How giants genius Jean-Luc Courcoult fell for Liverpool

Jean-Luc Courcoult Paris-born Jean-Luc Courcoult reportedly shunned other cities to return to Liverpool

The giant marionettes of French street theatre company Royal de Luxe are heading back to the streets of Liverpool to help mark the World War One centenary. But why does its eccentric director favour this UK city over others?

A group of red-uniformed Lilliputians will wake her, unfurling her green shamrock-decorated dress and gently stroking her face.

When she was first unveiled in Nantes from beneath a giant red gingham blanket, there was applause and cries of "regardez!" (look!). People leaned out of windows, straining for a better view.

In Liverpool, she has been lying in state at the most stately of locations - St George's Hall, the neo-classical splendour in front of Liverpool Lime Street station.

She snores loudly, her face is made of latex and she has been likened to an elderly Audrey Hepburn. At 25ft (7.4m) tall and weighing four tonnes, she needs 26 humans to move her.

Writer and director Jean-Luc Courcoult explains how his characters come to life

She is the Grandmother. Welcome to Liverpool's Giant Spectacular - and the world of Jean-Luc Courcoult.

He is the company's ebullient and eccentric director, the creative brain behind the giants who, despite their contrasting vocations, has much in common with the city's equally larger-than-life mayor.

Courcoult was born in Paris in 1955 and became interested in theatre during his teens, eventually leaving his family at 18 to study acting in Aix-en-Provence.

Willy Wonka
Joe Anderson and Jean-Luc Joe Anderson and Jean-Luc have formed an unlikely friendship

There, he met Didier Gallot-Lavallée and Veronique Loève, and formed the creative alliance now known as Royal De Luxe.

Believing it was easier to gather people outside to witness his art rather than bringing them into one room, Courcoult started developing the idea of the street theatre he now directs today.

Monsieur Courcoult defies definition, but fits the accepted mould of "eccentric" in his brightly coloured shirts and vast oversized thick-rimmed glasses. He has been likened to a real-life version of Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka.

When the giants were last in Liverpool in April 2012, he narrowly avoided arrest when he jumped into the Mersey in a dramatic show of exuberance as his creations sailed away from the city.

He could have been seriously injured in the freezing waters; his rescuers were slightly bemused by the act of recklessness.

This time, no doubt, he will be a man flanked by marshals and other officials once the giants have finished their 23-mile stroll over three days, watched by up to one million people.

line
Royal de Luxe in numbers
Diver giant in 2012
  • The biggest Royal de Luxe audience was 3.5m people in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2010
  • Memories of August 1914 will tell the story of the Liverpool Pals, the 5,000 local men who answered Lord Kitchener's call to arms at the beginning of World War One
  • About 800,000 spectators visited Liverpool for Sea Odyssey in 2012
  • The 2012 show was said to have generated £32m for the local economy
  • Memories of August 1914 will be the giant grandmother's international debut

Click here for full coverage of the giants in Liverpool

line

Other British port cities, including Southampton, reportedly approached Courcoult's company but were met with a firm "non". The giants travel on to Limerick in Ireland in September, a place not too dissimilar to Liverpool.

Enigmatic and difficult to pin down, Monsieur Courcoult describes Liverpool as "a rhinoceros."

He does not further elaborate the analogy, but with Gallic hand gestures he seems to indicate that it is a tough place, a resilient place. A rhinoceros, then.

On the city's residents, he is more forthcoming. People in Liverpool "like to talk about the past, tell family stories and keep them alive", he says.

It would seem this is why he loves the city so much - Courcoult is a natural storyteller - albeit through the medium of the large marionettes.

Liverpool waterfront Liverpool, says Jean-Luc Courcoult, is like a "rhinoceros"

Cackling loudly as he describes his relationship with its mayor, Courcoult says: "I love, love, love Joe Anderson." He does not explain why, but laughs loudly and mimes putting his arms around his well-padded middle.

