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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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.


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.


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!


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.



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…


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



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


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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…

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 13.43.05

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.

Screen Shot 2019-10-10 at 13.43.35

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.

Comedians With Books #2: James Cary, Pierre Hollins, Dan Evans


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Comedians With Books returns! With live show #3 around the corner, here’s live show #2 for your ears – or at least the book panel second half, recorded live at The Guildhall at Guildford Fringe Festival.

CWB is an occasional hybrid comedy-night-meets-book-festival, on this episode welcoming funny authors James Cary, Pierre Hollins and Dan Evans, hosted by Paul Kerensa (this is A Paul Kerensa Podcast after all). We get stuck into self-publishing v trad v Unbound, writing for radio, the future of the book industry, and much much more.

Also PK’s requests for beta readers for new short stories… details of Hark! The Biography of Christmas book group notes… new children’s book Joe’s Bros and the Bus that Goes… your feedback for future podcasts/audio versions of PK’s Writing Blog… and much much less.


Join Paul’s “A Team” of beta readers for his new book/short stories (and/or feedback about the future of the podcast): https://paulkerensa.com/contact.php

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

PK’s Writing Bloghttps://kneeldownstandup.wordpress.com

Comedians With Books #3 is live at Guildford’s Star Inn on Tue 8th October 2019, with Dominic Holland, Stevyn Colgan & James Dowdeswell. Tickets: https://www.guildfordfringe.com/events-archive/comedians-with-books-2/


+ this podcast’s books:

Joe’s Bros and the Bus That Goes by Paul Kerensa: https://spckpublishing.co.uk/joe-s-bros-and-the-bus-that-goes-pb

The Sacred Art of Joking by James Cary: http://www.jamescary.co.uk/sacred-art-of-joking/

The Karma Farmers by Pierre Hollins: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Karma-Farmers-Pierre-Hollins/dp/191158605X

The Casebook of D.I. Snaith by Dan Evans: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Casebook-D-I-Snaith-Dan-Evans-ebook/dp/B009562YVI

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IT: Two letters & two minutes to w(h)et our appetite/pants


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Just a quick bloggette, because I haven’t in a while, yet as ever I’m eager to learn from what I watch, to apply it to what I write.

And last night I started watching IT. The new one. Well the first half of the new one. The one that was out in cinemas in 2017.

Whichever version it is, needless to say, I didn’t sleep brilliantly. That’ll teach me to watch it in bed.

But clowns, balloons and storm drains aside… well what comes before those things? The first two minutes gives us a glorious taster of the horrors to come.

I’m convinced that whatever genre we’re writing in, we can learn a lot from horror films, as they’re so slick, so tight, so extreme… and they have to get that visceral response from us, or they don’t work. A bad drama is still a watchable drama. A horror (or a comedy, bizarrely) that fails to get that gut response from you, has failed.

IT does not fail…


We’re in a suburban street. It’s raining. (Instantly I’m getting a sense of the setting, but also a sense that this is not a sunny happy-go-lucky film – although summer sun, adolescent happiness and romantic luck will all have their moment.)

Mum’s (Mom’s, sorry, we’re in America – oh my are we in America) playing some sombre piano music. She thinks it’s sweet probably – it’s actually just a little creepy.

Bill is making a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie. They’re a sweet pair of siblings. Bill isn’t well. Georgie’s doing the running about. (Bill may come to feel responsible were anything to happen to Georgie then…) 

Bill has a stutter. He sends Georgie to get some wax, for the boat.

Georgie asks: “In the cellar?” (He HAS to ask this. He can’t just go. Even though he’s not saying he’s scared, he’s questioning the mission he’s been given. It’s only the cellar. But…)

Georgie takes a walkie-talker before going (Okay, he is a bit scared of that cellar. Did I mention it’s raining?)

Oh, it’s October 1988. (Makes me think of Halloween.)

There’s a pause as Georgie faces the cellar door. Gulp.

It’s dark. The light switch isn’t working. The walkie-talkie is, and Bill barks at him through it with our first little (tiny, weenie) shock. (It’s the first beat of the story that tells us this is a thrill ride.)

There’s stuff in the cellar. The torch just about works. And are those some balloons over there? Is that a face? Nah…

The camera chases Georgie out – but nothing else does. But Georgie’s running anyway. He. Is. Out of there.


“I love it! Well not IT, but it…”

That’ll do for now. The rest of the film continues with storm drains and a terrifying monster and childhood and togetherness and a theme of going down to places but being (rightly) scared to go down there.

