For the last two Sunday's I've used clips from The Nativity, first shown by the BBC, in 2010. I must admit, I thought it was only last year, so obviously, my 'must buy the DVD when it comes out' didn't happen! So, this year I made sure it did. However, whether you show clips, or not, is not my point. I simply want it to get more airplay. I've been watching it again right through, partly whilst signing our WEBA Christmas cards (not my favourite Advent pastime), and, for me at least, it brings so many things into sharper focus, which have been a huge blessing, this Advent. Next year, I'm thinking of running some Advent groups.
Better still, buy it via this blog and your pennies will go towards our WEBA new initiatives fund!
Here's the interview with Tony Jordan, the writer of The Nativity, from The Telegraph, published in 2010 when it was first shown. My advice, if you've not yet finally prepared for your Carol Services sermons, is watch it again. It's both beautiful and brilliant.
There have been countless retellings of the story of the nativity over the past 2,000 years and they divide roughly into two categories – those that stick faithfully to the traditional gospel account of a virgin birth, and those that reject it in favour of something more biological.
Given that this year's big BBC One Christmas offering, The Nativity,comes from the pen of Tony Jordan, the award-winning scriptwriter best known for the gritty, down-to-earth world of EastEnders, it should, logically, fall into the second category. But think again, for the making ofThe Nativity has been something of a personal Road to Damascus for Jordan.
The 53-year-old former market trader, who only started writing professionally in his mid 30s when he sent a script in on spec to the BBC, has risen in recent years with Echo Beach, Hustle and Life on Marsto top the chart of British television screenwriting talent produced byBroadcast magazine.
To his list of credits must now be added The Nativity. "I don't come from a religious background," he explains, as we sit surrounded by panoramic views of open fields at his home in the Chilterns, "and I don't think I'm anybody's fool. I was expelled from school at 14. I've been in trouble. I know that people from my sort of background have always discounted the story of the nativity and I certainly didn't believe it when I started on it three years ago. But now I do." So what changed? It all began when Jordan, whose runs his own production company, Red Planet Pictures, was in Cardiff discussing new projects with BBC Wales.
His meeting overran and got mixed up with another where they were looking to follow up The Passion, broadcast at Easter 2008, with a new version of the nativity. "I'd probably had a couple too many rums, but they asked me what I would do," recalls Jordan, "and I pitched the ridiculous notion of doing the inn in Bethlehem as a single play, a bit like'Allo 'Allo. So you'd have the landlord and the Roman soldiers with silly accents, and about 50 minutes into a 60-minute play there would be a knock at the door, and our version of Rene would open it on a man saying, 'My wife's pregnant, can you help me?' Rene sends him to the stable, and right at the end goes to check up on them and walks in on the nativity. A week later, I had I forgotten all about the conversation when I got a telephone call from someone at the BBC saying, 'We love it, can you write the script?' It was a bit of a shock."
But why say yes? Religion is hardly at the cutting edge of television output. Jordan laughs. There's something endearingly honest and direct about him. "It was hardly religious at that point, and I only said, 'yeeees', but the more I thought about it, the more I thought my idea would be a travesty – to take the most beautiful story in the history of the world and turn it into a cheap gag."
So he began researching. The gospels weren't, he reports, much use. Two of the four don't mention the nativity at all, and the other two "very helpfully contain about 400 words on the whole subject'', which wasn't going to make much of a dent on four peak-time half-hour slots on BBC One in the immediate run-up to Christmas Day. Past attempts – reverent and controversial – to bring the story to life didn't impress him either. "I knew I wanted to put heart in it. I've never seen that done before. Even the iconic imagery is cold. With Mary, all you ever see is a one-dimensional image with a halo and a Ready brek glow."
Jordan read history books and consulted theologians – as well as Nasa in an effort to understand the star over Bethlehem. "I began to realise how little I knew about Mary or Joseph. Some of the research suggested Mary could have been as young as 12. What fascinated me was that she then became something different in my eyes – a child. I had never seen Mary as a child before. And with Joseph, I tried to imagine what I would have said if Tracy [his wife] had come home and said, 'OK look, I am pregnant but don't worry, its God's'. I don't think I would have slept on it, had a dream, and been OK about it [like Joseph in the gospels]." Jordan tells the tale of Mary and Joseph's betrothal as a simple boy-meets-girl romance and it is Joseph, an earnest but lovable innocent who emerges from the shadows as the pivotal character of this drama. "It is about Joseph finding faith," he explains simply. "I had to ask the questions the audience would ask. You cannot have Mary going away to see her cousin and coming back pregnant without Joseph asking if she'd had too much to drink one night and ended up in bed with a soldier, or if she was raped, because that's what the audience would ask, what he would have asked."
And it is by posing those questions that Jordan, along with a young and largely unstarry cast, and his award-winning director, Coky Giedroyc (sister of comedian, Mel), manage the seemingly impossible task of giving a new feel to a familiar narrative.
Once he makes the Mary-Joseph relationship as normal and credible as anything in Albert Square, he allows the supernatural elements of the story to sit less uneasily because they have a context.
Was he ever tempted, writing the script in the wooden shed at the end of his garden, to dispense with the virgin birth?
"If you accept that Jesus is Son of God, why would you not believe that Mary was a virgin, and that God must have had some hand in the impregnation.
''Quite how – whether it was a whiff of steam that came through the nostrils and into the semen, or whatever – is beyond my comprehension, but to me, as a sequence of events, it makes perfect sense." That's a big "if" he's starting with. I thought he wasn't religious. "I have a distaste for organised religions," he corrects me, "because they tamper with stories, add a bit here, take a bit off there, and then start killing each other because the other one doesn't agree. The only thing I know for sure is that the words I read as coming from Jesus Christ are the most truthful thing I have ever heard. As a blueprint for mankind, it is so smart that it couldn't even have come from a clever philosopher. Who would have been smart enough to say 'He who is without sin cast the first stone'? Wow! That's pretty cool."
Writing The Nativity may have converted him to the virgin birth, even to Jesus's blueprint, but it won't inspire Jordan to take his seat in the ancient church a few doors down from his house on Dec 25.
"I have a distaste for people who say to me if you come through these doors, walk down this aisle, sit on that wooden bench, and sing these hymns in this order, I have got God in a little bottle under my pulpit and I'll let you have a look," he says. "I don't think was God's intention."