Frank Cottrell Boyce: An interview

Frank Cottrell Boyce's novel 'Framed' features nine National Gallery paintings. The book was used as the basis for a National Gallery English project.

Find out what gave Frank the idea to write 'Framed' and hear his view on the project.

How I wrote 'Framed'
What inspired Frank Cottrell Boyce to write 'Framed' – 4 mins
What inspired Frank Cottrell Boyce to write 'Framed' – 4 mins


Frank Cottrell Boyce discusses how he came to write his novel, 'Framed'

Interviewer: Where did the ideas for 'Framed' come from?

Frank Cottrell Boyce:  The idea for the book 'Framed' came from two places really. One is: I was always interested in art robbery and I was on holiday in Scotland, when there was a very, very famous art robbery just by where I was staying. 

The Leonardo da Vinci painting was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle and I've always thought: Wow, that's amazing that somebody stole this hugely valuable work of art and the idea that these little, tiny objects can be worth hundreds of millions of pounds, that's really interesting. 

And then the other thing is that I have always known the story that, during the Second World War, all these paintings from the National Gallery were taken away because they were worried that the Germans would bomb the gallery or that people would steal the paintings and they were hidden away in this small town in Wales. And the idea that this small, very poor town, had billions of pounds worth of these amazingly beautiful pictures hidden away – that always seemed like a great story to me. 

It took me about a year to write 'Framed', which was longer than I thought it was going to be, because it just popped into my head that you would have one picture, one story. And I came to the gallery and looked at all the pictures, and it was like shopping – I was trying to figure out which pictures I would like in the story. 

And, strangely, some of my famous, favourite pictures didn't end up in the story, because I couldn't think of a story to go with them. So I think, probably, my favourite painting in the whole gallery is 'Whistlejacket' which is just a beautiful painting of a horse but I couldn’t think of a story to go with it. 

So that was how it started. I came and looked at pictures and thought 'What would I like?', which one suggested a story to me. And then myself and my son, we went to Manod, we went to Blaenau Ffestiniog, which is the real town that Manod is based on and we just looked around and thought well, what pictures connect with this town? 

So it was really like a collection of short stories and Dylan, who is the character who holds it all together, he came at the last minute. I knew that I had to have a little boy but he wasn't really a proper character until, as we were leaving Manod, after a couple of days, there is a garage at the end of the town and it just seemed like the loneliest place in the world for a garage because no one is going that way and I was thinking well what would it be like to live there?  And that's where Dylan and his family came from. 

Interviewer: Tell us about the process you go through when you are writing a book.

Frank Cottrell Boyce: I try to start at the beginning and then I go on until I get stuck and then I go back and start again and I do have a notebook. And the notebook is probably the most important thing because in the notebook you just put all the things that you like in it and if you start to plan too much, at the beginning, then you have a very small story. 

But if you just spend a lot of time saying I love this, I love this picture, I love that anecdote, I love this boy, I love this idea, I love all these different things and put them in a notebook then the story comes that will encompass them all. 

If you just sit down and think of the story you just have the story. But I think giving yourself some time not to think about it at all, just going shopping for lots of nice stuff to put in your book, that's probably the best way to work. 

Interviewer: Were any of the characters based on people you know?

Frank Cottrell Boyce: I never, ever base characters, consciously, on real people because they would kill me. I just don't want to do that. But after I wrote the book, and when I read it for the first time, I realised that I've got a son who would have been about nine when I was writing the book and he had three brothers, but one was a baby and two were much older than he was, so he was surrounded by sisters, so he never had anyone to play football with or to talk in a manly way with, so the character of Dylan, who is the only boy in school, that's sort of my son, but I didn't do it on purpose, it just popped into my head. 

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The National Gallery inspires
"A whole story in one painting, that's amazing!" – 5 mins
"A whole story in one painting, that's amazing!" – 5 mins


Writer Frank Cottrell Boyce discusses how a painting can tell a story

Interviewer: You write stories for film and television as well as books. Artists tell stories in one painting. How are they different?

Frank Cottrell Boyce: As a book writer you get to write a story in words but when you are making a film you tell a story in pictures. I think one of the reasons I was really drawn to this story is that, if you tell a picture in a film, you get a lot of pictures to tell the story – you get 25 pictures per second. So in a film that is 25 x 60 per minute x 90 for the film, so you have do the maths, but it's a lot of pictures.

