Chernobyl – an opening that throws you in at the deep end

“What is the cost of lies?”

The opening line in HBO/Sky’s astounding miniseries Chernobyl. It asks a question, then spends five hours answering it.

Apparently it’s IMDB’s highest-rated TV series of all time. It’s not one I’ll revisit, but in terms of efficient, compelling (terrifying) storytelling, it absolutely delivers. In my new blog attempting to decode why good/bad storytelling is good/bad, I thought it’s worth looking at why Chernobyl is so effective. So having spent the first post of PK’s Writing Blog looking at endings (Game of Thrones‘ in particular), let’s go now back to the start.

Many writing tutors suggest verbalising your story’s theme in the first few minutes/pages. Blake Snyder suggests having a secondary character blatantly state the theme to our protagonist by page 7. In Casablanca, Ilsa tells Rick he sounds “like a man trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart…” – and Rick then spends the film trying to act on his convictions. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne tells Red: “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Red spends the rest of the movie learning what he means.

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What is the cost of lies? Or a cassette recorder in 1986?

It’s no hard and fast rule though. Main characters can state their own theme, or it’s not stated at all. In Chernobyl we find a Soviet state fixated on swift cover-up and deceit. It’s efficient to its core, so it’s appropriate to be efficient in its own storytelling. No hanging about – the show opens with our protagonist, Valery Legasov played by Jared Harris, reflecting on two years of failed nuclear clean-up, by asking that opening question. By the end of the series, he summarises the answer to that question: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, the debt is paid.”

The true story (revealed in the excellent accompanying podcast interview with the show’s creator Craig Mazin) is that Legasov recorded these confessional and accusatory tapes, then committed suicide exactly two years to the day since Chernobyl’s accident (this isn’t really a spoiler – it happens in the first two minutes and sets up the show from there). He didn’t ask that question in real life, but TV necessitates condensing reality into palatable gripping dialogue. By having the hero ask that question in the very first line, writer Mazin gets to the nub of the show immediately.

How I Met Your Mother‘s opening line similarly sets out its stall from the off: “Kids, I’m going to tell you a wonderful story – the story of how I met your mother.” Arrested Development tells us what (or who) it’s about: “This is Michael Bluth.” Goodfellas famously sets things up with “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” No messing.

Others aren’t so swift to establish theme – and that’s fine too. Reservoir Dogs begins: “Let me tell you what ‘Like A Virgin’ is about.” Breaking Bad and Four Weddings & A Funeral both start with a string of expletives that set the chaotic-yet-fun atmosphere of a normal character thrown into chaos. They establish tone, if not the big theme.

The excellent ScriptNotes podcast (co-hosted by the aforementioned Craig Mazin, who wrote Chernobyl, as well as two Hangover movies and two Scary Movies – it turns out you don’t have to be confined to one genre) made a good point about theme. Theme, they said, isn’t a one-word subject matter. It’s not ‘Brotherhood’ or ‘Family’. Instead, your theme should be an arguable point. An explorable question. Like Chernobyl‘s opening ask, or When Harry Met Sally‘s ‘Can men and women ever just be friends?’ Ask a question, then answer it. When you have, roll credits.

Sitcoms have a similar theme thing going on. What the show’s really about isn’t what it looks like its. Perhaps Absolutely Fabulous isn’t about the fashion industry, but about the quandary: ‘Can a daughter play mother to her own mother?’ Blackadder Goes Forth is arguably about how class intermingles at life’s worst moment – and it compellingly ended with class making not one iota of difference when Darling joins Blackadder, Baldrick and George as they left the trenches via the wrong route.

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Cunning plans no help here.

I’m trying to write a political comedy-drama right now. It opens on election night, so I had my first couple of pages full of aides zinging around with coffee and stats. Scene-setting panic – all urgent calls and reassuring the candidate. Then I saw Chernobyl‘s opening. Why not start with a question then?

