You could call it audacious. You could call it bold. You could call it simple South Yorkshire cheek. But, for Joe Stephenson, whatever it was, it worked.
The 28-year-old, from Meersbrook, had never made a TV show before when he approached some of Britain’s finest stage and screen actors – John Simm, Anthony Head, Simon Callow and Catherine Tate among them – and asked if they’d be in a programme he’d thought up.
Remarkably, everyone said yes. More remarkably still, when it aired on Sky Arts back in 2011, it became the most successful show in the channel’s history.
In Love With Shakespeare – in which all those actors (and more) simply performed (for free) their favourite monologues – was called the TV event of the year by one critic. It spawned three more – In Love With Dickens, In Love With Wilde, and In Love With Coward – starring the likes of Stephen Fry and Caroline Quentin.
And it made an industry star of young Joe, the former Old Hall School pupil and one time Sheffield Star employee who is now heading for work on a silver screen biopic of Noel Coward.
Not bad for an idea he came up with while working as a dogsbody for a London production company.
“I’d just made my own silent short called The Alchemist’s Suitcase and people said it was good but they said I needed to prove I could work with actors and dialogue if I was to be taken seriously,” explains Joe, who grew up in Brook Road and lived in Ecclesall Road before moving to London in 2007. “So, I thought I may as well try and work with the best.
“I thought any good actor would enjoy performing a Shakespeare monologue, and it was done for charity – I wasn’t paid – so they were happy to give their time. I asked Sky Arts to be involved and they said yes. Then it started getting TV Pick of the Week in national newspapers, I was gobsmacked.”
The success inspired him to try and make a go of his own production company, B Good Pictures. Which, it’s fair to say, he’s achieved.
Today he’s just got back from Los Angeles where he persuaded a big name Hollywood actor to star in that Coward movie (“yes, you’ll have heard of him; no I won’t say who”). Tomorrow, meanwhile, he travels to Cannes Film Festival to gather support and funding. And this summer, he starts filming his first major big screen project. That’s called Chicken, will hit cinemas next year, and stars another big name, Yasmin Paige.
“I can’t wait to get started,” says Joe, whose family now live in Elsecar.
After that? What was it Coward, himself, said? “Work is much more fun than fun.” For Joe that seems especially true.