Gate-crechers: A Christmas poem

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Here’s a Christmas poem I originally wrote for Radio 4’s Christmas Meditation, and now that’s offline forevermore, I’ve re-recorded it with my own crib scene. The video of that is here:

And the words, should you want them, are here:

Twas the night after Christmas, & all through Bethlehem,

Many creatures were stirring, in fact ‘twas mayhem.

A census had senselessly filled David’s City

Leaving no birthing-suite at the inn, more’s the pity.

So Mary and Joseph found all they were able:

A crib for their baby, in a condition now stable.

Carpenter Joseph tried to focus on Jesus,

Amid quite a few visitors – a pretty tight squeeze, ‘twas

Not midwives or grannies – just shepherds stood bowed,

One whispering to Joseph, “You must be so proud.”

These shepherds had earned their place in this picture,

Their presence recorded for good in the Scripture.

But while shepherds’ lambs bleated harmonic ‘baa’s

And while angelic choirs sang Hallelujahs,

This ox and an ass trotted over the straw.

Till Joseph said, “Sorry, did you want next door?

“You look great in this scene – but let’s be orthodox:

The Gospels don’t mention an ass or an ox.

The ox said, “Go on, it’s the birth of the Lord!

We’re sorry we strike an unbiblical chord.”

Three kings arrived riding camels quite surly

“You’re most welcome!” said Joseph. “Though… a year or two early.

And kings? We thought ‘wise men’. And three? That’s news too.

Three gifts, is what’s written, just not three of you.”

“Well I’m Caspar, that’s Melchior, that’s Balthazar.”

Joseph shrugged. “Maybe. All we know is that star,

Your visit to Herod, gold, myrrh, frankincense,

The rest isn’t written, or it’s been added since.

“And that Little Donkey, I’m not saying it’s libel,

It’s just that its eeyores aren’t there in the Bible.

But, welcome!” said Joseph, then looked out the window.

“Oh Mary,” he said. “Look – it’s starting to snow.”

“In Bethlehem?!” Mary exclaimed in surprise,

As a shepherd boy’s snowball hit the ox ‘tween the eyes.

“It’d look good on a card, but climactically, no…”

When from up on the roof, they heard: “Ho ho ho!”

“Oh come on,” Joseph said, “This is getting ridiculous.”

As the chimney revealed the feet of St Nicholas.

St Nick picked up the gold, put the myrrh in his sack,

Then gift-wrapped the lot, before putting them back.

“Look, Mary!” said Joseph. “I saw three ships… and

I know what you’ll say, Bethlehem is inland.”

They both started wondering when all would be leaving,

But in came King Wenceslas: a deep man, crisp and… even.

The walls grew with mistletoe, holly and ivy,

Some locals outside sang some carols, quite lively.

They danced and wassailed, and they drank in a haze

And insisted on celebrating for 12 complete days.

They ushered in poultry, from guinea to goose,

Seven swans, three French hens, a partridge in pear juice.

Joseph looked to the night sky, Dark Ages now murky,

Then ducked as one last bird flew at him – a turkey.

St Nick offered Caspar mince pies by the crib,

As a cramped donkey nudged Balthazar in the rib.

So many guests had by now joined the stable,

That carpenter Joseph extended the table.

Dickens arrived, with mulled wine for the poor,

Ollie Cromwell yelled “Humbug!” as he stormed out the door.

They pulled a few crackers, they played a few games

“Your best days are behind you!” cried a pantomime dame.

Candles and baubles and Christmas trees, tinsel,

Cards, Advent calendars, pies by the minceful.

But Joe let them all in, and he let in the choir

Bethlehem was packed, so they squished by the fire.

The turkey and donkey, both fought with the goose 

Till football was played, in a moment of truce.

In a barrage of languages, they all sang Silent Night,

As the crib was adorned with electrical light.

Jesus, the Light of the World, lay asleep,

As St Nick jingled bells at him, patting a sheep.

Warm Christmas pudding filled everyone’s stomach,

A glass ‘ting’-ed, all hushed, for a speech from the monarch.

Bing Crosby arrived, though was nearly snowed off,

Till he hitched with a reindeer by name of Rudolph.

They brought in a telly, put the aerial up: It’s

A Wonderful Life, soon followed by Muppets,

More came and Wise men, Only Fools and Horses,

Carols from Kings and Eastenders divorces 

Slade sang “It’s Chriiistmas”, Cliff Richard stood humming,

A lorry arrived saying holidays were a-coming.

Joseph asked if Chris Rea would soon drive them all home,

Or if they’d walk in the air, flown by Aled Jones.

But the Pogues brought some booze, and NYPD choir.

Some sherry was raised to the sleeping Messiah.

Joseph toasted with eggnog, just finished his dram,

When the barn door flew open, then closed with a Wham!

There was an elf on a shelf, and round robin letters,

Department store adverts and naff Christmas sweaters.

No room on the floor, for one last Christmas fairy

So to top of the tree, flew Mariah Carey.

Mary looked at the crowd, Judy Garland to Wenceslas.

“It figures,” she thought, “They’re all here for the census; ‘Tis

In-keeping: We were told, there’s no room at the inn…

There’s no room at the stable now everyone’s in.”

She told Joseph, “It’s right, we invite all indoors:

From Bible to Buble, sprouts to Santa Claus.

And just suppose history, in all this activity,

All along has been telling its own holy nativity.

Shepherds like good old St Nick with his crook,

Wise men like Dickens wisely writing his book.

Angelic choirs, Crosby, Carey, Cliff Richard, 

Cromwell plays Herod, trying to quash Christmas.

No room at the inn? Well there’s room in our hearts.

It’s one big school nativity, where all play their parts.

Strip away all these characters, and still centre-stage is

God come to Earth: a tale told down the ages.”

Joe extended the table again, made more chairs.

A high-chair, a bar-stool, that bench by the stairs.

With cold turkey sandwiches, stuffed full of crackling,

A floor full of wrapping, now set for recycling,

Joseph smiled over to infant and wife:

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good life!”

So as Tiny Tim said: God bless us, each one.