My new start has my candidate staring at a TV screen, asking: “Did we win?” That touches on my show’s theme too – asking at what point politicians have truly won. There’s a much pithier opening line I’m sure – it’s a work-in-progress. But I vastly prefer those three words to the two pages of waste-of-time chaos I had in the first draft.

I’ve taken too many words to talk about efficiency of words.

Next post: irony.

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Comedians With Books #1: Rosie Wilby, Matt Parker, Aidan Goatley

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The all-new PK’s Writing Blog continues below (and above) – right now, here’s a one-off podcast…

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-yzj2b-b3d6c0

A one-off (or at least very occasional) pop-up podcast with an excerpt from a recent Comedians With Books show, recorded live at The Star Inn with Guildford Fringe. It’s a new thrice-yearly hybrid comedy night meets book festival. This panel discussion features anecdotalist Aidan Goatley, relationship ponderer Rosie Wilby & stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, hosted by El Capitan Paul Kerensa.

Come see the next Comedians With Books live! Mon 8th July 2019 at Guildford’s Guildhall, with James Cary, Pierre Hollins & Dan Evans, hosted again by PK. https://guildfordfringefestival.com/sessions/comedians-with-books/

The next night, Tue 9th July 2019, new theatre compilation show Three Times Tables hits Guildford’s Star Inn: https://guildfordfringefestival.com/sessions/three-times-tables-an-evening-of-new-theatre/

Our 3rd Comedians With Books will be on Tue 8th October 2019, at Guildford’s Star Inn, acts TBC: https://www.guildfordfringe.com/events-archive/comedians-with-books-2/

More of Paul’s gigs: https://www.paulkerensa.com/gigguide.php

And this podcast’s books:

Never Eat the Buffet at a Sex Club by Aidan Goatley: http://www.lulu.com/shop/aidan-goatley/never-eat-the-buffett-at-a-sex-club/paperback/product-23532137.html

Is Monogamy Dead? by Rosie Wilby: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Monogamy-Dead-Rethinking-Relationships-Century/dp/1786154536

Humble Pi by Matt Parker: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Humble-Pi-Comedy-Maths-Errors/dp/0241360234

Hark! The Biography of Christmas by Paul Kerensa: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hark-Biography-Christmas-Paul-Kerensa/dp/0745980171

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

What Game of Thrones could have learned from Noel’s House Party

Many good stories start with an ending.

So too on this new variation on a blog thing – my occasional attempt to decipher writing foibles, learn from what does/doesn’t work in TV, film, books, or in story generally… and especially to see if some kind of skeletal structure helps keep the meat on the bones.

And yes, in this opening post, we’ll ponder what Game of Thrones could have learned from Noel’s House Party. In one show, a sinister bearded in a crumbling castle battles rivals guarded by a twisted man-mountain. In the other… oh you get the idea.

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The Mountain was silent, but for one word: “Blobby.”

So this first post is about an ending. Endings make great beginnings to stories. The end of an old job. The end of a relationship. The end of the day/the working year/the near-end of the marriage of John McClane (all roads lead to Die Hard).

Game of Thrones (which I’ll talk a bit about in this post… not too much, and not too spoilery) starts with the end of Jon Arryn. Who he? He’s talked about but we barely see him. He just sparks things off – in this case, he sparks the Starks. If you’ve not seen GoT and you think all talk of it sounds like elfy witchy nonsense, basically Jon Arryn was, pre-show, the king’s right-hand-man, and his early exit meant Sean Bean’s Ned Stark could reluctantly take his place. Arryn’s demise sparked eight seasons of backstabbing, frontstabbing, sidestabbing and other horrible ways to die.

Arguably the show itself found another horrible way to die. Many fans thought it ended with a whimper, rather than a bang – which is almost impressive, given the final season’s sheer urban devastation, with dragons breathing more hot air than Piers Morgan. Yet still a bit boring?

Other fans quite enjoyed the final season. A generous assessment might call it a mixed success. A less-generous assessment might say it went down in flames (though they could be from the dragon). So where did it all GoT wrong?

