How do you take a story everyone knows and make it fresh? How do you turn 2000-odd words written 2000 years ago into 2 hours of compelling, gripping, 21st Century television?
I don’t know, but in the BBC’s new ‘mini-series’ The Nativity, writer Tony Jordan, director Coky Giedroyc and a star-studded cast have done it.
All of the above clichés are there; this isn’t some modern-dress retelling of the Biblical narrative, yet it is alive and contemporary nonetheless. Through top class writing (unsurprising from a script-writer of EastEnders amongst others), high production values, great directing, beautiful cinematography and fantastic acting, the team take familiar words, read so many times, and turn them into living, breathing, feeling people.
I was privileged to attend a preview of it last night, and as I walked to the venue, feeling tired and stressed from an even-worse-than-usual battle with Oxford Circus tube station, I wondered ‘Will this really be worth it?’ I’d seen a couple of stills from the promotional materials and it didn’t look anything special.
In a room of maybe 40 media professionals, however, I was by no means the only person on the edge of my seat, and it wasn’t just seasonal colds that had many of us fumbling for tissues more than once.
The series deals sensitively and respectfully with talk of the Holy Spirit, and the explicit claims that the child to be born is God himself, neither hiding nor ridiculing them, and gives each character a realistic blend of faith, doubt and hope. It necessarily leaves parts of the story out, but keeps all of the message in, and in doing so creates a prime-time TV show that believers can watch with friends of all faiths and none without embarrassment.
The Nativity is a fantastic example of master-craftsmen doing what they do best. It is riveting TV, even for the grouchy and jaded, and it will be a welcome addition to Christmas week in 2010 and for many years to come. Some will dismiss it as a meaningless myth but for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, it will reveal the timeless, magical, mysterious message of hope, and of joy to the world.
The Nativity will be aired on BBC1 nightly at 7pm from the 20th-23rd December 2010.