Tis still that night after Christmas, cos we wait for the Son.

And when dawn comes, perhaps God asks: “D’you like the present, in the crib, napping?”

We’ll notice what we’ve done, is just play with the wrapping.

Christmas Cancelled? Not Like in the 1640s…

There has been a lot of talk of 2020’s Christmas being cancelled. How Christmas must be saved. 

Of course Christmas will always go ahead as sure as Monday will be followed by Tuesday, or next Spring will appear again (not soon enough). Although with limited pantos, carol services or office parties, Christmas 2020 certainly looks unusual. 

But nearly four centuries ago, Christmas was indeed cancelled. It stayed illegal for a decade and a half. As now, drastic new laws banned certain gatherings. Back then though, this came from very different motives.

The Puritans were in power, and they took against a few particular aspects of the church. They shunned Catholicism, including its Mass, so a festival named after ‘Christ’s Mass’ was bound to be in the firing line. They took against the adoration of Mary, so the Nativity story was downplayed. They detested saints, including St Nicholas, who wasn’t quite associated with Christmas yet, but delivered the odd present in early December. Humbug indeed.

Christmas had become a rather drunken affair anyway. It wasn’t the homely cosy season it would become. Besides, why commemorate the birth of Christ at all? The only birthdays in the Bible were those of Pharaoh and Herod, who both celebrated with executions. Not a ringing endorsement for a birthday do.

Scotland outlawed Christmas in 1640, and it wasn’t officially reintroduced there till 1958. They didn’t miss Christmas; they had Hogmanay. Similarly Thanksgiving snuck in in America, when Christmas failed to land there. The Pilgrim Fathers forgot to pack it onboard.

A notice in Boston, Massachusetts, banning Christmas.

In 1643, the English Puritan government needed Scottish military aid, so in return they promised to reform the Church of England a little more.

So that Christmas, word spread that good Puritan shopkeepers should open as usual on December 25th, and that Puritan churches should remain closed. Everyday folk had to pick a side: to celebrate Christmas or not? Satirist John Taylor mourned its loss: “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster.” The Lord of Misrule had been a festive favourite – a mock king of the season bringing the party atmosphere… till now. 

A year later, Christmas Day 1644 fell on a Wednesday, a traditional fasting day. So that meant a different test: feast or fast? Eating a Christmas dinner oddly became a political protest. Non-conformist minister Hezekiah Woodward labelled Christmas Day: “The old Heathens’ Feasting Day… the Profane Man’s Ranting Day… the Superstitious Man’s Idol Day… the True Christian Man’s Fasting Day…” (None of these new names caught on.)

Christmas 1645 went one step further: it simply didn’t exist. Some celebrated, but it was no longer an official celebration. Parliament sat, though some MPs were seen yawning, kept up all night by rebellious carol-singers outside their windows.

1646 saw Christmas riots, on both sides. Pro-Christmas protestors confronted shopkeepers who dared open their shops on December 25th. The poor especially missed their festival, enjoying an annual break from the norm. Christmas also symbolised the noble ideals Cromwell and his cronies were trying to quash.

In 1647, a law was passed banning anything to do with Christmas. It was no longer enough to ignore it; it would no longer be tolerated. Daring defenders of the festive season covertly decorated public places, draping evergreens under the cover of darkness. The Lord Mayor of London rode around the city the next day, setting fire to any decorations he saw. 

Attending church became risky business. Armed guards confronted those taking Christmas communion, aiming muskets at those taking the bread and wine, before arresting them.

For years after, riots broke out this time of year, especially in the east of England. In Ipswich, one protester known only as ‘Christmas’ was killed by a soldier. In Canterbury, Christmas supporters seized control of the city for weeks, in a last stand to protect the festival.

Cover of The Vindication of Christmas by John Taylor, 1652

Old Father Christmas himself became the face of political propaganda: a symbol of nostalgic old England in this time of Christmaslessness. Pamphlets illustrated this bearded winter guest as happy, if not yet jolly (wait a couple of centuries for that), contrasted with miserable Puritans. 

A much-loved dish was banned too: the Christmas pie. It was huge and crib-shaped (or coffin-shaped, representing two sides of Jesus’ life), so therefore idolatrous, especially when decorated with a pastry model of the infant Jesus. England’s food fans were an enterprising bunch though. They changed the pie’s shape and shrank it to something more bite-sized, more easily hidden in case caught out (stuff into mouth; mumble, “Who me?” while spraying crumbs at the officer in question). The name had to change too, so the new improved smaller pies were named after the mincemeat that was sometimes inside. The mince pie was born. 

Christmas pie consumption on December 25th is still officially illegal in England. The government hasn’t bothered overturning it, because no one’s really eating Christmas pies any more. Plus they’ve got other brand new Christmas laws to uphold, from three households-a-meeting to the Rule of Six geese-a-laying to five gold tiers (Scotland only, and yes they’ve finally reinstated Christmas).

Oh, Christmas did return by the way, when the monarchy came back in 1660. All these unusual periods come to an end.

Christmas may have changed over the years, but unexpected events can provoke change and innovation – whether thanks to Puritans or pandemic. Without the 1640s’ ban on Christmas, we wouldn’t have mince pies to guzzle. Arguably too they helped shift Christmas away from being a drunken street party, instead ushering the festivity into the home, to become something more domesticated and family-based.

Whatever you’re doing this Christmas (or allowed to do), learn from our 17th-century ancestors…

Don’t have a riot.

Have a mince pie.

Adapted by Paul Kerensa from his book ‘Hark! The Biography of Christmas’ (£7.99), available in all open bookshops or from Paul direct on paul@paulkerensa.com

My new Writing Course – now on Zoom

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Now available on Eventbrite, my Writing Course, for the first time widely available to all. Join us from home, writing for any genre. Here’s the blurb:

Paul’s writing workshop is used by BBC Writers Room. Now for the first time, it’s gone public.

Are you a writer looking to improve? Or want to be a writer, but don’t know where to start beyond your name at the top?

Whatever your level/genre/medium, from total newbie to established author or screenwriter, Paul’s online 6-week writing course will encourage and equip you. 

