Sunday 22 Dec 2013
Tony Jordan is one of Britain's greatest story-tellers.
As lead writer of EastEnders he created some of the long-running drama's most iconic characters including Kat Slater and Alfie Moon; he created the critically acclaimed series Life On Mars and Hustle for the BBC and has adapted The Nativity for BBC One this Christmas.
Here he talks about the importance of the project, how working on the script changed his perspective of the story and what he hopes viewers will get out of his version of the Nativity story.
How did this adaptation of the Nativity come about?
I was made aware that the BBC was thinking of covering the story of the Nativity following the success of The Passion. They approached me to see if I could think of a way of telling the story that was fresh and relevant to 2010.
Do you think there is any comparison with The Passion?
I remember watching The Passion when it first came out but I haven't seen it since, so I don't know it very well. I think they are both attempts by modern writers to look at the stories in the gospels and to try and make them interesting, fresh and relevant to a modern audience. That is certainly what I tried to do with The Nativity.
What was it about the Nativity story that made you want to do an adaptation of it?
It only really became a passion project for me when I started to do the research. I thought I knew the story inside out and back to front because I had watched my kids in their Nativity plays and I had seen it in films and heard the story.
However, when I started doing the research I realised that there was much more to the story that I didn't know – that really intrigued me. I realised that there was a real opportunity to tell the story in a way that has never been done before by answering all those questions.
Can you explain why your adaptation focuses on three separate strands?
There were three areas that really interested me when I looked at the story.
Obviously Mary and Joseph, but they come with their own questions – who was Mary? How old was she? Did she live with her Mum and Dad? Did she have any brothers or sisters? How did she meet Joseph? How old was he?
Mary is particularly interesting because there is no sense about who she really is as a character. I had only ever seen her as this one-dimensional image with a little halo around her head. I didn't know who she was.
The same with Joseph, this is a man who came to believe that his wife was impregnated by God. I really want to know about him and who he was and how their relationship worked. So Mary and Joseph were really fascinating for me because the research throws up more questions than answers.
Secondly I have been singing We Three Kings for years but I never knew much about them. It was only when I started doing the research that I learnt they were called the Magi and they had been waiting for something that they call Balaam's Star for generations.
It was this generation of Magi that were there when it actually happened so I suddenly realised how important it was for them. To understand all that and to understand why they travelled a thousand miles on a very uncomfortable camel fascinated me and I wanted to know who they were and what they were and why they were there.
The third aspect is the story of the shepherds – the people that no one ever mentions. Of all the fields in Bethlehem and of all the shepherds out that night, why did the Angel Gabriel go to that field for those shepherds?
In the gospel it says that Angel Gabriel opens up heaven for them to see and there are orchestras playing and heavenly singing.
Poor Joseph, all he got was a dream and Angel Gabriel didn't even physically go and visit him. So the shepherds fascinated me as well.
I realised that I could achieve the iconic image of the Nativity that we all know with the shepherds, the wise men and the donkey, but arrive at that part knowing and understanding who each of them are and why they are there.
It is significant that there are three stories that we follow and I worked on the idea of the holy trinity. The star of Bethlehem is brought about by the conjunction of three heavenly bodies so it is a thematic thing for me.
Balaam's Star is a big and dramatic feature of the story. Why was that important to you?
Balaam was a prophet and one of his prophecies was that a star would rise out of Jacob and a sceptre will rise out of Israel which is a pretty specific prophecy.
He prophesised this a long time before and he was also credited by some as being part of the Magi or at least being part of the formation of the people that became known as the Magi. So it suddenly made perfect sense that the Magi would be aware of Balaam's Star and the prophecy of it.
Therefore when their astrological chart started to show that a star would appear in exactly the way that Balaam predicted and the result would be a sceptre from Israel I can understand why they wanted to go and investigate.
Was it important to have that contrast between the human elements of the story to give it a more universal aspect?
The problem is that everyone that exists in the story of the Nativity is a cardboard cut-out. Who are they? If we really pay attention we may know that they are called Gasper, Melchior and Balthasar and we know that they bought gold, frankincense and myrrh but that is kind of it.
