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Interview: Tony Jordan, TV scriptwriter

19 October 2011

'I've actually got to go to Morocco and build the ark'

It was extraordinary, and not some­thing I've experienced before - the number of letters about [the TV drama] The Nativity which came to me person­ally, or through the production com­pany, or the BBC, and 99.9 per cent of them were positive and moving. I think it's the thing I'm most proud of. As a writer, you hope to leave something behind, and if The Nativity is the only thing I'm remembered for, then that's great.


Last year [The Nativity] seemed to reclaim Christmas from being about just Iceland ads. I watched it with my children, and I'm sure we'll watch it together on Christmas Eve this year. It just helped us focus on what it's all about.


I'm sure that it will be repeated for many Christmases to come. There will also be overseas sales; so people around the world will get to see it; and we have a DVD being released in November.


I know some people think it's just a mishmash of legends - but, you know, if you fundamentally disbelieve in something, you can find anything you want to disprove it.


I spoke to both camps before I started writing [those who think the nativity stories are legendary, and those who believe that they are literally true]. Most things that people hold up as not being true - dates, histor­ical discrepancies, like when the cen­sus was held, or when Herod died. . . Well, when you come to understand that everything in first-century Palestine was transmitted orally, and they didn't start writing things down for a hundred years or so, it's like Chinese Whispers. It doesn't alter the truth at the heart of the story.


When I write, I can feel the truth in a story, truth in a character. That was even true when I was writing shows like EastEnders: you just instinctively feel a truth. It was that multiplied by a thousand as I was writing The Nativity. When I write something, I often stop and think, "this just isn't true," and start again - even with fiction. I came to feel with this that there was a very real truth, or some­thing happened which was not very far off.


I think we were all aware that the story we were telling was special, and that it was important to millions of people around the world. It's hard not to be moved when you find yourself sitting in a stable with Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.


There hasn't been a great shift in the way I approach life, because, al­though I've struggled to work out exactly what my faith is, I have always tried to live by the doctrines of Jesus. It's not rocket science: be kind, be thoughtful, be respectful, don't hurt or judge other people. If anyone has a better blueprint for getting through life, I haven't heard it yet.


If the time ever comes when I live my life based on what other people might or might not think of me, then please feel free to shoot me.


Red Planet Pictures [his production company] is thriving, and we've got lots of really exciting projects. I'm also getting to work with other writers; so it's about the most exciting thing I've ever done.


I'm currently writing the story of Noah for BBC1 in the UK and CBC in Canada. We'll be filming in Morocco in Spring 2012.


For me, there has to be a reason for telling any story, particularly one that's so well-known. Everyone from the age of three to 100 knows about Noah and his ark; so I have to find a way of telling it that hasn't been done before.


Sometimes people go past what's important in a story - like with the nativity. It's a very simple story, but what did it take for Joseph to find his faith in what was happening? People often make it into a huge epic, focusing on the Messiah. With Noah, it's too easy to draw parallels with climate change and tsunamis, and so on, but the most important part of the story is one man's faith in build­ing the ark. After all, God told him to do it, but he didn't hang around to help him. And I imagine that there were times when his family didn't believe in it either. He must have had overwhelming faith to build that boat. I'm less interested in the rain and the animals and so on.


I'm writing the script for Noah now, but the really tough thing will be ac­tu­ally going to Morocco and making it happen. I mean, I've actually got to go there and build the ark. It's going to be an interesting journey.


My ambition as a child? I wanted to be Marc Bolan.


I didn't start writing until I was 34; so I'd had a bit of a life first. I was a market trader.


I know people, I love people; so I find it easy to write about them.


I left home with about 84p when I was 17, and somehow found myself a job and somewhere to live. Leaving the cocoon of the family, with no safety net, has probably given me more than anything else. If I'd stayed at home till my mid-20s and not gone out, I probably wouldn't have picked up enough ammo to be a writer.


A friend of mine suggested I write a script; so I did. It was about a market trader. I sent it into the BBC, and they liked my writing enough to offer me a job on EastEnders.


I wrote around 200 episodes, made lifelong friends, and loved every second. Every story has to have a heart - something at the centre - like the parables of Christ. There has to be truth at the centre, whether it's a true story or a fictional one. If you're writing a domestic conversation - the classic argument between Pat and Frank, or Kat and Alfie - every other married couple in the world will spot the truth in it because they've been there themselves. There's nothing worse than an audience throwing its hands up in the air and saying: "That would never happen. It just wouldn't happen like that."


The most important choice in my life was to leave home at 17. I had some tough times, but I learned how to take care of myself, and quickly found out that you reap what you sow.


I do regret working too hard, not being the best husband and father I could have been. I have six wonderful children who make me very proud. I have two beautiful grandchildren, and the most wonderful wife who takes care of me and protects me. I try and phone my parents every week, and have a brother and three sisters. What you get from family is unconditional love: that's the best kind.


I'd like to be remembered for not just concentrating on my own life, but helping to make at least one person's life better because we met.


My father has really influenced my life. He taught me to question everything, and that, just because someone had a badge or a big hat, that didn't make them right.


My favourite author is Tolkien. I love The Lord of the Rings.


Home is my favourite place. There's no place like it. We live in a little ham­let of about five houses and a church in the country, with chickens and ponies and goats. It's kind of idyllic, kind of a sanctuary.


I'm happiest in the kitchen, cooking Sunday lunch for my family. I'm very traditional - I like doing roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, though I don't mind pork or lamb or chicken to mix it up a bit. I've just had a new kitchen put in; so I'll have a really exciting weekend playing with all the new gadgets. There's a new oven which is a steamer: you just put things into it and they steam.


Crikey, I'm not sure I know the Bible well enough to start quoting best bits and worst bits. I love the parables, the lessons that Jesus left behind. Sermon on the Mount: wow! There are huge chunks of the Bible I don't understand. I suppose they have to be my least favourite, just because they remind me how little I know.


I love the sound of rain outside, lashing the windows while you're inside.


I'm angry when people judge other people, being opinionated about how they should lead their lives.


I pray for help to understand the whole God thing. Or for protection for my children when I'm worried about them.


Despite the evil there is in the world, I genuinely believe that there are more good people than bad. Some­times we forget they are there because they are the ruled, not the rulers; the preached to, not the preachers, the law-abiders, not the law-makers. We don't always hear them, because they don't feel the need to jump on a soap box and tell others what they should or shouldn't be doing, or have the egos to lead them into politics or public office. They live their lives quietly, respectfully, and with regard for others. I guess you could call them the meek. . .


I'd like to be locked in a church with an atheist scientist, so that he or she can explain to me how they can dismiss the notion of God when they can't even explain what makes up 96 per cent of the universe we can see, let alone what's beyond it. It's a bit like a three-year-old sitting in the Sistine Chapel with a sheet of A4 paper and a chunky wax crayon, trying to explain Michelangelo, Mozart, and the Beatles.


Tony Jordan was talking to Terence HandleyMacMath.


He is speaking at the Bloxham literary festival, 28-30 October.


www.bloxhamfaithfest.co.uk .

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