It can be tricky getting coherent answers from a creative genius.

Nevertheless, others have and Courcoult has been quoted as saying: "There's a history and a past to Liverpool that gives the city an identity and civic pride."

So why do the two larger-than-life, middle-aged men get on so well?

On the surface, they are not what anyone would consider natural allies. Courcoult clearly has the edge when it comes to creativity, but Anderson has his own vision for Liverpool, and his unique no-nonsense approach.

You could be forgiven for assuming they would not like each other, which is what makes their relationship so interesting.

Jean-Luc Courcoult and Joe Anderson The men who brought the giants to Liverpool have formed an unlikely friendship

Joe Anderson is a former social worker who grew up in Dingle and left school at 16. He is of Liverpool, a union man and career politician willing to stand up to the government when he thinks it necessary.

His pride and passion can be his Achilles heel - Twitter spats with critics and Eric Pickles are testament to this.

Always outspoken and never predictable, he has clashed with the government over the spending review and with bus companies over the sudden and controversial abandonment of bus lanes.

But when he sees a benefit to the city, he welcomes it with open arms - and Royal de Luxe's artists are very welcome.

"Jean Luc and his team have fitted right into Liverpool and it is no surprise really. His vision, determination and leadership is shared by many in this city," he says.

"His passion and flair has allowed his art to be part of people's everyday lives - creating memories that will remain with us forever.

"It has always been a pleasure to work with Jean Luc, his character ensures there is never a dull moment. He's a great friend of the city."

Grandmother Giant asleep in St George's Hall Grandmother Giant is currently "sleeping", but will soon wake up
Grandmother Giant in Nantes Once awake, Grandmother Giant will spend three days roaming the city

Claire McColgan, head of culture at the council, draws parallels between the two men.

"Jean-Luc is drawn to Liverpool as he loved the people and their honesty," she says. "People in Liverpool love larger-than-life characters, which is why he and the mayor probably get on so well."

Ms McColgan says Courcoult is very particular about who he works with and "has said no to many major cities, including Southampton".

"He loves the people of Liverpool and their honesty, there's a real charisma about the place," McColgan adds.

The last time the giants were in Liverpool, Little Girl Giant and her uncle - an enormous 50ft (15.2m) diver - emerged from the Mersey as they tried to find one another.

Little Girl Giant In 2012 the little girl searched for her uncle...
Deep sea diver giant ... a deep-sea diver who spent his time looking for her

"It's so accessible that even the hardest-hearted people will have their hearts melted," Ms McColgan says.

"My enduring memory of last time is seeing a guy in a high-vis jacket off a building site lean down and pat Xolo the dog. I saw older people brought out of sheltered accommodation with blankets over them, crying. It was a collective memory."

This time, she adds, the emotional weight will be heavier.

"There's a very different dynamic with Grandmother Giant and the Little Girl," says Ms McGolgan. "She is absolutely human there's a humanity to her expressions. To thousands of people they are real."

Each giant will be tended by Lilliputians who handle the cranes, pulleys, electrics and hydraulics. During afternoons, the Giants nap and at night they sleep, snoring heavily.

'Collective magic'

Courcoult and his team visited care homes and former King's Regiment members around Liverpool to collect indirect memories of the war. These memories will be used during the performance but any more details are banned - it will ruin the surprise.

Giants don't come cheap. The estimated budget for Memories of August 1914 is £1.7m to £2m, underwritten by the city of Liverpool and co-funded by the Arts Council, World War One centenary arts commissioner 14-18 Now, the European Regional Development Fund and private sponsorship.

Memories of 2012 might still be fresh as spectators turn their attention to 2014, but Ms McColgan says they are not in competition with Sea Odyssey and the two events can co-exist happily creating a "collective magic".

If success follows, it will be the collective vision shared by two unlikely allies - the mayor and the creative genius - that helped pull it off.