I did a Radio 2 Pause For Thought last week crowbarring in this very thing. The link is here if you fancy. On that daily inspirational/theological/philosophical message, I tried linking GoT’s meh finale with a stand-up comedy event I’d just done for Dying Matters week – an initiative to focus on planning our own finales. What do we want to leave behind? Have we thought through the practicalities? Where do we want it to happen? Have we tied up loose ends? Same things could be said for ending a TV show.

If you’re writing something yourself, planning ahead may make or break your ending. It’s satisfying when seeds planted in season 4 bear fruit in season 8. Some GoT apologists point out that some final plot points were foreshadowed in season 1’s poster, or in muttered dialogue in season 2. GoT grumblers have equally pointed out that as soon as George R R R R R Martin (you know he just added the Rs to sound like Tolkien?)’s books ran out, the TV show’s plot and pace started wavering.

Personally I’m somewhere in the middle. On the one hand (of the king), I think it does a disservice to the very talented showrunners to say they were only ever copying the books. They’ve skilfully created a completely separate work of art to Martin’s books – and at its peak, it’s been the best television out there. On the other hand, I didn’t find much to like in the last season. The fun and games had passed. But maybe that’s because… the Fun and Games had passed.

Screenwriting guru Blake Snyder maps out a story structure of fifteen or so ‘essential’ story beats. And halfway through a story is what his calls ‘Fun and Games’. Also known as ‘The Promise of the Premise’, this is the bit in the trailer, the reason you tune in or to buy that cinema ticket. While Snyder’s beat sheet is meant for single movies or episodes, zoom out to a full series like all 73 Game of Thrones episodes, and the structure still works. Snyder has a catalyst near the start of each episode – but equally Ned Stark’s, ahem, downfall at the end of season 1 is a catalyst for the show as a whole. He sees the dark drawing in about 80% through an episode – and sure enough, at the about the same point in the series as a whole, ‘undefeatable’ White Walkers swamped the landscape. And those ‘Fun and Games’, due halfway through a story, were long gone by the final season. The Game was still in the title, but the Fun was long gone.

We love midway surprises: good characters choose bad, bad characters triumph. No hero too good, no villain so irredeemable – everyone’s in the middle. In epic stories though, the good aren’t just good – they’re the saviours of everything: Frodo Baggins in Middle Earth, the Pevensie children in Narnia, Luke Skywalker in, er, space. The baddies aren’t just misunderstood heroes, they’re hell-bent on destroying everything: Darth Vader, Sauron, Voldemort. They’re blacker than black – but it was the shades of grey along the way that were interesting. Because none of us are whiter than white or blacker than black, but pingponging around in the middle.

If stories help us understand ourselves, we enjoy watching them when they’re doing that middle moral muddle. But by the end of an epic saga like GoT, everyone has to choose a side. Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen were all flawed in their fun episodes, but in that last season they all picked a lane. And I think that’s when the plot started plodding. Fun’s over.

Think of the best TV endings. Don’t they just stop? Yes they spend their last episodes tying loose ends, but they keep the fun and games going as long as possible. Our flawed hero stays flawed and our villains stay endearing, rather than picking noble heroism or pure evil. From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to, yes, Noel’s House Party, the fun and games keep coming as long as possible, flawed heroes and gunge and all.

So what could Game of Thrones learn from Noel’s House Party? NHP just stopped. At one point Noel cancelled the run by broadcasting in protest from the BBC broom cupboard: “Enough. They’ve cut our budget and the show’s rubbish.” (paraphrased) It all stopped. The show came back but Noel finally left Crinkley Manor covered in gunge by Freddie Starr. Don’t drag out a goodbye – keep the antics going till the closing credits.

I’m not saying that’s the ending GoT should have gone for. But by forcing characters into Pure Good and Pure Evil, it fell into the Epic Ending Trap. Remember the last Lord of the Rings film? They took 45 minutes to say goodbye. Goodbye Sam. Goodbye Frodo. Goodbye Gandalf. Goodbye Legolas. It was like the end of The Waltons (“Goodnight Jim Bob…”).

