Do stay for tea and coffee: ‘My radio sitcom idea ground to a halt when I turned on Radio 4 and heard it.’
Paul Kerensa has a new idea, or thinks he does
Occasionally we creative types face a frustrating hurdle. An idea we’ve been lovingly developing appears out there in the world – authored by someone else. That book idea, play idea or high-concept premise that we think we’ve invented, someone beats us to it.
My writing career has drifted between page, stage, screen and airwaves – and all of them offer those unfortunate surprises. I’ve worked up book ideas that I’ve then spotted on Waterstones shelves. My radio sitcom idea ground to a halt when I turned on Radio 4 and heard it. There’s nothing new under the sun, says Ecclesiastes – and by being the umpteenth person to quote that verse, I am indeed demonstrating that there’s nothing new under the sun.
I once pitched a vicar sitcom to a comedy producer who said The Vicar of Dibley was too recent; six months later, Rev appeared. I developed a family Christmas history show; then Horrible Histories’ Horrible Christmas launched their theatrical tour. It’s not just me. Writer friends have claimed they had the idea for Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel or Groundhog Day (in 2015? Really?).
One idea I’ve kept returning to is a TV drama series which brings the Gospel stories to mainstream audiences with a (seemingly) new angle on Jesus’ life. The biopic of Jesus of Nazareth has been done and done well. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ portrayed that key week of Christ’s life with a particularly unflinching tone. So what could I bring new to the table?
My plan was to explore Jesus’ life through those near to him, a different disciple or other character each episode. I mapped out the series, carefully researching the timeline of who to feature when – Andrew early on as first to be called, Judas later with Passion Week betrayal. We’d explore how perspectives might differ, from an establishment figure like Matthew the tax collector to anti-establishment Simon the Zealot – names we often lump together, but who must have brought different attitudes to these world-changing moments. I bought out-of-print commentaries, old books on eBay, and devised a complex Excel spreadsheet of who met Jesus when.
Then The Chosen appeared. If you haven’t heard of The Chosen, see the previous paragraph for a brief summary. Its first season, in 2019, told the life of Jesus through a different person in each episode. Three seasons and a Christmas special later, it has become the most successful crowdfunded screen project of all time, raising $40m from viewers’ donations. It’s viewable in its own free app or on Amazon Prime or Netflix. It’s a huge show, with an Excel spreadsheet that must be even more complex than mine.
So where does that leave my idea? Do I abandon and move on? Maybe BBC1 or Sky won’t come knocking for my idea (they probably never would). But it might yet be a radio series, or a play, or a one-man show (I could wear many hats, as I seem to in the rest of my eclectic ‘portfolio’ writing career – I really can’t settle).
The truth is that no creative project is ever binned. They’re all in the bottom drawer ready and waiting. Another truth is that we all have our own angle on these stories – just as Matthew and Simon (and Other Simon) had theirs. The Chosen writers have theirs, I have mine, and you have yours. Jesus didn’t have just one disciple. All had a role to play.
So let’s keep telling the stories in our own way. Not every idea will end up with The Chosen’s 100 million viewers (and counting), but whenever two or three viewers, or listeners, or conversationalists are gathered – I’m sure we can still make a difference with the stories we tell.
Paul Kerensa is a writer, comedian and broadcaster. paulkerensa.com
This article was published in the February 2023 edition of Reform