
By Roderick Heath
A genre-bending, radically original, yet deftly humane writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce has become one of the major creative forces of modern British cinema. Like one of the loopier heroes he has invoked—Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People (2003)—Boyce inhabits many worlds at once without effort, if not without the odd disaster. Particularly through his partnership with Michael Winterbottom, Boyce has helped weld together previously disparate strands of Cinematic Britannia— the knowing, pop spirit born sometime around A Hard Day’s Night (1964); the mocking allusiveness of the quick-witted Oxfordian best exemplified by Monty Python; the madcap, yet purposeful anachronisms of Ken Russell; the musty highbrow historical and literary classic genre; the gritty, down-and-dirty Loach-and-Leigh realist stream; and a fractured but vivacious post-modernism.
Boyce found a true collaborator in Winterbottom, a director of enormous inventiveness and unique restlessness of style and theme. Yet Boyce maintains his individuality. A film as anarchic and yet intelligent as Pandaemonium (2000) could only come from the hand also responsible for Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005). Boyce, born in 1961, was an Oxford graduate in English and palaeontology, a detail not unimportant to his writing’s sense of history and humanity entwining in chaotic ways. After working for many years as the TV critic for the magazine Living Marxism, he attempted to break into writing for television proper. After some scattered work, he finished up on a dreary assignment (penning a script for an anti-smoking programme) for a company that also employed frustrated trainee editor Winterbottom. The two met and decided to help each other along.
Both men made their feature film debut with Forget About Me (1990), which made exactly nil impact at the time and yet is now much beloved by a small band of fans. Boyce’s spell as a staff writer on the seminal Brit soap Coronation Street began soon after, the reason, some suggested, that Living Marxism was often seen on sale in the news agency on the show. In 1995, he and Winter- bottom returned for their second shot with the loopy road movie Butterfly Kiss, featuring Amanda Plummer as a mad punkette who accidentally becomes a serial killer whilst falling in love with bewildered Jane Lynch. The film was an earthy mixture of indie grit, new queer cinema, and ’90s-breed film noir, and was a breakthrough.
Boyce followed up by penning two biopics for director Anand Tucker—the characteristically eccentric Saint-Ex (1996) and the more standard, and acclaimed, Hilary and Jackie (1997). A signature sequence in the latter film, in which Emily Watson’s Jacqueline du Pré and other young classical music students blithely bash out The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” is, in a way, a key to Boyce’s oeuvre. Often in his films, high culture, pop culture, low culture, new and old, collide and transform each-other, making new and witty connections. In his most distinctive scripts, the heroes are fools of fortune caught in webs of past and present, fiction and reality, all mashed together and made inseparable by that tyrannous agent, time.
In between those two films for Tucker, Boyce and Winterbottom pursued a highly personal and urgent project, Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), inspired by the death of a journalist ex-boyfriend of Boyce’s sister in the titular war-torn city. The resulting film was shot on location in an environment still virtually at war, and as a result, the film almost reeks of blood, dust, and cordite. Though the film’s of-the-moment immediacy often overwhelmed the compact drama of Boyce’s script, it was still filled with his trademark referential wit and pithy, outraged humanism:
Annie McGee (Kerry Fox): This could be the most important story in this war.
Michael Henderson (Woody Harrelson): More important than bombing people in the street?
Annie McGee: Compared to that, this is like fucking Jane Austen.
Michael Henderson: I never fucked Jane Austen.
The turn of the millennium saw the release of perhaps the two best films Boyce has penned, but both barely recognized as such. The Claim was an adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, a literary hero of Boyce and Winterbottom, the latter of whom had scored with Jude (1996), his relentless, rigorous adaptation of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. The Claim transposed the setting of Hardy’s novel to frontier America and channeled elements of Altman, Leone, Cimino, and Herzog in its often spellbinding realisation, a rare melding of Hardy’s intense psychological tragedy and epic cinema. Not surprisingly, it sank virtually without a trace in the year of Gladiator. Indeed, like its models, it’s a hard film to love, with its chilly locales matched by Winterbottom’s restrained, melancholy style. Boyce blamed its failure of the producers’ insistence on pulling the teeth of the tale by forcing the story’s key moment—when “The Mayor,” here christened Dillon and played with great force by Peter Mullan, sells his wife and daughter for a claim that will later make his fortune—away from its natural place at the start and into a flashback. Perhaps this does sap the film’s thematic directness, but I found it impossible not to be moved by staggering sequences like that in which Dillon, attempting to comfort his crippled wife (Nastassja Kinski), has an entire house dragged across a mountain for her to live in. Later, the perversities of screen adaptation encountered here would provide, in themselves, rich material.