Perhaps as an epic fantasy, GoT doesn’t have the luxury of nuance. Other genres can enjoy shades-of-grey fun-and-games (nothing to do with E.L. James), right up till the last. M*A*S*H‘s great finale benefited from its war-zone setting, where tragic heroes veer between right and wrong all the time. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Dexter all had at their core a bad guy whom we loved – a mobster, a druglord, a serial killer – all anti-heroes who went down in a blaze of glory (or a lumber yard – yeah that one didn’t really work).

In cinema, I often find fun action films become boring in the final act. It looks ‘not boring’ (explosions, guns, baddie’s lair)… but you’re not as engaged in the story. They’ve thrown stuff at the screen to distract you from the fact that the tale’s run out of track.

So if you’re writing, maybe look at what you love in the early part of your story, and find a way to keep that going in some way. Things will be different – your characters will have moved on, but say farewell too early, and you’ve GoT trouble.

Do comment with your thoughts on this. And especially if you’re writing an epic (maybe fantasy?), how do you avoid the pure good vs pure evil problem in the final pages? How do you keep ’em guessing till The End?

The End. (For now. More soon.)

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Who will sit on the Gunge Throne?

 

New News about a New Thing

Hi old friend. I mean, you’re not that old. You moisturise?

This blog has been, in its most recent incarnation, my ‘Yule blog’. Loads of Christmas historical nuggets. They’re still there. But now they’re there, rather than mine that festive trove any more (history of swede mash? Bit tenuous), I’ve decided to move on to my latest fascination.

Stories.

Or more correctly, writing stories.

Or even more correctly, the bones that make the skeletons of stories. This should, I should note up front, apply to writers of novels or scripts of any length or medium – books, TV, radio, film. Any narrative story – mostly fiction, but also non-fiction. Stick around to help develop yours.

For a while, I’ve been quietly obsessed with story theorists – from mythologist Joseph Campbell, to the guy who turned Campbell’s wisdom into writing advice Christopher Vogler, to Hollywood wunderkind Blake Snyder, to Eastenders guru John Yorke, to many more. We might explore bits about some, all or none of them in future irregular posts.

Posts will be irregular. I shan’t post too often here. But it’s part of an ongoing project to collate my thoughts on story structure, if there is one, what works, what doesn’t work, why it works, and can I get a book out of it.

Alright, I steered into that one a bit abruptly. But yes, I’ve got a half-started Word doc on my laptop, crystallising some thoughts on all this, in I THINK a new way. I wasn’t going to do much with it, but in the last few years I’ve given occasional talks/workshops/seminars (all the same thing – only difference is how much you let others talk) for BBC Writers Room, London Screenwriters Festival, and various other gaffs. We’ve looked at the aforementioned writers-who-write-about-writing and their fave structures – but a new story pattern has come out of it too.

A few ‘students’ (they were only my students for a day, but I’m calling them students) have asked me if I’ve put this in a book. I haven’t. Maybe I should. Maybe instead I should use this pattern to write some big new telly show and see if it works. Maybe.

But first, this blog.

We’ll get to My Big Idea in a few posts’ time, perhaps. But first, I wanted to dwell on a few other story motifs, mis-steps and mental meanderings. So we’ll look at starts and middles and ends. We’ll ponder why so many scripts fail to get to Act 2 quick enough. We’ll speculate on which are the trickiest bits to write right. We’ll wonder if we should be plot-plot-plotting before writing any dialogue.

But first, what Game of Thrones can learn from Noel’s House Party.

Yes, you read that right. It’s a genuine opinion that I shall attempt to convey in the first proper blog post… next time on the all-new PK’s Writing Blog.