– Wednesday mornings, 10-11am (plus 15mins after for questions, clarifications and over-running)

– Sept 23rd to Nov 4th 2020, with a week off on Oct 21.

– 6 x 1hr sessions – with a bonus 7th session at the end if needed/wanted/remembered (details below). 

£75 early bird till Sept 14th

£89 late bird from Sept 14th

£19 per session if you don’t want the full works.

Paul’s writing seminars have been used by BBC Writers Room, London Screenwriters Festival and various arts festivals. Now it’s being made public and expanded for the first time.

His background includes sitcom (BBC’s Miranda, Not Going Out), scripting entertainment shows (Top Gear, TFI Friday, BBC Music Awards, Royal Variety Show), radio (The Now Show, The News Quiz, Pause For Thought), books (Amazon Top 100 bestseller Hark! The Biography of Christmas, + children’s books), articles, tweets and blurbs like this one. 

The course especially focuses on long-form narrative writing – which is a fancy of saying anything with a story: novels, screenplays, stageplays… You don’t have to have written any of these yet – just want to. 

(We won’t be as focused on shorter-form writing – sketches, stand-up, Post-It Note reminders etc… but what we talk about will certainly help short-form. Equally we’ll dwell more on fiction than factual, though elements will be of use to those writing non-fiction.)

Our focus is on Character and Story. That’s the meat of it (or plant-based substitute). Everything else is salad dressing.

We’ll look at sitcom, but from a character/story perspective. We’ll have a session on comedy, but won’t exclusively deal with that. So if you’re writing drama, the comedy session will be just as much about using comedy (as well as other genre conventions) in your dramatic writing.

The sessions will be interactive, to make sure you get the best out of the course. If there is any ‘homework’ set, it won’t be to be handed in/shared – they are purely exercises for your own benefit.

The sessions will be as follows:

SESSION 1 (Sept 23): Overview – Character/Story/Genre

SESSION 2 (Sept 30): Character/Relationships

SESSION 3 (Oct 7): Story structure 1: The Big Outline

SESSION 4 (Oct 14): Story structure 2: Scenes/Chapters

WEEK OFF (Oct 21): Writing time!

SESSION 5 (Oct 28): Comedy/Genre

SESSION 6 (Nov 4): Industry/Pitching

(Bonus SESSION 7 (Nov 11): Free Bonus Week If Wanted: Q&A, Networking, Repeat Any Bits)

You’ll also get a one-page PDF per session, summarising what we’ve spoken about – freeing you up from taking too many notes, and giving the chance to look over it again. Come back with queries next week. 

The sessions will be held on Zoom. They won’t be recorded. They will be ‘selectively interactive’. What does that mean? It means Paul will do most of the talking, but with times for questions and thoughts during each session. It’s an open forum, content guided by you to stay relevant. One person’s question can be another’s nagging thought, and one person’s answer can be another’s penny-drop moment. 

You’re encouraged to come to all the sessions, as they may refer to each other across the course, but individual sessions can be purchased on their own, and will stand alone where possible.

Please note: because this is a new format for the course, there’s a reduction on price. The course will be run again in the New Year but possibly not at this price level, or in this exact format.

(If you’re interested but can’t make these times, email Paul, as there may be scope for alternate timings if there’s enough interest. Or January 2021’s course may be at different times/days.)

Further queries? Email paul@paulkerensa.com

Want to book? Go for it. Places are limited.

Have friends who write and might fancy it? Share this page with them.

Book soon. Because we start soon!

PS: This is not a course that says ‘YOU MUST WRITE LIKE THIS’ (some do). No ‘on page 11 there must be this moment’. Just what works for me, the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years, with an open mind, as we learn, discuss and improve.

Hope to see you then then. Book here, by all means, and do share with any writers (or writers-in-waiting) that you know.

Father’s Day: What links JFK + Pirate Radio?

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Caroline dancing

Here’s a charming photo I’d never seen before this week: JFK claps along as his children dance in the Oval Office.

I found it while researching for my new radio history podcast: The British Broadcasting Century. (Your ears on it would be most welcome, whether on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or other.)

But what could link this family moment in America’s highest office with old British radio?

The answer is well-known to true radio fans (‘anoraks’ – nicknamed after the anorak-wearing fans who’d visit the pirate radio ships. Pirate DJ Andy Archer came up with the name, and I might just be getting him on the podcast soon…).

The first British pirate radio station was set up by Ronan O’Rahilly in 1964, in frustration at a limited radio industry. The only audible stations at the time were the monopolistic BBC, or Radio Luxembourg with their pay-to-play model (record companies sponsored shows to get their artists airplay). 7 million would regularly listen to O’Rahilly’s station. But first it needed a name – both his offshore radio station, and the boat that hosted it off the Suffolk coast.

The above picture gave him the answer.

Two years earlier, O’Rahilly had seen this photo in Life Magazine: A young Caroline Kennedy dancing in her president dad’s office. The playful disruption of government, he called it.

That was just what his new pirate station sought to do. So he named his boat and his station after the girl. Years later in tribute, Radio Jackie would take their name similarly, but after Caroline’s mum, Jackie Kennedy.

We’ll tell some of this story on the 5th episode of the podcast, ‘Arthur Burrows: 1920’s All-Request Pirate’. There’s also an exclusive guest in another pirate radio legend, Emperor Rosko, who also appeared on Radio 1’s first line-up.

Researching, presenting and producing the British Broadcasting Century podcast in lockdown has been a challenge while home-schooling two children. We’ve had some hard days (both wife and wifi went downhill at similar times; both are gladly improving).

Looking at that picture of JFK and his dancing children reminded me that when you work from home – as he did, as I do, as many of us do now – you need to expect frequent visits from the youngsters, and be glad of them.

Caroline (and JFK Jr, also in the pic) playfully disrupted authority, as Radio Caroline then did. There was a time for business, but a time for dancing.

On Father’s Day, I’ll be glad that my children crash the office as much as they do, interrupting the workload with play, dance or wifi queries. I’m no president nor any great authority, but I can have a tendency to think my work matters more than it probably does – especially when it’s this podcast, which barely qualifies as work.

