From the moment a city-wide pageant to celebrate St Colmcille was suggested, the vivid imagination of Frank Cottrell Boyce flipped into overdrive.
The multi award winning children’s author, screenwriter and creator of the jaw-droppingly spectacular London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony speaks to Ian Cullen about his plans for a breathtaking resurrection of Derry’s patron saint in the City of Culture.
Penning a spectacular return to Derry by the city’s founding father seems a daunting task, not least for an ‘outsider’ like Frank Cottrell Boyce.
But following the scouser’s internationally acclaimed scripting of the imaginative opening ceremony for the London Olympics, it’s generally accepted that there could be no better person for the job of resurrecting the revered patron Saint of Derry in ‘The Return of Colmcille’.
Following the much applauded London 2012 opening ceremony - which eulogised Britain’s industrial revolution in spectacular fashion - the former Coronation Street writer, multi award-winning children’s novelist and seasoned screenwriter is relishing the opportunity to celebrate the saint who not only defeated the fearsome Loch Ness monster but who spearheaded the civilisation of Europe 1,500 years ago.
Frank is working with cultural events company Walk the Plank and a team of artists to tell St Colmcille’s story and weave into it tales from Derry’s “growing up” since the departure of its founding father in 547 AD.
He’s excited about the project, which he believes has the potential to change not only the way the city is viewed from outside but also how it is looked on by the its own citizens.
Frank gives a no nonsense explanation of the two-day event, which has been billed as a pageant, a spectacle, a mass procession and a highlight of the City of Culture year.
“It’s basically a massive school play which will take in the whole city,” he says. “It’s a mass participation show, full of magic and colour and to celebrate Derry’s fantastic contribution to European culture in the copying of beautiful manuscripts that Colmcille produced while he was in exile on the island of Iona.
“He produced some of the most beautiful things and sent people out all over Europe with some of the most basic ideas about literacy and other things - I think punctuation came from here.”
Frank adds: “Although he is obviously well regarded as religious figure, I think he is really underestimated as an important cultural figure.
“He marked a big turning point in Derry and Europe. He is someone who came out of this city and civilised the rest of Europe and I think that’s an amazing thing to be proud of.”
The scale of the project - which will involve up to 1,000 performers, artists, dancers, designers, costume makers and others - will be similar to the impressive London 2012 opening ceremony written by Frank and Oscar winning film director Danny Boyle.
The participants in the event will be local, he explains, “just like in the London Olympics opening ceremony when nearly all of those involved were from the East End”.
But before performers are gathered together, Frank and his team of self-styled ‘story-catchers’ face the task of tying together a “mish mash” of the city’s rich social history from the last 1,500 years. “We want to hear stories, we want participation of every kind from the public. We have what we call storycatchers seeking stories from people all over the city to be fed into the event. They may be stories passed through families about wars, stories from working in shirt factories, stories about dog racing or music or any sort of social history - that’s a big part of the show.”
The ‘Return of Colmcille’ will be staged on June 7 and 8. “In the afternoon we’ve got loads of different venues where all the different stories will be told. We’ve got a huge pageant in the evening when the Loch Ness monster comes and there’ll be people dressed up as Vikings, sailors, soldiers, 19th century debutantes and all kinds of characters from the city’s history,” Frank says.
“The design work has all started and we’ve just started to pull people together for it now. When I worked on the Olympics opening ceremony, the bulk of those people were from the East End of London and for me that was the best thing about it. To do that again will be brilliant,” he adds.
There are plans to bring in local performers, choirs and other acts with “loads of school involvement”.
Right from its inception the idea to create a pageant similar in style to the Olympic opening ceremony, the Colmcille work was a winner for Frank, who admits he is “very familiar” with the city.
“The idea came from Martin Melarkey of the Culture Company. I’ve known him for years. I’ve been here for the Foyle Film Festival and several events at the Nerve centre over the years.
“He said ‘have a look at this and see what you think’. Immediately I started to think about just how great it would be.
£For a start it’s got the Loch Ness monster but it’s also got so much more: high culture, low culture, kicks for children, beauty and scope for poetry, but at the same time fireworks.
£The story has got everything really.”
Frank believes the event will remind the people of Derry of the city’s importance in European history and culture. “There are amazing things people have done that they forget about.
£In the Olympics opening ceremony people were expecting the Tudors, Queen Victoria etcetera, not the industrial revolution. Although it may sound ridiculous, people had completely forgotten that they had the industrial revolution and had changed the face of the world.
“I think that - although there is a lot of reverence for Colmcille - in much the same way Derry has forgotten that this city civilised the rest of Europe at a crucial moment in history.
£To think you were responsible for some of the most beautiful objects ever created, what an amazing thing to have done. A handful of men from the edge of Europe sent out to civilise Europe, amazing.”
The ‘Return of Colmcille’ promises deliver the message of the historical and cultural significance of Derry in a way which dazzles. Frank explains: “It’s not a walk through history, it’s more of a dance through history.”
With his vast experience and proven skill as a wordsmith - from soap opera drama to kids literature - Frank will not be daunted by the task he’s been set. However, he admits that it’s his greatest challenge to date “because if we get this right, it’ll change the city”.