(While you wait for it, you can read about the history of Christmas if you want. You don’t have to, but it’s right there \/ \/ \/)

26 Steve Chalke & co – Beyond the Redgrave

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Can it be? Our final episode? Yes. Yes it is. Stay subscribed for the future podcast that’s currently percolating, due to replace this within the year. But for now enjoy 7 final conversational titbits from everyone’s favourite 7-sided chat bunker…

– Charity mastermind STEVE CHALKE on his world-record-breaking feud with Sir Steve Redgrave
– BGT semi-finalist NOEL JAMES on televising ‘the frog joke’
– Beatboxing champ GAV TYTE on teaches Paul to beatbox using a bag of cabbage
– Nomadic funnyman TONY VINO on Fijian language problems

– Vicar, author & prop-maker CRIS ROGERS on Butlins’ secret swimming pool

– Presenting guru LEE JACKSON on why short is tough

– Comedic collator SIMON JENKINS on apocalyptic jumble sales
 
Thanks for listening! Look forward to bringing you something new soon…
 
Our Amazon Guests’ List of books remains here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/registry/wishlist/LIDR28M9I9BY/
Donate to the podcast if you’ve liked it here: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
We’re still very ‘like’-able on FB: www.facebook.com/heptagonclub
More of Paul’s latest at www.twitter.com/paulkerensa
Paul’s mailing list is at 
Music by Rob Halligan: www.robhalligan.co.uk 

Rate us on iTunes + share and share alike. Mind the closing doors…

25 Christmas Special 2018 – The Nonagon Club!

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Ho ho whoa! 9 guests?! In a tribute to the 9 Lessons & Carols, Paul our Host of Christmas Past flies his sleigh back through festive history. There are no live guests a-guesting – instead for our penultimate show, we drop in on influential Christmassy words from:

– Astronaut TOM STAFFORD on pranking NASA 

– Private HENRY WILLIAMSON on sharing tobacco

– Writer CHARLES DICKENS on humbuggery

– Writer WASHINGTON IRVING on Christmas the English way

– Devonian clergyman RICHARD SMART on Christmas the man

– Puritan minister HEZEKIAH WOODWARD on Christmas the heresy

– King HENRY III on Christmas the dinner

– Saint HILARY of POITIERS on the first carol

– Charles M Schulz creation LINUS on the true meaning of Christmas

Phew! One more episode to go, for now. Join us in January. Merry Christmas!

Amazon Guests List – our authors’ books: www.amazon.co.uk/gp/registry/wishlist/LIDR28M9I9BY/
Donate or Patreon here, reduce our debt, keep us podding: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Rate & review us on iTunes – even if we are ending soon, it’s still nice, cos the episodes will still be here and need your recommending words!

24 Paul Kerensa & co – We’re Not Here Right Now…

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A stopgap podcast, to report on our temporary absence (due to a busy month), then our permanent absence (to follow early next year after a two-episode send-off). A couple more episodes will follow, then, well, the future’s bright – but it may, alas, not be heptagon-shaped.

An update is contained herein, plus snippets of guests from our fnar-fnale to come in January.

Amazon Guests List – our authors’ books: www.amazon.co.uk/gp/registry/wishlist/LIDR28M9I9BY/
Donate or Patreon here, reduce our debt, keep us podding: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Rate & review us on iTunes – even if we are ending soon, it’s still nice, cos the episodes will stick around…

23 Noel James & co – Rhodes? Where we’re going…

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Britain’s Got Talent, Storm Troopers, beatboxing, comedy, Rhodes… Welcome to October’s pod-party. Mingle with the likes of this lot…
 
– Comedian NOEL JAMES
– Other comedian TONY VINO
– Other other comedian NATHAN RAMSDEN-LOCK
– Storm Trooper/Vicar CRIS ROGERS
– Ship of Fools founder SIMON JENKINS

– Beatboxing tutor GAV TYTE

– Songster & biscuit fiend PAUL BELL  
 
…Your ‘Bring A Bottle’ contribution is to visit their websites, so seek ’em out online, and while you’re there…
 