Who were they? Why was it important for them to be there? Were they young or old? It was a real opportunity to do something that I felt no one had ever done before and take all those great characters and flesh them out as human beings.
If they are fully formed characters and fully loaded human beings then you are more likely to care about them. It is such a remarkable story that if you care about the characters as well then suddenly the whole thing comes to life.
How has adapting this story changed your perspective of it?
When I first started the project I am not sure I had an opinion about whether the Nativity was true or not. I guess that I just thought it was a lovely Christmassy story with baby Jesus in a manger and I liked it, but I had never thought about it more than that.
For the first couple of months I was talking to historians and scientists who did everything they could to convince me that the story never happened.
They claimed that it was a story patched together from bits of other stories and was concocted by the people who wrote the gospels to make Jesus the Messiah. They invented the census because the Messiah was supposed to be born in the City of David. So they concocted this fictitious census to get him there and that was their take on it.
So after the first couple of months I believed that the story never happened. But then the more research that I did and the more people of faith that I spoke to, I realised that this was a story that wasn't written down at the time, it was passed by word of mouth for a hundred years before anyone thought to write it down. So details and some of the timings get lost by the three hundred thousandth time you tell the story.
To me all the things that the historians held up to say 'this doesn't work' – for example, the dates don't match with the consensus that was held by Quirinius – become irrelevant. This was just a story that was told by those shepherds that were in the stable to some other shepherds and then they told some other shepherds who told someone else and they told someone else and that went on for a hundred years until someone wrote it down.
How on earth can you expect that story to be spread by word of mouth for a hundred years and for the last person who hears it to have all the dates and facts right?
So by the end of the process I am now in a position where I actually think it is true and I think that it happened more or less as I have portrayed it.
Is there one particular character who you feel a real affinity with?
I think probably Thomas the shepherd because he is there to represent all of us. The Magi are there to watch the fulfilment of Balaam's prophecy, Mary is there because she has been chosen by God, and Joseph has been chosen by God to look after Mary and the child.
Everybody is there for a reason but the question still remains 'well what does this mean to me? Why is this important to a normal working bloke?' and Thomas is there to represent all of us.
What was your experience of filming on location like?
I completely loved it. It was worth the trip just to watch Peter try and climb up on a camel!
The best experience was the day we shot the birth. I found myself at the stable with Mary, Joseph, a baby, three wise men, some shepherds, some donkeys and some cows! I felt like I had landed in the middle of my Nativity scene that I put up at home every Christmas. It was very weird but incredibly moving as well and I think I spent most of the filming process sobbing like a baby.
What have you enjoyed most about working on this drama?
There are two things. One is the journey that I took in terms of my understanding and belief regarding the Nativity story. I went from only knowing about what I saw when I watched my kids in their school plays, to talking to historians who told me it didn't happen, to then looking at all the facts and talking to people of faith. I did another 18 months of research and decided to make up my own mind and by the end of the script writing process I believed that it did happen and it was a true story. I really enjoyed that process.
I also enjoyed watching the story come to life in a Moroccan dessert as I had come to love the characters and the story, so seeing that was completely thrilling.
It is going to play out in four half-hour episodes and some people might feel that there is a soap element because of your EastEnders background. What would you say to that?
I don't think it can be compared to EastEnders. I think the structure of the drama makes it event television. It is not something that is tucked away on a Sunday or in a religious slot and is only for people of faith. It is a big, prime-time, BBC One, pre-watershed drama that is on in the week leading up to Christmas. I think that shows an awful lot of support for it.
What do you think viewers will get out of it?
I hope that if they ever had any questions about the Nativity and what happened and why it happened in the way that I did before I started working on it, then those questions will be answered.
I think if they have got faith then it will reaffirm it and I think if they haven't got faith then I would like to think it might make them think twice.
More importantly I think it is really nice for an audience to just be reminded of what Christmas is and what it is all about and it is the kind of project that shows just why we need a BBC.