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From Albert Square to Bethlehem

15 December 2010

The EastEnders scriptwriter Tony Jordan has taken on the Christmas narrative. His BBC mini-series, The Nativity, adopts a traditional approach, Olly Grant discovers

TONY JORDAN is crouching over a TV monitor in an old Moroccan kasbah. In the mud-walled, straw-strewn room next door, images that he dreamt up four years ago are being reborn before his eyes, in crisp, plasma-friendly HD.

Sheep shuffle in the darkness. A pool of light has settled on Mary, who is holding a newborn baby to her breast. “Have you thought of a name?” asks the woman beside her. “His name is Jesus,” Mary replies, “and he is the light of the world.”

To hear dialogue such as this in a mainstream drama is a rare thing. To hear it delivered in a big-budget TV series that will be broadcast at prime time, on consecutive nights, at the peak-audience time of the year, on the most watched channel, is even rarer. And yet that is what will happen from Monday 20 December, when Mr Jordan’s four-part BBC1 drama, The Nativity, takes pride of place in the Christ­mas schedules.

It is an unashamedly mainstream project that comes with real, mass-market pulling-power. The cast features several members of the acting glitterati from current TV, including the Garrow’s Law star Andrew Buchan as Joseph, and Peter Capaldi, from The Thick of It, as one of the Magi.

Mr Jordan is the creator of a string of popular dramas, from Hustle to Moving Wallpaper. A former market-stallholder with a ready tongue and an avowedly populist streak, he has also written more than 250 episodes of East­Enders.

He is the co-creator of one of Albert Square’s most successful families, the melodramatic Slaters (them of the “You ain’t my mother!” “Yes I am!” scene between the erstwhile “sisters” Kat and Zoë, if you follow these things).

It is clear, from spending a little time with him on set in Morocco, that The Nativity has had a powerful effect on him. “I’ve been a blubber­ing mess for the past two weeks,” he laughs, looking a little moist around the eyes.

But will believers want to embrace the version of God-made-flesh which Mr Jordan has created? To answer that question, it is helpful to explore how the drama came into being.THE NATIVITY’s antecedents are two earlier BBC projects: the innovative live-music show The Manchester Passion, screened on BBC3 in 2006; and the 2008 Holy Week drama The Passion. Both proved (to the surprise of some) that there was an enthusiastic market for biblical drama on regular television — at the same time neatly fulfilling the BBC’s legal commit­ment to reli­gious programming.

But, in making Christ’s birth their next port of call, they ran into difficulties. “They were struggling to find someone with a different take on it,” Mr Jordan explains, as we talk after the filming of the stable scenes. So he rang them. “I pitched on the spot, for fun. I said, ‘You know what we should do? We should do it like a soap, and set it in the inn, as though it were the Rover’s Return or the Queen Vic.’”

The idea, he says, involved an ’Allo, ’Allo!-style innkeeper who, in the denouement, opens his stable door to find the nativity playing out in front of him. “It sounds silly now, but I wasn’t trying to be irreverent. I was just trying to find a completely different way of doing it.”

But the more he fleshed out the story, the more he became con­vinced that it was the wrong place to start. “I kept thinking . . . the real story . . . is with ‘The Story’.” So he tore up the script, and started again.

This time, he decided to place it in a modern setting — but eventually rejected the idea because it was “naff”. “If families are sitting down to watch the nativity at Christmas, what they don’t want is some clever Dick setting it on a housing estate with the donkey as a motorbike,” he says, derisively.

Finally, bowed over his keyboard one night after “half a bottle of rum and 40 cigarettes” in his garden bolt­hole (well, shed), in near-despair, a solution presented itself. Why not tell the story straight, from the Gospels, in the traditional way?

This was a surprising outcome, because Mr Jordan is not a natural traditionalist. He describes himself as a man of faith (“I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and that he came to take away our sins”), but he has little truck with the modern Church: “If Christ turned up today, the first people to tell him he wasn’t true would be recognised religion.”

He was determined to tell the story exactly as he saw it, even if his vision ended up alienating the people who would be most keen to see it. “I genuinely didn’t care if I upset the faith community,” he says, bluntly.

And yet, over the course of his research, Mr Jordan found himself gravitating towards the traditional accounts in Matthew and Luke. This was partly because many academics told him, pointedly, that they were historically unreliable.

Paradoxically, their objections brought out the apologist in him.

“I actually found myself defending God’s position,” he says, sounding rather surprised at himself.

HIS research took him in interesting directions. He asked NASA scientists to explain how the star of Bethlehem might have come about (computer-generated footage of planets grinding inexorably into place is strung through the drama). And he looked into the origins of the Magi.

Where there were question marks over the texts — historians have challenged Luke’s assertion that Quirinius (governor of Syria from AD 6) was behind the census, for example — he did his best to find explanations for them in the drama. “We have a scene where Herod’s aide talks about Augustus ordering a census. And Herod asks, ‘Who’s going to oversee it?’ And the aid says, ‘Quirinius.’ And Herod says, ‘Ah, with one eye on the governor­ship of Syria, no doubt.’ It’s a small thing, and no one else will notice it, but for me it helps to explain that episode.”

His focus throughout, he says, was on bringing the characters to life in a way that the average un­churched viewer would understand. So his plot plays out as a topsy-turvy romance between Mary and Joseph, a couple in the first flutter of youngish love (Andrew Buchan is 31; the Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany is 25, but plays Mary as 16).

The character he most identifies with is Thomas (Al Weaver), a shepherd, invented for the purposes of the drama, who is losing his faith in God, and who represents the modern Everyman that Mr Jordan hopes to attract to the series.