Amazon Guests List – our authors’ books: www.amazon.co.uk/gp/registry/wishlist/LIDR28M9I9BY/
Donate or Patreon here, reduce our debt, keep us podding: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Rate & review us on iTunes + it helps us find people (or you could just tell strangers in the street, but rating and reviewing is less weird…)

22 Rob Parsons & co – Happy Creative New Year!

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It’s Creative New Year! Time for new projects and new products, including books, CDs, beatboxing tutorials and just good advice from these 7 wonders of the world…
 
– Care For The Family head honcho and author ROB PARSONS, OBE
– As oh-so-recently seen on This Morning, beatboxing vicar GAV TYTE

– Author and parenting guru KATHARINE HILL

– Songster & biscuit fiend PAUL BELL

– Comedian NATHAN RAMSDEN-LOCK

– Presenting expert LEE JACKSON

– Car Share writer, creator and creative genius TIM REID
 
 
Amazon Guests List – our authors’ books: www.amazon.co.uk/gp/registry/wishlist/LIDR28M9I9BY/
Donate or Patreon here, reduce our debt, keep us podding: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Rate us on iTunes + it’s good to share…

21 Bennett Arron & co – Play the Theme Tune, Sing the Theme Tune…

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Edinburgh Festival Special time… 6 of our 7 guests are heading Fringewards with these googlable shows::
 
– BENNETT ARRON’s I’ve Never Told Anyone This & Heard the One About Identity Theft?

– JAMES COOK’s Boardgame Smackdown

– ANNA NICHOLSON: Woman of the Year
– MARK RITCHIE: Bob’s Not My Uncle & Other Devastating Truths
– PIPPA EVANS in Brexit 2 & Showstoppers

– DOMINIC FRISBY’s Financial Game Show

+
– non-Edinburghing but he’s given us our theme song so he can do what he likes, ROB HALLIGAN 
 
Hear tales of upper-class rapping duels, irritating drinks machines, and what’s behind the shows being performed by this month’s magnificent 7.
 

Amazon Guests List – our authors’ books: www.amazon.co.uk/gp/registry/wishlist/LIDR28M9I9BY/

Music by Rob Halligan: www.robhalligan.co.uk 
Donate to the podcast here, reduce our debt, keep us podding: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Rate us on iTunes + share us around – happy summer all!

20 Pippa Evans & co – Temper Temperance

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4 comedians + 3 authors = a heatwave of guests. This magnificent 7 are:
 
– Radio 4 songstress and improvxpert PIPPA EVANS
– Jewelsh comedian BENNETT ARRON
– Nomadic funnyman TONY VINO
– Comedy magician and mag editor STEVE LEGG
– Mega-author ROB PARSONS
– Parenting guru KATHARINE HILL
– Pro speaker trainer chap LEE JACKSON
 
 
Donate to the podcast here and fund our future: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Music by Rob Halligan: www.robhalligan.co.uk 
Rate us on iTunes + share us around – cheers you!

19 Greatest Story Ever Toured special minisode

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A sort of advertourial one-off minisode opens season 3 – because I’m plugging my own tour: The Greatest Story Ever Toured. This time all 7 guests are from the show that we’re taking around the land, skilfully unlocking, awkwardly rapping and generally tinkering with bits of Bible. Our 7 guests are:
 
– Theologian and daddy of The Bible Course, Dr ANDREW
– CATH, the Welshest person ever & glorious leader of a cappella troupe Sound of Wales
– Sound of Wales man, MATT
– Sound of Wales intern AMY
– Sound of Wales non-intern non-man MEG 
– Tour producer and all-round good egg ROB
– + Bible Society Head of Comms and person-in-charge of the tour, RACHEL
 
Tour comes (so far) to Reigate, Guildford, Chester, Hull, Tunbridge Wells, Bristol, Exeter + Wimborne. Details: https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/the-bible-course/the-bible-course-on-tour/
 
Next time, more varied guests!
 
Donate to the podcast here and fund our future: www.heptagonclub.co.uk
Music by Rob Halligan: www.robhalligan.co.uk 
Rate us on iTunes + share us around – cheers you!