The other film was Pandaemonium, realised on the screen by Julien Temple, once a bad-boy of punk-era Brit cinema as director of the Sex Pistols rock-doc The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and the infectious sci-fi musical Earth Girls Are Easy (1988). Pandaemonium tells of the strange, troubled friendship of poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Linus Roache) and William Wordsworth (John Hannah), with William’s diarist sister Dorothy (Emily Woolf) caught between them.
William Wordsworth: I wandered lonely as a cow…
Dorothy Wordsworth: Perhaps “cloud” would be better, William.
If the thought of watching the likes of Becoming Jane or Miss Potter makes you want to gouge your eyes out with a spoon, then this is the biopic of Limey literary greats for you, combining antic elements of Ken Russell’s wayward biographies with an allusive, satirical purpose. No one would ever mistake it for a truthful account, not with Wordsworth proves to be a nefarious Royalist agent who sets out to destroy the radical Coleridge and get him addicted to Laudanum whilst leeching his talent. But Boyce is after larger game than the usual artist biopic, which often work as conservative warnings against the dangers of being unusual as much as celebrations of various lives and oeuvres.
Pandaemonium works as a vast cultural parable that analyses the nature of British art for the past 200 or more years. Coleridge, his wife Sara (Samantha Morton), Dorothy, Lord Byron (Guy Lankester), and others who collect around them are progressively identified as prototypical lefty radicals, beatniks, hippies, feminists, rock stars, punks, and environmentalists thrilling in new intellectual possibilities in the age of the French and Industrial revolutions. Boyce’s script zeroes in on a split between establishment values and radicalism in artistic life, an evergreen theme, particularly in this peculiarly British version. The narrative begins with Wordsworth in respectable middle age expecting to be awarded the Poet Laureateship, whilst Coleridge and Dorothy have both been consumed and destroyed by laudanum addiction. At stake is the unpublished, near-mythical fragment Kubla Khan, product of Coleridge’s most feverish visions, which Byron is seeking to publish:
Guest: Is it true you offered a hundred pounds to publish Kubla Khan?
Byron: I would have paid Wordsworth that not to publish his last poem.
The poem proves still to exist only within Dorothy’s scrambled memory, and the hilarious sting in the tail sees both men bypassed for the laureateship by their middling lawyer acquaintance Robert Southey, who happened to write an amusing story about three bears that eat porridge.
24 Hour Party People was an only slightly less ambitious survey of a culture, this one through the eyes of Manchester TV star, record producer, pop culture gonzo, and prat Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). Wilson’s tale involves the rise and fall of punk rock, the great British band Joy Division, and the eventual birth of the rave scene. Enabled by Winterbottom’s dexterous direction, the look, tone, and social background of the times are dead on. If the film refuses to live up to Pandaemonium’s richly eccentric tragedy or The Claim’s chilly equivalent, it’s largely deliberate. It is in keeping with the playful nihilism of its core subject—modern hipster, particularly punk, culture—and because Wilson is essentially a fool who makes solemn and dramatic actions look absurd (like signing contracts in his own blood) but whose eyes behold a vast panorama.
Wilson, like Boyce himself, I suspect, is driven by the intense conviction that classical and pop cultures are one and the same and only divided by snobbery. Discussing the Sex Pistols’ epoch-changing show in Manchester: “The smaller the attendance, the bigger the history. There were 12 people at the last supper. Half a dozen at Kitty Hawk. Archimedes was on his own in the bath.” Unlike Boyce, Wilson has no discipline, or perspective, and mumblingly compares whichever singer he’s lately signed to Keats and Shelley. In such terms, then, 24 Hour Party People continues the theme introduced by Pandaemonium from the opposite end, contending the likes of Curtis are the inheritors of the shambling, artistic anarchy of Coleridge.
The third work in this virtual loose trilogy, also made by Winterbottom, was Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005), a film that is as much a spin on Truffaut and Fellini’s filmmaking epics as it is of the eponymous Laurence Sterne novel, “a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post about.” The film is as much about the difficulty in constructing a film as Sterne’s book is about that of telling a story. It begins as straight adaptation, but then steps back to contrast the comic hero Shandy with the people laboring to film his story, most particularly the clash of egos between costars “Steve Coogan” and “Rob Brydon.” As in 24 Hour Party People, its creative folk are both ridiculous and yet highly dedicated as they attempt to wrangle the best possible picture out of an unfilmable novel. Winterbottom and Boyce succeed in filming the unfilmable by deliberately failing.
A Cock and Bull Story was a last hurrah, as Boyce provided the screenplay under a pseudonym and dissolved his partnership with Winterbottom. Boyce has turned to writing novels, including the prize-winning Millions, an adaptation of the screenplay he wrote for Danny Boyle’s film of the same name in 2004 and widely regarded as Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting (1996). Boyce’s most recent script was for the Grow Your Own (2007), a general disappointment, and perhaps the call of literature will soon be greater for him. But I hope he still has interesting places to go in his screen writing. He has seven kids, so we know he needs the work. l