The Nativity

Monday 20 December 2010, 10:00

Tony Jordan Tony Jordan

How do you tell a story where everyone knows the characters, the sequence of events and the ending, yet still make it fresh? Hell of a brief for a screenwriter.

The Nativity was a project that had me running round in circles for a while; I knew that I didn't want to be clever or contentious, just in order to be clever or contentious, by setting it in contemporary Britain on a housing estate in Birmingham with single Mum Mary.

The real challenge was to tell the traditional story, but in a way that could still move, even surprise a modern audience. As always, a screenwriters first tool is research and I spent the first month or so reading everything I could on the subject, talking to historians and theologians and watching everyone else's version.

A scene from Tony Jordan's 'The Nativity'.

The first thing that struck me was that they all approached the story in virtually the same way, all building the story to the moment of the birth then the arrival of the shepherds and the wise men. For me, this broke most of the dramatic principles I'd ever learnt, with the possible exception of Mary, we had no real idea who all these people were and why they found themselves in the stable in the first place. They may be iconic, but they were also one dimensional.

This gave me a structure of taking three strands, Mary and Joseph obviously, but then the wise men or "magi" and finally the shepherds to follow each story from the earliest relevant point to the convergence on the barn. The hope being that by the time we got there, the audience knew them as characters and understood why they were there.
This theme of "filling in the gaps" then went on to inform everything else I did. The star of Bethlehem for example, this too was one dimensional, there was no real sense of what it was. So we went into deep space, using CGI to see "star" forming, feeling its power, signifying the epic scale of what was about to take place.

As for the story itself, there are many inconsistencies; it is only mentioned in the gospels of Luke and Matthew and they contradict each other. Historians are more than happy to point out that our villain of the piece, King Herod, actually died four years before the birth of Christ and that Quirinius the governor of Syria who ordered the census which took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, wasn't actually appointed as governor until six year after the birth. I knew that how I dealt with these inconsistencies was important and I struggled with them for a while, until I realised that around the time of the Nativity, no-one wrote anything down, there was an oral tradition of telling stories, the gospels were written over a hundred years later. So just as in the nature of Chinese whispers, exact dates and detail can be lost or distorted after being passed around the campfires for a century or more. Therefore the thing that mattered wasn't the detail, but the spirit of the story, the reason it was told in the first place, it was this realisation that set me free to take the basic building blocks of the story and to mould them into my own interpretation. To simply take what I'd heard and to create my own camp fire story.

Tony Jordan's The Nativity is a four part drama broadcasting on BBC One at 8pm, from Monday 20th December until Thursday 23rd December.


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    Comment number 1.

    It will be interesting to see what you've done and yes, it was a good starting point 'not' to put Mary on a council estate ;).

    I feel that the whole subject matter can be contentious enough if telling it from a 'human' perspective as is.

    For example: Joseph's reaction to the 'immaculate conception' would be of anger, disbelief etc...that's natural and for me something that should be explored. That's the whole point of being a writer I believe anyway.

    I feel, as a Christian, that the human element (fears and emotions) should be explored and portrayed in today's faith (and in the Bible) as it enhances and builds on who these people were.

    Jesus as a man would have felt a wide range of emotions. The same can be said of his 'earthly' parents. That does not demean the Christian faith but, to me, makes these people and therefore, Christianity, more accessible.

    I hope you are pleased with how this project has turned out and know that at least one person out here, trusts and understands your approach. I also understand and accept how it gets a bit 'fluffy' when talking about faith.

    Merry Christmas!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I watched The Nativity Story last night and thought it was an excellent opening episode, Tony's very different approach has hit absolutely the right note. And it is the toughest of writing briefs, after all, this is the greatest story ever told - no pressure there then...

    But I thought that telling the story from the point of view of the three 'strands' - Mary and Joseph, The Magi and Shepherds - was very original and worked well, drawing the audience in to the story through less well explored avenues but which made the characters more rounded.

    I loved the astronomers of Babylonia, the shepherd worrying about his sick wife and how he's going to cope with next month's tax bill, and the betrothal (there's an old fashioned word!) of Mary and Joseph - so often glossed over in other film versions of the Nativity Story.

    Looking forward to seeing episode two tonight and Joseph's very real reaction to his beloved's pregnancy news!

    Mrs M

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I agree with Mrs M. Was a very good opening episode and an original approach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I think it's a great interpretation of a well known (and loved by many) story - realistic in terms of the likely reaction...just because it's not written word for word in the Bible doesn't mean it couldn't or didn't happen this way..Joseph was hardly going to say 'Oh, OK then, you're pregnant with the son of God, no worries!' Thank you and very well done BBC for bravely putting it on prime time TV this week - absolutly should be but would love to have been a fly on the wall when it was pitched!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    by the way does anyone know where it was filmed?


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