I don’t know how long lockdown will last. I don’t know how long my podcast will last. I do know it takes a lot longer to research, record and edit while school is happening across the room. But bring on the dancing…

If the President could find time to clap along, so will I.

‘The British Broadcasting Century with Paul Kerensa’ is free from all good podcast providers, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify + Podbean. Listen and subscribe now.

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Happy 100th Birthday, Broadcast Radio!

I’ll keep this brief.

a) I hope you’re well.

b) It’s the centenary of professional public British broadcasting this coming Monday, June 15th 2020. Yet NO ONE’S TALKING ABOUT IT. It’s like a lockdown birthday party where no one’s turning up. So I’m giving an online talk that night you can ALL come to, cos you can stay home. 8pm-9pm, followed by Q&A. Via Facebook Live, on the FB page of Guildford Fringe Theatre Company. £Pay What You Want. Come! Details here.

c) The British Broadcasting Century podcast continues, online in your browser here or wherever you get podcasts. If you can rate/review/share, that’d be GORGEOUS of you. Many have, and it’s been lovely to see the pod’s been going down well. Someone today said he learned more in 20mins than in an entire Media Studies course – and it was fun along the way. So that’s nice. Inform, educate, entertain – those Reithian values apply to this podcast too…

d) Closing down now. The National Anthem follows…

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My new podcast: The British Broadcasting Century… Subscribe now!

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https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-qx928-deb1a0

Been a while, podpals!

This is a blatant plea to come and join my new podcast, The British Broadcasting Century. I’ll be geeking out about the origins of the BBC, radio and life as we know it, for a dozen or so episodes (in series 1; then who knows how many thereafter).

This is an extended trailer, with a few bonus clips just for being loyal podcastees here on A Paul Kerensa Podcast/The Heptagon Club.

But to catch the new one, you’ll need to subscribe to it, over at https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-british-broadcasting-century-with-paul-kerensa/id1516471271

and find us on Facebook.com/BBCentury

Stay safe & keep listening…

1917: Sam Mendes does Calendar Theory, probably without fully knowing it

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Right then – PK’s Writing Blog is back. It’s a place where I (b)log screen things that help/nudge/remind anything about the writing process – with a particular view on story structure.

Writers have a love/hate relationship with structure. Some see it is a must, to get the bones of the story in precise place before you write a word. Others write by the seat of their pants. I think the best path is probably somewhere in the middle: writing’s an art and a craft, so sometimes you need to lock down the stricter craft, while other times you need to let art run away with itself.

My method? The (arty) idea comes first, with a concept, a character/their relationships, a conflict, and a conquest of that conflict – ooh that’s all Cs, that makes a handy Powerpoint slide. Then the (crafty) thrashing-out of the story, with lots and back-and-forths to (arty) character-forming, concept-tweaking, setting the setting and so on. Then a first (arty) draft based on the (crafty) outline, (crafty) rewrites and redrafts, and from there on the crafty bits mostly show me the problems and the arty bits hopefully provide a few fancy answers.

I can’t help you much with the art. But the craft… that’s what this blog’s about. (Except at Christmas. Then this blog is about Christmas.)

So I thought I’d zoom in on one excellent example of this: Sam Mendes’ outstanding Oscar-bound film, 1917. Spoilers of that will be below, but you’ll know where because I’ll say SPOILERS in big letters.

Previously on this blog, I proposed my story structure theory. Well it’s a pattern. Well it’s a thing, based on the calendar year. I call it Calendar Theory. I’m writing it up as a book, but for now, I’m blogging here about how it fits with certain films. Familiar elements of the calendar year – from human festivals to natural seasons to those handy equinoxes – are helpful markers in many films’ storylines. We’ve tried it on Mary Poppins Returns already. So now, 1917.

1917-sam-mendes-still-01

Spot the continuity error. Clue: it’s clothing-based. (Alright it’s the bloke in the middle.)

1917 is a visually incredible, directorially how-the-hell-did-they-film-that, one-shot masterpiece. Well it looks like one shot. There are cuts, but that doesn’t matter. It’s real-time (almost), and it feels like one very big breath. But narratively, it’s hitting all those points that almost every other film does. In stunning fashion, yes – giant kudos to writers Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Mr Mendes. To make us like it, I think it has to hit familiar markers.

Here’s how I think 1917 fits with Calendar Theory:

SPOILERS BEGIN NOW. Come back when you’ve seen the film, or read on if you don’t mind having it spoiled (though it won’t spoil it really, because how they portray it – the art on top – is breathtaking).

JANUARY: New Year/new start… Blake and Schofield wake up, almost literally coming out of hibernation. The setting is revealed: the cold, hungry Western Front.

FEBRUARY: Valentine’s… Not romantic, but no man is an island, so we need an encounter. Blake + Schofield = our key relationship. It leads to a reluctant opportunity… to go behind supposed enemy lines to deliver a message, to save over a thousand troops. But a thousand troops isn’t enough – to make it personal, those troops include Blake’s brother. Characters start a story; relationships spark it into continuing.

MARCH: They’ve had their invitation (well, their order). They would never refuse that order, yet there’s still Debate (as story theorist Blake Snyder would have it) or Refusal of the Call (as story theorist Joseph Campbell would have it). I think it’s more that our main duo have a difference of opinion as to how it should be done. Neither’s refusing to go, but Schofield wants to wait till nightfall, Blake wants to go now – his brother’s life is at stake. Look at any film or TV show: even characters on the same path, on the same journey, constantly disagree about how it should be done.

The Spring Equinox (late March) marks where our story marches (pun intended) from Act 1 into Act 2. Others call this Crossing The Threshold. Here they’re taking a major risk going over the top into no man’s land.

There’s often an Easter moment at this point in films – a glimpse of the divine. Is it a coincidence that their march into Act 2 is marked by Andrew Scott (Fleabag’s priest, no less) blessing them as they go over the top? Possibly. But there are an astounding number of glimpse-of-the-divine moments at this point in films/shows/books.