In that first two minutes, we got a little taste of it with Georgie and the basement. It whets our appetites before we wet our pants.

Horror films are great at giving us a little taste of where we’re going – but in a safe way, just hinting enough at the dangers to come. It’s a rollercoaster that hints at the big lurch early on, but juuuuuuuust enough to whet your appetite.

IT’s opening shows us setting (the house, the street, the weather, the family), characters (caring-but-poorly Bill, eager-but-nervous Georgie, aloof Mom), and it doesn’t forget to start the story nice and early too (Bill sending Georgie out into the rain to float his new paper boat). But in all that, it also gives us that taster of things to come – and even includes those themes of up/down, floating, water, light v dark, children as heroes, and so on.

Whatever you’re writing – drama, romcom, suspense, musical – using those first two minutes as a trailer for the rest of the film/series to come can be gold. Especially in an age when people judge and switch off so quickly, don’t waste that first scene. Give us a little microcosm, a little glint of the horrors/fun/chaos ahead.

Oh and don’t watch IT before bed.

Night night x

Mary Poppins Returns: A practically perfect intro to the Hero’s Journey, Save The Cat… and Calendar Theory


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I finally watched Mary Poppins Returns. I knew I’d love it, so was waiting for the right time to watch it with the fam(ily). What a joy. Just lovely, and all the right kinds of callback to 1964’s original (the 54 year gap makes it the longest gap between any live action sequels). My children loved it too – and I’m glad they’d seen the original first. If you come to this cold, you’d miss out on so so soooooo much.

But while the secret to its success is its willingness to poach from the previous film, so many of its plot points are there in thousands of other films too. It backs up something I’ve been putting together for a while – a new way of looking at story structure.

I should say that, like Mary Poppins Returns, my attempts are not to add anything all that new. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m more like a marketing guy from Goodyear, trying to present it a bit differently – more user-friendly. I should also say this is just about the craft of blocking a story. The art of it is where the magic comes in. And there’s a whole heap of magic here, from casting to old-school animation to beautiful scenery to music.

So, spoilers for Mary Poppins Returns hereinunder. (We’ll do the below again with some other films in future posts, if you want to avoid and preserve your enjoyment of MPR.)


Reflecting on Mary Poppins Returns.


First, a quick crash course in other theorists’ story structures.

Joseph Campbell or Chrisopher Vogler might look at Mary Poppins Returns and note its ‘Hero’s Journey’…


Ordinary World: Michael Banks is now an adult, a single parent to three children, living in what’s left of the childhood home. All is not well, money-wise.

Call to Adventure/Refusal of the Call: This happens in a couple of ways. The arrival of the bailiffs jolts Michael into action to look for his share certificate (the MacGuffin), but ends up throwing away his old kite (from the first film). When Poppins appears, he refuses to believe that the magic from before was real.

Meeting the Mentor: Mary Poppins takes them on a new path of imagination and hope.

Tests/Allies/Enemies: Colin Firth as a seemingly nice bank manager turns out to be not so. A Royal Doulton bowl cements that idea. Other good and bad supporting characters weave in and out.

Approach to the Inmost Cave: The bank. Dun dun derrrrrr! Just like in the first film, the children approach the holy of holies, the fearsome Fort Knox, the bank vault itself… and then do a runner into scary London.

Ordeal: Michael nearly loses his job. He admonishes the kids, and Mary Poppins. They tried but made it worse.

Reward: They discover the share certificate but more importantly Michael finally believes his children. They’ve battled through London via Big Ben for a physical reward (the share certificate needs to be shown by midnight), and got their house back.

The Road Back: The literal road back down Cherry Tree Lane.

Resurrection: The family literally going up… with balloons, while singing ‘Nowhere to Go But Up’. And Michael resurrecting as the dad he used to be, and should be, and always wanted to be etc.

Return with Elixir: The family return home with reminders it wasn’t a dream – and Mary Poppins returns to the sky till needed again.


…That’s a rough quick version, with loads of bits missing. It’s all very nice and mythic and formulaic, but it can be tricky to remember your ‘ordeals’ from your ‘elixirs’ – which is why I’ve come up with this new one. See below, in a bit… but before that, here’s an incomplete skeleton structure based on Blake Synder’s Save The Cat…


Opening Image…

Theme Stated…


Catalyst… The bankers arrive to issue their demand to seize the house


Fun & Games… Down the bathtub with Mary Poppins, ‘Can You Imagine That?’

