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.

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


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



22 °C 16 °C

BBC Local Live

    News on the hour 10:57: Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    A fake train crash has been staged in Liverpool for the biggest emergency services training exercise the UK has ever seen.

    It is playing out as if there has been a real disaster in the city - so the police, fire and ambulance crews can react as if they are under pressure dealing with the victims.

    Listen to the live bulletin at 11:00.

    Thatcher sign 'decorated' 10:47: Liverpool Echo

    A brand-new sign dedicated to the memory of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been given a new look in Spain.

    More on exercise 10:41: Nick Hatfield BBC Radio Merseyside

    tweets: #EXERCISE999 police, fire, ambulance meet to come up with incident response

    disaster exercise
    Accident closes Oxton road 10:35:

    BBC Travel says Mill Hill in Oxton is closed in both directions between the Holm Lane junction and the Townfield Lane junction, because of an accident.

    Heritage at risk 10:28: Chester Chronicle
    Emergency training exercise 10:21: Nick Hatfield BBC Radio Merseyside

    tweets: #EXERCISE999 emergency training exercise underway in Croxteth. Flames, smoke, train on its side, multiple casualties.

    emergency exercise
    Whiskers or not? 10:16: Helen Jones BBC Radio Merseyside

    Beards and stubble have become so popular that sales of razors and shaving foam have fallen by more than £70 m across Europe.

    So I want to know are you a fan of the face fuzz? Beards yes or no? And if you have beard why not share your beard selfies with us?

    Call 0151 709 9333 or contact us via Facebook.

    Everton set for Europa League 10:09: Phil Kinsella BBC Merseyside Sport

    It's been five seasons without European football for Everton, but the Blues make their return to the Europa League tonight.

    Everton forward Samuel Eto'o

    Samuel Eto'o is available for his team's first appearance on the European stage for four years.

    Wolfsburg are their opponents at Goodison this evening in their first group game.

    999 mock-up 10:03: Andy Gill BBC North West Tonight

    tweets: "Bodies" #Derailed train" "crashed cars" - part of #Excercise999 in #Liverpool today @BBCNWT

    Emergency mock up incident in Liverpool
    News on the hour 09:57: Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    A fake train crash has been staged in Liverpool for the biggest emergency services training exercise the UK has ever seen.

    We can't give too many details for security reasons - but it will play out as if there has been a real disaster in the city.

    Listen to the live bulletin at 10:00.

    Giant fish display 09:45:

    A new display at Blue Planet Aquarium is highlighting the problem of fish keepers who buy giant fish species without realising they will be unable to accommodate them when fully grown.

    Redtail catfish

    The exhibit includes several different 'problem' catfish species including red tailed catfish, tiger shovel nose catfish and giraffe catfish - all of which have been donated by members of the public after outgrowing their original tanks.

    Early start for cycling 09:32:

    Cycling Projects tweets: Early morning start for our Wirral cycling programme interviews with radio Merseyside @bbcmerseyside @Merseytravel

    Marc and cyclist
    Attack at music festival 09:25: St Helens Star
    Mosquitoes on rise 09:14: Marc Gaier BBC Radio Merseyside

    I'm in Little Neston where people are complaining about an increase in mosquito bites because of the warm weather.

    Aedes aegypti

    The insects are thought to be coming from the nearby Dee Estuary salt marshes.

    You can listen to BBC Radio Merseyside live where we will be talking to Louise Gittins, Labour Councillor for Little Neston and Burton.

    Blue lights 09:09: Andy Gill BBC North West Tonight

    tweets: Lorra lorra blue lights in #Liverpool today. Massive emergency exercise - not real. More @BBCNWT #Excercise999

    Mock emergency in Liverpool
    News on the hour 09:00: Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    A major training exercise, designed to test the joint response of Merseyside's police, fire and ambulance services, will take place in north Liverpool this morning.

    It will involve nearly 1,000 people - including a survivor of the Hillsborough disaster.

    Listen to the live bulletin at 09:00.

    Mock emergency test 08:49:

    A large training exercise designed to test the initial joint response of the police, fire and ambulance services will take place later in Liverpool.

    The mock test aims to ensure the blue light emergency services work effectively together when responding to a major incident.

    top headlines
    Yellow or lellow? 08:36: Tony Snell BBC Radio Merseyside

    We're talking about words this morning. When you were little, do you remember struggling to say certain things? What about lellow for yellow or chimley for chimney? I used to say taski instead of taxi.

    We've got a list of the top 10 words that children struggle to say and we'll be reading them out on the show.

    What words did you or your kids struggle with?

    You can send us your photos or comments on email, Facebook or Twitter.

    Balotelli 'donates to dogs' 08:22: Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    It's being claimed Liverpool's Mario Balotelli has donated a five-figure sum to the dogs' home in Manchester gutted by a fire last week.

    Liverpool's Mario Balotelli celebrates his first goal for the club

    The Reds striker has volunteered for them in the past, walking the dogs for them while his own pet was in quarantine before moving from Italy.

    An anonymous donation was spotted on the Just Giving page - and the kennels believe it is the Anfield star so want to say thank you.

    Sunny and warm 08:11: Mel Coles BBC Weather

    It will be another largely dry day with some sunny spells developing once any early patchy mist or hill fog clears through the morning.

    Mel Coles with the weather

    Feeling warm in the sunny spells with generally light winds.

    News on the Hour 08:02: Giulia Bould BBC Radio Merseyside

    There will be a huge disaster in Liverpool later - but it won't be real. It will be the biggest training exercise for our emergency services the UK has ever seen.

    Listen to the live bulletin at 08:00.

    Good morning 08:00: Julia Bryson BBC Local Live

    Hello from Liverpool city centre, I'm here with you today with all the local news, sport, travel and weather from across Merseyside. Remember you can get in touch and share your comments and pictures by emailing, tweeting @bbcmerseyside or posting a message on Facebook.



Elsewhere on the BBC

  • SpiderWeb of wonder

    BBC Earth takes a unique journey inside the body of a giant tarantula


  • A person taking a photo of fireworks on a smartphoneClick Watch

    A look at the latest gadgets which could make it easier to take the perfect night-time picture

BBC © 2014 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.