BBC News Online will be following the giants through Liverpool with live text coverage, pictures and video of the events. For more details, visit the BBC's dedicated Liverpool Giants page.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

BBC Liverpool

Weather

Liverpool

8 °C 5 °C

BBC Local Live

  1.  
    11:52: Super League news Phil Kinsella BBC Merseyside Sport

    St Helens will be without centre Jordan Turner for their home game against Castleford tonight and Warrington will be without Stefan Ratchford, Rhys Evans and Anthony England for their Super League clash in Perpignan tomorrow.

    Jordan Turner

    Matty Russell is back in the squad for his first appearance of the season. Their opponents Catalan Dragons look set to give a debut to their Australian half back Todd Carney - one of the most eagerly anticipated in Super League for many years

    Widnes have allowed scrum-half Tom Gilmore to join the London Broncos on a one-month loan. They host Wakefield on Sunday.

     
  2.  
    11:35: Body found in St Helens Emma Stanley BBC News

    Merseyside Police have confirmed the body of a man has been pulled from Carr Mill Dam in St Helens.

    A member of the public saw a man in the water at about 09:40 and called the emergency services.

    The man was recovered from the water and paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene.

    Police are trying to establish his identity and are treating the death as unexplained.

     
  3.  
    11:24: Hillsborough inquests latest Ben Schofield Hillsborough reporter

    The ambulance officer who first walked in front of the terraces at the Hillsborough disaster took "too long" to declare a major incident, according to the former head of the ambulance service.

    Albert Page also told the Hillsborough inquests that his officer "had not done an adequate initial assessment".

    Ninety-six fans died after the tragedy at the Sheffield stadium on 15 April 1989.

     
  4.  
    11:12: Murray could realise Langtree Park dream St Helens Star

    Martin Murray can fulfil his dream of fighting at Langtree Park in St Helens, says his manager Andrew Mikhail.

    Martin Murray

    The businessmen has promised to do all he can to turn into reality the fighter's long-held ambition of a bout in front of his home crowd.

    Murray, who is being tipped to extend a deal with South African promoters Golden Gloves, has frequently spoken of his desire to box at the venue and repay the supporters who have travelled to places such as Argentina, Germany and Monte Carlo.

     
  5.  
    11:00: News on the hour Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    Liverpool City Council's confirmed to BBC Radio Merseyside that they will be appealing against the government's decision to halt the demolition of houses in the Welsh streets.

    They had until the end of today to appeal Eric Pickle's shock decision last month.

     
  6.  
    11:00: Breaking News BBC Radio Merseyside

    We are waiting for details from Merseyside Police on reports someone has been spotted in the water at Carr Mill Dam in St Helens.

    The force helicopter has been scrambled and officers are at the scene.

     
  7.  
    10:45: Students set out manifesto BBC Radio Merseyside

    Tuition fees, disability allowance and letting agency fees are top of the agenda for students in Liverpool ahead of May's election.

    Students at John Moores university

    Representatives of students from three of the city's universities have put together their own manifesto outlining the issues that matter to them.

     
  8.  
    10:33: Train attack Lynette Horsburgh BBC News

    I'm looking at a story where a member of staff was attacked as a train approached Liverpool Lime Street station.

    Train officials have confirmed the incident forced them to cancel the 6:57 service from the station to Preston - as officials dealt with the "disruptive passengers".

     
  9.  
    10:21: A5036 diversion in place BBC Travel North West BBC Travel

    There's a diversion in operation because of a broken down lorry on the A5036 in Seaforth, forcing the exit slip road to be closed westbound.

    It goes around the Princess Way roundabout, back along Princess Way towards Switch Island and Seaforth Road.

     
  10.  
    10:09: Everton only British club through BBC Sport

    Everton are now the only British side remaining in the Europa League.

    Romelu Lukaku

    Romelu Lukaku scored two goals to reach a total of five in the tie as Everton cruised past Young Boys to progress to the Europa League last 16.