Midpoint/False victory… We can sell Mum’s priceless bowl! Oh no we can’t.

Bad Guys Close In…

All is Lost… Michael nearly loses his job. The house is all but lost.

Dark Night of the Soul… A dark night indeed – lit by lamplighters (‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’)

Break into Act 3…

Finale… Showdown in the bank

Final Image…


…I won’t fill in all of them because a) you can do that if you like homework and b) I want to get onto my All-New Never-Before-Seen (except on writing courses that I’ve run for BBC Writers Room and London Screenwriters Festival) Story Structure that I call…

CALENDAR THEORY (copyright Paul Kerensa 2019)

Because those others, while great, can feel a little unwieldy and tricky to remember without buying their books, here’s my version, based on the calendar year…


JANUARY: New Year/new start… Like going back to work, it’s familiar but different. We need a reminder who everyone is. Oh, that’s Michael – I thought it was the kid. And like January, most films open with a frosty atmosphere. Nature’s alive, but hibernating, and the house certainly feels chilly.

FEBRUARY: Valentine’s… A fleeting encounter. On this occasion it’s the banking bailiffs. Starts off well but goes badly wrong when they serve notice. That encounter leads to an opportunity.

MARCH: Spring… seizes on that opportunity, marching us into Act 2. Kite disposal leads to Poppins.

APRIL: April Fool/April showers… when sun was forecast. It goes badly quickly when Colin Firth turns out to be evil and rains on their parade. In fact it literally rains. With Easter comes a glimpse up of the divine. In this case, Poppins! (There’s a whole essay to be done on what Mary Poppins has in common with Jesus – from a descension/ascension (Jesus didn’t have an umbrella though) to the way she dispenses wisdom by asking questions and letting the listener fill in the answers to work out for themselves, to her parable-like flights of fancy.)

MAY: The Maypole… sees sub-characters overlapping and underlapping, from bank managers to animated horses, switching allegiances and leading us on a merry dance. Just as the Mayfair mirrors Halloween, there’s shock and noise at the Royal Doulton Music Hall, but it’s safe. For now…

JUNE: A family picnic is rained off… metaphorically speaking. Foiled plans and false resolution. Mum’s old bowl is not their meal-ticket after all – it’s broken. Mary P sings ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’, to reassure them about their Mum. Sniff.

JULY: School’s out/the end of learning… They’ve tried logic – it’s not worked. Their upside-down visit to Topsy shows that it’s time to turn things upside down.

AUGUST: The long hot summer… Alright it’s not summer here – it’s pretty bleak – but this part often means trying new things, flying off to new locations, a montage, the hard graft of training (think Rocky), August playground visits to play with our skills before they’re needed, and maybe bumping into old friends who we don’t recognise out of school.

SEPTEMBER: Fall, when we think it’s still summer… Characters stumble (the children are caught listening to Colin Firth’s wicked plans at the bank). The dark of the plot draws in (a dark night in London lit up by lamplighters/’Trip a Little Light Fantastic’)

OCTOBER: Scares! Provoking a change. Digging deep etc. Here, it’s deadline’s day and the Banks family are all packed up ready to leave their home.

NOVEMBER: Fireworks! Heroic day-saving, via Big Ben’s steeple climb and a rush to the bank.

DECEMBER: The darkest day! …As bad as it can get. And didn’t Love Actually (wrongly) say that Christmas was a time when you tell people the truth about how you really feel? This is the moment for that, as Michael realises that he’s got all that matters.

…Oh and shop early for Christmas, ie. something we ‘bought’ earlier in the ‘year’ can be ‘given’ here (the kite we saw earlier contained the share certificate all along!)

Christmas Eve rush – stores closing for Christmas! ie. The midnight deadline ticks on.

…And like Christmas, it’s not about the presents (the house) but the presence (they’ve got each other). Gifts, family and reunion.

…Finally, warmth after being exposed. Zoom out and the snow metaphorically falls (well, balloons rise, but similar) Inside, our heroes are protected. They have a house! There’s a New Year’s-ish celebration of colour and joy, and Mary returns home, and we’re back where we started, only a year on.


True story. 

So there you have it. Thoughts? Do say. I mean, don’t judge it too harshly. The Cover is Not the Book.

I’ll keep coming back to this pattern – and test it with some other films and TV shows. It’s not practically perfect… but then what is?