APRIL: Like many narrative theories, this one’s based on the three-act structure, going right back to Aristotle. Beginning, Muddle, End. So April starts Act 2, with an April Fool moment, as the duo discover giant craters, before the tension builds to… an empty German trench. Then a proper ‘fool’ moment when they encounter a tripwire.

April showers come when the German trench caves in on them – a lucky escape, but at this stage, we always knew they’d escape. That saving moment is crucial though, and will resonate through the film.

There’s even then a moment of ‘Spring’ talk, when the two soldiers chat about cherry blossom as they pass through an orchard. At this stage of stories there’s hope. Nature is blooming… mirrored later in the autumn of the story: cows deliberately killed so the Allies can’t eat them – the death of nature. That’s for later. For now, we’re talking about hope. (Am I reading too much into this? No. Is this bloom/death of nature deliberate in the scriptwriting? Definitely.) It’s the calm before a summer storm…

MAY: Maypole… Sub-characters weave in and out, which asks ‘Who can we trust?’ In 1917 this starts with planes flying past; the duo aren’t sure if they’re ours or theirs. Then that trust question is brought home in the dogfight and its fateful crash…

Mayfair… The mirror image of Halloween to come, hinting at bigger crisis later. In most films, later Halloween is mirrored here in a safe-yet-scary moment, (BIG SPOILER COMING) but in 1917, it’s fatal. The dogfight crashes a German plane. When our heroes rescue the doomed pilot, he fatally stabs Blake. Notably it’s Blake who wanted to save the pilot – if it was Schofield, he’d spend the rest of the film under the shadow of guilt, that he chose wrong. That doesn’t happen – Schofield is working under enough pressure without throwing guilt in too.

JUNE: Family picnic rained off… As Blake dies, he speaks of family and asks Schofield to write to his mum for him.

This scene is also our midpoint, the Longest Day of late June in Calendar Theory terms. Rising action before, falling action after, some say. Charting the story like a graph, this is our mountain-top: before, the hero couldn’t fully see the task ahead, but at this point, he can see the scale of it. So in 1917, what was a mission for a duo becomes a renewed mission for one.

JULY: School’s out/end of learning… Mark Strong and co pick up Schofield. There’s a moment of the new soldiers bantering, doing impressions of top brass. It’s the end of the school year, highlighting faulty logic and essentially graduating our hero.

AUGUST: The long hot summer… The ‘summer’ of stories are often on fast-forward. Time speeds up. In comedies (or Rocky films), there might be a montage. Here, there’s a time-jump in a mo, but that’s not what I mean. I mean Schofield’s journey literally speeds up when the lorry accelerates his journey. It gives him thinking-time and a chance to try new skills…

Summer camp… When the lorry is stuck in the mud, Schofield urges the soldiers (strangers) to get out and push with him. Push hard. They succeed on Schofield’s cry, and sure enough it’s him that ends up face down in the mud. He is suffering for his mission, and this is the time to hone those skills (resilience, digging deep) that will be needed later (for, SPOILER, the sprint across the battlefield).

SEPTEMBER: Fall, when we think it’s summer… When least expected, shots are fired over the river. We dropped our guard. We were enjoying the summer too much, and didn’t notice the nights draw in. The dark literally draws in when Schofield is shot. Blackout. The Autumn Equinox is here. It’s not quite our Act 3 yet though – in the Calendar Theory model, that’s December. To get us there, first we have…

OCTOBER: Scares! Schofield wakes and it’s night. Come on – if this doesn’t remind us of the seasonal shape of the year, I don’t know what does. There are even fires, like our winter bonfires, to light up the night, to burn the past, to scare us.

NOVEMBER: Heroic fireworks! Schofield races and chases his way through the physical dark. The emotionally darkest of moments is yet to come…

DECEMBER: Advent… The baby and mum brings a contemplative, reflective moment, full of anticipation, but calm. We need this moment, by Jiminy do we! I feel this scene was the writers’ gift to us, to carry us through the rest of the onslaught. Is it too much to read into this Advent moment, a baby as the hope the world needs? Alright, maybe. Coincidence. Maybe. Baby.

Shop early for Christmas… Something bought earlier in the film can be cleverly brought out here as a gift: milk. Makes me cry thinking about it. Beautiful.

End of term… But Schofield must leave Act 2 behind and run and jump into Act 3 – and here’s a literal divide and renewed commitment, as he jumps into the river. Like a schoolchild changing out of that uniform for the last time this year, his old self is washed away. The Act 3 self – the Christmas self – is what’s needed now – a product of everything he’s been through till now, a product of the full year till now. But the year’s not over yet…

The darkest day… Schofield climbing over dead bodies in the river is possibly the bleakest of bleak. Through the woods, when he finally encounters the troops he’s spent the ENTIRE film/year searching for, he barely recognises them. He’s bewitched by the song, which essentially is a Christmas carol.

December looks suspiciously like January… The trenches Schofield discovers are starkly reminiscent of the trenches from the start of the film. John Yorke’s book Into The Woods sees stories as journeys into the woods then back home again changed. Here Schofield embodies that, seeing these new trenches with greater purpose than the ones at the start – and he’s even just gone through literal woods to be here.

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Schofield’s final sprint

Christmas Eve rush… The sprint along the battlefield is this moment incarnate. It’s Colin Firth running through the streets of Portugal at the end of Love Actually. It’s Marty McFly racing the Delorean before the lightning bolt strikes. It’s Sandra Bullock hurtling to Earth in Gravity. It’s the Christmas rush, often against the flow of pedestrian traffic – and sure enough here George MacKay is running at 90 degrees to the tide of the troops. In all these films, this dynamic scene thrills us and pulls on our heartstrings, because we’ve been with the hero for the whole year and know what it’s taken to be here.

Gifts, reunion… Against all odds, Schofield accomplishes his mission. And it’s a Christmas party of cameos: him from that film, him from that show. The hero is pretty much offered a festive drink here, but can’t take it, because it’s not over yet…

Family, security – Outside it’s snowing, but in here it’s cosy and warm… Alright this film doesn’t quite manage that physically, but emotionally oh yes. Despite the war around, we end the film in the security of the triage tent. Schofield finds Blake’s brother, handing over both news and the gifts of the first Blake’s possessions. A family reunion, of sorts.