     
  11.  
    09:58: News on the hour Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    The 30-year-old Pacer trains are to be scrapped from the railways of Merseyside - by 2020 at the latest.

    The government's confirmed companies bidding for the new franchises in the North will be required to replace them.

     
  12.  
    09:50: Welsh streets dilemma Paul Burnell BBC News

    I'm hoping to find out if Liverpool City Council is to challenge the decision by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to block plans to demolish the Welsh Streets in Toxteth.

    One of the Welsh Streets

    Mr Pickles ruled in January that the plan to demolish 271 terraced houses in Madryn Street would harm the city's Beatles heritage.

     
  13.  
    09:35: Mark Simpson joins the BBC Phil

    The BBC Philharmonic has announced Liverpool-born Mark Simpson as its new Composer in Association.

    Mark Simpson

    At 26-years-old, the appointment makes him one of the youngest ever composers to be given a formal role with a major British orchestra.

    The former BBC Young Musician and BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist said it was "a dream" to join "an orchestra of such calibre".

     
  14.  
    Hanover Street closure 09:25: Via Twitter

    Merseyrail tweets: Due to the closure of Hanover Street, there will be diversions in place on some services from Sunday for 8 weeks http://ow.ly/JGo0G

     
  15.  
    09:15: Bye bye Pacers? Paul Burnell BBC News

    More on the story that the Department for Transport has confirmed bidders for new rail franchises in the north of England will have to scrap Pacer trains.

    Pacer train

    Originally introduced as stop-gap rolling stock in the 1980s the trains resemble bus chassis on rails.

     
  16.  
    09:00: News on the hour Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    The 30-year-old Pacer trains are to be scrapped from the railways of Merseyside - by 2020 at the latest.

    The government's confirmed companies bidding for the new franchises in the north will be required to replace them.

     
  17.  
    08:49: Fearless Flyers head to the skies Emma Stanley BBC News

    More than 70 people who are afraid of flying will be taking to the skies this weekend.

    Liverpool John Lennon Airport

    The Fearless Flyer course includes an experience flight to and from Liverpool John Lennon Airport on Sunday.

     
  18.  
    08:33: Reds out of Europa League BBC Sport

    Liverpool have been knocked out of the Europa League in the round of 32 as Turkish side Besiktas won a penalty shootout.

    Dejan Lovren

    The tie finished 1-1 after extra time but Dejan Lovren missed the crucial spot kick to see the Turkish side through 5-4.

     
  19.  
    08:22: Busy motorways this morning BBC Travel North West BBC Travel

    BBC Travel warns of queuing traffic on the M6 Cheshire southbound between J22 for A49 Cheshire and J21A for M62 Warrington because of an earlier accident.

    There is also disruption on the A565 Merseyside westbound at the A5036 Princess Way junction, because of a broken down lorry.

     
  20.  
    08:09: Sunny, but then rainy Charlie Slater Weather Presenter, BBC East Midlands Today

    Today will be generally fine with plenty of sunshine, and any remaining showers will fade away.

    weather map

    However, further cloud, along with outbreaks of rain and strengthening winds will arrive from the west around dusk.

     
  21.  
    08:02: News on the hour Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    Eleven men are still in custody after raids on Merseyside homes as part of the ongoing police operation looking at drug dealing in nightclubs.

    Fourteen homes were searched in our region - and a large amount of ecstasy was found at one.

    Last week Garlands, Republik and the Lomax were all raided in Liverpool city centre.

     
  22.  
    08:00: Good morning Emma Stanley BBC News

    Hello Friday, it's nearly the weekend and I'm here to bring you the news, sport, weather and travel from around Merseyside.

    If you'd like to get in touch, you can do so on email, Facebook or Twitter.

     

Features

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • BooksNew novels

    BBC Culture takes a look at ten new books to read in March

Programmes

  • A robot holding a table legClick Watch

    The robots who build flat-pack furniture - teaching machines to work collaboratively

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.