Monday 20 December 2010, 10:00
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.
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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