New Year’s Eve: The film ends with an exact matching image of the very first image: Schofield sitting under a tree. Like the Bible, it starts and ends with a tree (this story pattern has been around for a loooooooong time). Schofield shows us pictures of his wife and daughters, that he’s not mentioned till now – this is his family reunion, and it’s even underneath a (Christmas) tree…

Okay, maybe strike the Christmas tree metaphor from the record – I’m reading too much in. Perhaps. But the tree as a symbol of hope and nature’s continuing revival is a huge one. That sense that we end yet start again having barely moved on, is there in this film, in the calendar year, in so many stories.

 

What a film. What a story.

So if you’re currently writing a story, have you accidentally (or deliberately) woven in any of those story points above? Does yours have a seasonal shape to it? Bet it does, even if you hadn’t noticed it. Till now…

 

FactVent: 24 days of filmed festive facts

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I’ve posted 24 days of festive fact films this Advent. It’s all the fault of Elliot from Monkeynut Audiobooks, with whom I’ve recorded the audiobook of Hark! The Biography of Christmas. (We couldn’t get it out for this Christmas, but look out for it in 2020.) He reckoned it should be done, so it has been…

I imagine you’ll want the full boxset. What’s that? You don’t? Ah well. It’s here on a Youtube playlist, or here below one by one, so that like blown Christmas tree lights, you don’t have to go through the lot if you’re trying to reach only one…

1: Christmas dinner in Japan… https://youtu.be/KNpymTMI7ms
2: Fainting at the Panto… https://youtu.be/S78OsrRRbQg
3: A Christmas Carol… https://youtu.be/BB-TGqu0mOM
4: Santa’s Little Helper… https://youtu.be/te7kDKRmaV0
5: The Boy Bishop… https://youtu.be/Bo24eWoMzrM
6: St Nick… https://youtu.be/2DUwaYM4R3g
7: O Christmas Tree… https://youtu.be/y0EawioKQyE
8: Gate-Crechers: A Christmas poem… https://youtu.be/8W18w62rf6E
9: The Christmas Radio Times… https://youtu.be/JwBlrIJ933U
10: Mrs Herod… https://youtu.be/TMQlqjVJOKQ
11: A bawdy carol service… https://youtu.be/mKstIwtjfYk
12: Parliament bans Christmas… https://youtu.be/w2oCTly4eBo
13: Hitler & the Truce… https://youtu.be/IUIzgXGy3S4
14: The first carol… https://youtu.be/nCd9Eibh988
15: A Fairytale of Bethlehem… https://youtu.be/J7SYKXYQrv0
16: O Christmas Tree (2)… https://youtu.be/ZFUwsk7FkVM
17: Dickens’ white Christmases… https://youtu.be/3viZwtDQZTA
18: Washington Irving (live)… https://youtu.be/sdEqPqUbHKE
19: Coke & the red Santa… https://youtu.be/8md6hy-rpdU
20: Candy canes… https://youtu.be/AQJImnsiFII
21: Jingle Bells in space… https://youtu.be/oHmQMpnOTjQ
22: Baubles… https://youtu.be/SiGIAs1pjsY
23: Carols to other tunes… https://youtu.be/V5Ej3UjSdms
24: Christ is born!… https://youtu.be/NW7TVjE93rA

Thanks for watching, or sharing, or reading at least, because you are at least reading this sentence, if nothing else.

If you’d like to read more, the book is at the end of this link.

If you’d like to hear more, more info on the Audible podcast, and a free trial, is at the end of this link.

This has been a brief return to my Yule blog. After Christmas, this page will return to PK’s Writing Blog, where I’ll delve occasionally into what us writers can learn from things we’ve watched. But for now…

A Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good watch/read/listen/night!

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My new Audible Original Podcast: Christmas What The Fa-La-La-La-La… How it happened, what’s in it, etc

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If you haven’t been paying attention… I love Christmas. Although weirdly, I’ve only just realised that this year. Ask me last year, and I’d’ve said, TBH, I’m more just interested in it… but this year, I’ve spilled over into fully loving the weird festivity.

The book Hark! The Biography of Christmas came out in 2017. New for 2019 is the Audible podcast, Christmas: What The Fa-La-La-La-La. If you’re with Audible already, click that link and have a listen! If you’re not with Audible, there’s a free trial here, and as soon as you’re in, you get access to all their podcasts, from me, Stephen Fry, Dermot O’Leary, everyone. You can cancel immediately if you like, though make sure you grab a free audiobook first. In a week or two’s time, you might even find the audiobook of Hark! The Biography of Christmas – it should be there shortly.

As for the podcast, here’s what led to it…

I do the Pause For Thought slot on Radio 2 Breakfast Show via a company called TBI Media. They’re fab. They sought ideas for entertaining documentary shows to pitch to Audible, who were looking for non-fiction podcasts. We pitched. They liked it. We did it.

It was a mighty quick turnaround. Kudos to producer Geoff Jein and big boss man Dave Young and bigger boss man Phil Critchlow, and Geoff’s Christmas elf Ollie Seymour, for pulling it all together (like a cracker).

What format then? I was keen on mixing entertaining light chat (that’s Christmassy) with deeper historical sections (that’s also Christmassy), so we settled on the final product – something that got the balance right between fluffy and info-dump. We didn’t want a show that was just two people talking. We wanted guests. We also wanted a bit of depth, so we needed…

A host.

Some guests.

Six Christmas themes, one each episode.

Music.

Games.

For host, we lucked out and got Grace Dent. A brilliant journalist and broadcaster but above all FUN! She’d introduce, I’d be co-host and we’d waffle away about Christmas present (you should have heard the first recording – our opening 2mins became 30mins very quickly), what we do, why we do it, etc.