THE story does part company with the Gospels in one respect, however. Joseph re­fuses to accept Mary’s account of her pregnancy (unlike St Matthew’s version, where he does a swift U-turn after a nocturnal visit from Gabriel). Instead, he remains en­raged at her for most of the drama. This was was partly to extend dramatic tension across the entire mini-series, he explains, but also because he found this easier to believe.

“It’s fine for people in big hats to say the angel did this and that, but blokes like me, sitting in pubs, will say, ‘So, your missus comes to you and says that she’s pregnant — but, don’t worry, it’s God’s. And then you have a dream and it’s all OK?’ They won’t believe it. So, in my version, Joseph loves Mary but he can’t come to terms with it. And when he has the dream, he thinks it’s just his brain telling him what he wants to be true — even when Mary tells him what the dream was about.”

There was considerable debate about how to handle the angelic appearances — particularly in the final shepherds’ scene, where Luke has the men being greeted by “a multitude of the heavenly host”. They initially filmed Gabriel (the Irish actor John Lynch) appearing out of thin air, but then decided to render him as a much more human figure, simply walking over and clutching the hands of Thomas as he explains that the Saviour has been born near by.

Mr Jordan insists that, while he wanted to rid Gabriel of the “wings” and “Ready-brek glow” so often seen in TV nativities, he has not tried to airbrush the miraculous elements out of the story. He merely wanted to render them in a way that will resonate with 21st-century viewers.

“Just watch the scene where Gabriel appears to Mary, and then reflect on that question,” he says, “because I actually think it’s more miraculous. And the reason it’s so beautiful is because I have human­ised it.

“Mary isn’t just a name any more. She’s a living, physical person. And Gabriel is a physical presence. He kneels by her, and says: ‘The light of the world is inside you.’ She says she doesn’t believe him. But he tells her to close her eyes, and he holds her hands. And she kind of feels it. She gasps. She opens her eyes and knows that it’s true.”

OF COURSE, capturing the requisite level of reverence on camera is not always easy — particularly in a biblical epic, a genre that has been parodied successfully by Monty Python, among others. It was a concern for the actor Peter Capaldi, a man best known for playing the acerbic spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in the BBC political satire The Thick of It.

“The most difficult thing about it is doing the awe,” he says, when I catch up with him after the manger scene, still wearing his bright orange Magi turban. “I’m always full of admiration for actors who can pull that off. You think it’s easy. It’s not.”

Did he ever feel the shadow of Python hovering over the manger? “Oh yes, it’s a nightmare,” he laughs. “It’s always in the back of my mind — that we’re going to arrive with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and a Jo Malone scented candle because the stables are a bit smelly.”

That The Nativity steers clear of these pitfalls is largely a result of its tone. It employs deliberately mod­ern language, and serious scenes are frequently leavened with humour, although without descending into irreverence. The setting, as Mr Capaldi points out, also feels cred­ible. Ouarzazate — a dusty desert outpost in deepest Morocco — was an obvious location, since it frequently doubles as the Holy Land.

“Most people in the world have seen Ouarzazate in some way, shape, or form, because virtually every­thing set in the Middle East, past or present, has been shot here,” he says. “It’s full of ancient, crumbling sets from productions like Cleopatra, and Kingdom of Heaven. In fact we used a bit of the old Ben Hur set (the recent US mini-series, not the 1959 original) for our Babylonia, where the Magi start their journey. They had built this rather exotic villa on the side of a lake, which our team re-dressed.”

Mr Capaldi’s approach to the story differs from Mr Jordan’s, since, by his own admission, he is a non-believer. And yet he found himself getting “quite teary” at the end of the stable scene. He puts this down to the story’s place in his childhood, and perhaps in a wider collective unconscious: “It’s a story that be­longs to everyone — irrespective of how you’re brought up — that’s taught to you in ways that you can’t even remember. It’s inside you.” And anyway, he adds, “not believing in God doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the magic.”

CHRISTIAN viewers, perceiv­ing divinity in the child in the manger, and appreciating the evangelistic potential of this new retelling, may now be hoping that the magic translates into high rat­ings.

Those who have already seen it appear to be highly enthusiastic. A preview screening in October was warmly received by the audience of church leaders and writers. The Controller for BBC drama commis­sioning, Ben Stephenson, who was sitting at the back, will have taken note. As for Mr Jordan — he thinks the series has all the makings of a ratings-winner.

“I think there’s been a gradual realisation [at the BBC] that viewers do react well to these things, and that, as a public-service broad-caster, they should be doing these things,” he says. “So I’d love to think it could be a hit. I think it’s as good a story as I’ve ever seen in British drama.”

He smiles. “I mean, it’s better than any EastEnders plot I ever wrote. The Virgin birth? Bloody hell! That never happened to the Slaters.”

The Nativity will be shown on BBC1 at 7 p.m. on 20, 21, 22, and 23 December

Location, location, location

The area around Ouarzazate — a small town in cen­tral Morocco, on a high plateau south of the Atlas Mountains — is a par­ticular magnet for filmmakers. It was used in, among other films, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Star Wars (1977), and The Mummy (1999). Even local animals are seasoned screen veterans — the Magi’s camels also popped up in Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven.

Scenes set in Bethlehem were shot in the neighbouring town of Tam­nougalt, which doubled as Jerusa­lem in the 2008 series The Passion, while the snow-capped mountains pro­vided the back­drop for the Magi’s Babylonia.

The stable sequence was filmed in an old walled-in farmhouse — as in Jesus’s time, Moroccan live­stock are generally kept indoors. The whitewashed walls were re­turned to their original mud colour, and a false arch was built across the space.

The set designer, Christina Moore, says that she used “Renais­sance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings” as reference points for the stable. “We weren’t trying to be slavishly accurate about historical detail, but trying to find things that were poetically right.”

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