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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  • Comment number 22. Posted by Bloofs

    on 28 Jan 2011 20:35

    "The real challenge was to tell the traditional story, but in a way that could still move." - Does the traditional story told traditionally, not move, then? Seems to have lasted a long time if it doesn't.

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  • Comment number 21. Posted by Ronnie

    on 9 Jan 2011 12:17

    As a travel writer I believe that the nativity is a great tale and from the comments here it would appear that I missed a truly splendid adaptation of the story.

    iPlayer really ought to allow more than the past weeks broadcasts to be viewed

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  • Comment number 20. Posted by pompom6464

    on 4 Jan 2011 15:23

    The script brought a human perspective to the story of the nativity and the camera work was enthralling, The actors were excellent in portraying the vulnerability of their characters. The wise men were brilliant at capturing the potential danger in their situation And gave depth to characters that are barely mentioned in the story itself and yet are key. Well done to the actors who played Mary and Joseph for giving an intensity to the story which was really heart-warming at the end, as it should be. All actors great. Thank you Tony Jordan.

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  • Comment number 19. Posted by Celia Saunders

    on 2 Jan 2010 09:34

    A very thoughtful and well considered production. I particularly liked it because I think it depicted the story in a way that is easier for young people to find relevant and believable. Thank you.
    Celia

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by SarahBC

    on 1 Jan 2010 20:39

    I was sceptical about the BBC presenting the Nativity but was pleasantly surprised. It was a remarkable production and my 8-year-old granddaughter and I were both captivated. I too loved the three-stranded approach. For a change, it was not offensive to Christians, so thank you BBC for a really worthwhile production.

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by Joan Hart

    on 28 Dec 2010 16:20

    That was surely the best two hours of an entire years offerings. I hope it brought the meaning of Christmas into many rooms where hitherto only pressure to "buy" and "cook" had predominated. Well done - please may we have more in the same vein?

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by akade

    on 28 Dec 2010 13:47

    This is the best production of The Nativity story that I've ever seen and was sad that there were only 4 half-hour episodes. I loved the bits of humor and the reality of how Mary's situation would have been back then. Thank you!

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by Allison

    on 28 Dec 2010 07:39

    Thank you very much for this wonderful production. Watching The Nativity was one of my favourite gifts this Christmas. I would love to purchase it on DVD.

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by LadyP

    on 27 Dec 2010 16:14

    Congratulations on The Nativity drama, absolutely fantastic!!!, I loved watching every minute of it. There were no frills or over acting, just the simple story. I also loved the way some of the scene looked exactly like a traditional Christmas card.

    The balance was just right where both Christians and non-Christians could watch and enjoy the greatest story ever told and remember the true meaning of Christmas HOPE, FAITH AND LOVE .... Well done, I look forward to buying the DVD. Bless you :o)

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by chris taylor

    on 27 Dec 2010 09:46

    Fantastic adaptation of the Nativity.
    When can we get it on DVD?

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