For the themes, we wanted to build up to Christmas. So Episode 1 features the earliest Christmassy moments – the shops selling Christmas cards, preparations that are out and about, not in the home yet. It gave us a chance to mull on Christmas’ back-story – Yule, Roman Saturnalia, etc, as well as look at the big story of Christmas past.

Episode 2 would then dive into the Nativity, but also other Christmassy stage things – panto, carols and Christmas pop songs. In Episode 3, we’re starting our Christmas shopping and pondering Santa, Father Christmas and St Nick. In Episode 4, it’s time to put the tree up, and bring Christmas into the home – plus a chance to get Dickensian. Episode 5 is all about the food – perfect listening for the week before Christmas, when you’re basting your turkey and eating too many mince pies. Episode 6 then is Christmas Day itself – so that’s Christmas telly, games, the Queen’s Speech… and a bit on Boxing Day and the Twelve Days into New Year.

Sounding a bit info-heavy? Right then. Guests! The finest comedians: Milton Jones, Lucy Porter, Andy Zaltzman on the lapsed Jewish/cricketing Christmas, Aatif Nawaz on his Muslim Christmas (of basically, working, and never putting a tree up). A food expert on the food ep: The One Show’s Angelica Bell, who also won Celebrity Masterchef (judged by our host, Grace Dent). And BBC 6 Music’s Shaun Keaveny brought festive fun to episode 1.

It’s like Noel’s House Party meets BBC4. And look, for a brief moment today, it was beating Gladwell and Mitchell to top Audible’s charts…

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To get it, in brief – and, to be honest, gain me a few quid referral fee even if you cancel and never pay anything:

1. Click the link. Arrive at Amazon’s Audible page.

2. Sign up to Audible’s free tiral. Yes, card details needed, but you can unsubscribe after your free trial easily enough, and keep your audiobooks/podcasts. It would auto-renew at £7.99/mth (for that you get a credit for any audiobook – even the epic ones), but you can cancel before that happens and spend ZILCH pounds if preferred.

3. Once you’ve signed up, find the CHRISTMAS: WHAT THE FA-LA-LA-LA-LA? page.

4. Download the app onto your phone for the best experience…

We had fun making it. Hope you have fun listening to it.

Merry listening!

Comedians With Books #3: Stevyn Colgan + James Dowdeswell

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One final Comedians With Books podcast… plus news of Paul’s new Christmas podcast on Audible.

At the 3rd Comedians With Books live show, we welcomed ex-QI elf Stevyn Colgan and wine connoisseur/comedian James Dowdeswell. Hear their chat on publishing, pubs, whodunnits, Rick Wakeman, doggy day care, and much more.

Their books:…

STEVYN COLGAN: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Books-Stevyn-Colgan/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A266239%2Cp_27%3AStevyn%20Colgan

JAMES DOWDESWELL: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pub-Manifesto-Comedian-stands-pubs/dp/1852493550/

 

…Plus ample info on Paul’s new podcast over on Audible.

Grab an Audible free trial at https://www.paulkerensa.com/audible.php

 

Details on Paul’s gigs – including Comedians & Carols – at https://paulkerensa.com

Join Paul’s mailing listhttp://eepurl.com/M6Wbr

Book group/small group notes for Hark! The Biography of Christmas: https://www.paulkerensa.com/harknotes.pdf

 

Share this pod / Like / Review / Donate / Thanks!

What the 2019 John Lewis, Sainsburys and Robert Dyas Christmas ads get right/wrong

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Ah, it’s nearly Christmas. Ish. Well it’s not but the ads are out. So here’s a one-off return of the ‘Yule blog’…

Of all the starting-pistols of Christmas (Buble on in-store playlists, mince pies on shelves), the arrival of the John Lewis ad is probably the most recent. I mean, all of these are shop-based. Ever since Selfridge’s and Harrod’s raced each other to put the Christmas window displays up first, Christmas creep has been fully down to the department stores. We looked at the history behind some of this on this other previous Yule blog.

This year’s John Lewis ad once again has a delightful fictitious character in a snowy scene (despite the fact that it never snows at Christmas – you’re nearly more likely to get a White Easter). This time they’ve gone historical. It’s sweet, and it’s here…

As a self-professed historian of Christmas, a Santalogist, an Xmas Xpert, and a lover of traditions, this ad warms a few cockles. Firstly, the flames. Fire’s been part of winter festivals since long before Jesus – light of the world, heralded by a star amid darkness. Back in days of Norse Yule, wheels of fire would be rolled into the sea to show defiance of the sun’s apparent vanishing act. The Yule log would be burned (not eaten – it wasn’t a cake, thank you French people) and generally fire was blimin’ everywhere. So that flaming Christmas pudding? All down to that. And the very idea of fire amid frost, that this ad’s based on, goes right back to then.

The olde-wolde Dickensian(?) scene ticks another Christmas box (don’t get me started on Christmas boxes). Poverty and the noble celebration – that was what Christmas looked like through medieval days. The family part of it was more a Dickensian trope, and the gift-giving part – so crucial for a department store ad – has origins in St Nicholas, in nuns putting oranges in orphans’ socks, in the Magi bringing gifts, and in Roman New Year celebrations when gifts would be given up and down the social order (ie. for bosses, not for family). Christmas became a time for giving after the revival of St Nick/Sinterklaas/Santa in the early 19thcentury, thanks to American Santa savers like Washington Irving (who also gave us Gotham City and the word ‘knickers’).

The ice-skating part we can in part thank Prince Albert for – he helped popularise it by being so darn good at it. Snowmen of course back aeons, but the whole idea of the snowy Christmas is a bit Dickensian too – Charles Dickens’ first eight Christmases were white ones, so he wrote that into A Christmas Carol, despite releasing the book in one of the mildest Decembers on record. When his readers read of old snowy Christmases, it helped freeze this idea that an nostalgic Christmas is a white Christmas for all eternity. Like the ones we used to know…

But like Messrs Selfridge and Harrod, other shops have put their commercials out in the week before John Lewis. As soon as Halloween’s out of the way, it’s open season.