And walking around the Gallery, I saw people have been able to tell a whole story in one picture and I found that kind of amazing. And I was really interested in how they do that and it's always worth going and seeing how have they done that? 

They've done it by choosing an important moment in the story so you can figure out what has just happened or guess what's going to happen next. Or the stories are full of symbols that tell you who somebody is or costumes and emblems and allegories so that you can work out what the story is – there's like a code in each picture. 

Lots of different ways but they've got one picture and it tells a story. And that's why I was particularly fascinated by the old lady because nobody knows what this story is.  So she is the most interesting picture in the gallery to me because it's obviously full of story but I don't know what that story is and you can just make it up.

Interviewer: Tell us about your relationship with the National Gallery.

Frank Cottrell Boyce: I didn't go to the National Gallery as a child, because I don't live in London and I think I had only been once on a school trip, or something like that, before I thought of this story. 

So, as soon as I thought of this story, I thought well I've got to go to the National Gallery and I want to know everything about the gallery, not just the pictures. So I wrote to somebody here at the gallery and they were just incredibly kind and welcoming. So my first proper trip to the gallery, I didn't come through the main door, I was taken to the side door and pressed the bell and it felt really special. 

And I saw all the pictures of when it was evacuated and all the newspaper clippings, downstairs, and then we came up into the gallery and it was just overwhelming. I had my daughter with me and we had this list of pictures that we wanted to see and she  wanted to see 'Whistlejacket' because she was just at that age when little girls love horses. 

And we went looking for it in the Gallery and, of course, it's huge. We didn't expect it to be huge. we'd only seen postcards of it and we went in and said it's somewhere in this room [makes surprised sound] and there it was! It was this massive thing and she burst into tears because it was just so exciting!

And then, since then I have been back a lot. I came a lot, when I was writing the book, to look at the pictures because I just think – look at the picture and stuff will come into your head. Don't just think too much, just let things come to you a bit. And then, of course, I have been back a lot, to see schools who have come here and now it's where I go if I am in London and I need somewhere to have a cup of coffee and a chat or just have half an hour in the Gallery. It's become one of my favourite places.

Interviewer: In 'Framed', National Gallery paintings have a large impact on the people of Manod.  What do you think art is for?

Frank Cottrell Boyce: I've thought a lot about paintings and art and what's it for, while I was writing this book. And two things happened, one is that I am a fan of Liverpool Football Club and in 2005 they were playing in the European Cup Finals, and by half time they were 3-0 down. It's like the worst thing, so I went out to buy some chips to cheer my children up and when I came back it was 3 all. 

This is one of the most famous football matches ever, going from 3-0 down to three all.  And I had missed it all, I had missed all three goals and my son, Benedict, who was about nine at the time, he'd drawn me pictures of the goals that I'd missed. Which is one of the most beautiful things that's ever happened to me, really touching. And they were good drawings. And I thought that's one thing that art is for, it's to save something from time. Time takes everything away, you've missed the goal, it's gone. And art saves it for you and lets it stay in your mind. 

And the other thing is that where I live, I live on the beach near Liverpool, and someone installed a huge work of art on the beach. It was a very lonely, industrial beach, it's not attractive at all, it's just where the ships come in. And there is a promenade but it's quite wintery and windy and miserable. And someone put these statues on the beach – an artist called Antony Gormley – and since then it's been really busy and it's like there is a permanent festival going on. 

And that really got me thinking about what is art for?  And I think one of the great things that it's for is just to bring people together. And if you come to this gallery, there are just lots of people knocking around, chatting, looking at pictures but chatting to each other and the art is just enough to bring people together for a happy reason. It's not a war, it's not a protest, it's not anything bad, it's just like we're together and I think that is a really important reason for art to be there. 

And in 'Framed' the most important thing that happens isn't individual stories about the paintings but the fact that everybody in that town goes to look at the paintings together and they become closer to each other because they've all shared this little experience.

Back to Frank Cottrell Boyce: an interview


Meet the author

If your class is reading the book 'Framed', why not take this opportunity to meet Frank Cottrell Boyce in person at the National Gallery? At the same time, you can take a tour and see all the paintings featured in 'Framed'.