The Sainsbury’s ad has also gone Dickensian, and while it’s again nicely done, it slightly rankles with me as it tries to reinvent tradition. See it here…

Giving St Nick a new origin story? I can’t say I approve. I’d much rather a video that highlights the real St Nick, or at least his possibly-real legends. There’s so much to choose from! This guy lobbed pressies through an open window into fireside stockings, to help a widower and his three daughters! He restored cut-up children who’d been jarred and pickled by an evil innkeeper! St Nick as a baby even fasted from the boob two days a week, like a good priest-baby, and only took milk from the right breast, because he was so linked with God’s right hand. Slightly more believably, he punched a heretic at the Council of Nicaea, where they picked the date for Easter (that worked out well – when is it exactly?).

Lastly, seen the Robert Dyas ad? It’s bonkers. But funny. I think. Is it?

Either way I love how it just lets John Lewis and Sainsbury and M&S and Harrod’s do all the fancy-pants adverts with a budget and a snowy set, and instead just gets some store employees to badly deliver a right-on message. Because nothing says 2019 Christmas like trying to be politically correct. So I’d like to wish a very Happy Non-Sectarian Festive Ad Watch to all my readers, regardless of race, gender, sexuality and whatever shop you shop in.

Paul Kerensa’s book Hark! The Biography of Christmas is available from all good bookshops, many bad ones, and after Paul’s gigs.

In The Tall Grass: from book to film with ONE essential new character

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This may be a very niche post.

a) Like most posts on the all-new PK’s Writing Blog, it’s aimed at writers or those interested in writing and how it does or doesn’t work. You don’t need to be a writer – just willing to tinker under the bonnet/hood (UK/US term for the front bit on a car).

b) You need to either have seen In The Tall Grass on Netflix as I just have… and/or read the Stephen King/Joe Hill novella it’s based on… OR …not mind reading about spoilerific plot points in either, if you’re planning to see/read it.

I was intrigued to see that this slim trim horror story – with a pretty lean cast to begin with – had to add one crucial character to graduate from page to screen. And that in turn is quite telling about an essential part of telling a satisfying story. Which we’ll get to. But first, what you need to know about In The Tall Grass. SPOILERS below…

It’s a horror film based on one neat idea – what if you got lost in a field of grass that was just too tall to see over? Watch the trailer, you’ll get a feel for the whole movie. So it’s a maze: at times repetitive and annoying, at times scary, at (rare) times hopeful, and at times the same characters bump into each other…

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Needs a mow.

Those characters are: our hero the pregnant Becky… her ill-motived brother Cal… a stereotypically cute/scary boy called Tobin who incites their incident (his lost cries lure them into the field of corn – I mean grass)… Tobin’s twisted dad Ross (don’t trust him)… and Tobin’s mum Natalie (the subbest of sub-characters, so you know she’s there just to show you how nasty Ross becomes.

Oh and a dog. Of course there’s a dog. Should they follow the dog? No they should not follow the dog.

But going back to Natalie, her hideous demise comes bang-on exactly halfway through the film. Almost to the minute.

The midpoint. That elusive screenwriting moment that’s a major plot point to shake things up. A realisation of what’s at stake. A false resolution, or an awareness of how bad things have become. In Se7en, it’s when Detectives Mills and Somerset discover John Doe’s lair. In Jurassic Park, almost exactly halfway to the minute, we first see the T-Rex and realise its threat. In Jaws, almost exactly halfway to the minute, the shark’s in . In each case, it’s horrific awareness. In Schindler’s List (Spielberg clearly loves his midpoints), almost to the second, halfway through the film Oskar Schindler goes from self-absorbed egotist to benevolent life-saver. We’ll zoom in on that example in a future blog post – it’s such an effective turnabout.

So that’s the midpoint – time and time again, giving our characters a fuller understanding of the horror show they’re in. It’s like they’ve spent the first half of the film climbing a mountain. Halfway through they’ve climbed the peak, and they can see not only far they’ve come, but the sheer scale of how far they have to go. But at least they can climb down the other side with skills learned and knowledge gained from the first half.

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How do we get out of this movie? We’ve been stuck in production here for years…

The end of In The Tall Grass novella and film differ. Why? Mainly because of the audience. Stephen King and Joe Hill write to shock their readers. The number of Stephen King short stories with downer endings… Me oh my. But films? With very rare exceptions, even horror film audiences seek some kind of happy ending. Tie up the loose ends. Let our hero win the day. They’ve suffered enough! You can still have an epilogue gut-punch if you really want, but most of the time, we won’t be satisfied with a downer ending.

Proper spoilers now: the novella ends with Becky, Cal and Tobin all a bit mad, hugging n evil rock, destined never to leave the grass, but this won’t do for the film. Simply put, they need saving.

How do you save a character? With sacrifice. And no, not Children of the Corn type sacrifice on that rock – but with self-sacrifice. We could get spiritual and religious here but I’ll park that for now. Suffice to say, an outsider coming in to sacrifice himself so that others might live sounds a bit familiar.

So this is where our extra character comes in. Not in the book, but entering the film stage left is Becky’s estranged boyf and father of the baby, Travis. For the first half of the movie, it’s not entirely clear if he’s good or bad, but again, at around that midpoint, all becomes clear. The brother is bad – the boyfriend is good. From the midpoint on, we’re just playing out what’s been set up.

Travis’ entire role in the film is to save the day – but the rules mean that doesn’t come easily. He has to sacrifice himself (the only way out of the grass maze is to touch the rock, to gain knowledge – again the biblical metaphors are there, with Eden-based apple-eating and knowledge consumption). Armed with the knowledge of how to escape, but cursed with never being able to leave himself, Travis can save the boy Tobin, who can then save Becky and Cal.

(One bugbear of mine? By saving Becky and Cal, Becky is destined to a life with her twisted brother Cal, but hey, maybe she’ll realise his motives another day, off-screen…)

So there you have it. A cast list of 5 grows to a cast list of 6 from page to screen. Interestingly too, the grass in the book can only alter space, while the grass in the film can alter space and time. By making it 2D, they’ve added a dimension… and a sacrificial saviour, to give us a ‘happy’, if still somewhat unpleasant, ending.