How did the story of the Nativity capture the heart of one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters?
As one of TV’s most influential screenwriters, Tony Jordan is the man behind a string of popular programmes. A former lead writer on EastEnders, he has since created the hit shows Hustle and Life on Mars, and has been named by industry magazine Broadcast as the UK’s top television writer. This Christmas, his take on the Nativity story will form one of the major elements of BBC1’s festive offering. While he initially approached the script like any other project, the process of writing this one has had a major impact on his life.
As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I confess that meeting Jordan was somewhat akin to my being introduced to Gary Lineker as a football-mad child. Alongside that excitement though, there was also a nervousness about the kind of interview subject he might make. I half-expected him to be the typical writer, introverted, with undeveloped social skills; in fact the total opposite was true. Considering his standing, I might also have expected to find him distracted and aloof, rather bored by the promotional process. Instead, he was engaging and passionate, thrilled with the opportunity to talk about a project to which he clearly has a deep emotional connection.
Jordan wasn’t only enthused by the story however. It soon became clear that the Nativity, and the central infant character around which it revolves, had not just inspired, but captured the writer. Even considering the lofty works with which his name is currently connected, it may be that this programme above all others becomes the most definitive of an impressive career.
You’ve written a diverse range of shows, but was there an element of risk in then taking on religious material?
No. What I try and do as a writer, the thing that I want to do over and above everything else, is to do something that’s groundbreaking, that hasn’t been done before, or hasn’t been done before in this way. I think that’s why you get shows like Life on Mars, Hustle. It’s why I went back to EastEnders, having left for three years, to write Dot’s monologue episode. No one had ever done an episode of any of the big soaps with just one character, so that was a first.
I think that if you’re brave, if it all goes pear-shaped and it all falls apart, people still recognise that you failed trying. If you have no kind of creative integrity and you just knock something out to pay the mortgage and it fails, people recognise that not only was it not very good but also there’s no creative integrity behind it.
I’ve had a few knocks but I’ve survived them because people do recognise that I’m brave. So taking on a story that’s been told a million times before is quite brave, yes, but of course, that’s exactly what I should do.
Is that what drives you - the desire to innovate?
No! You’d drive yourself mad! I’m sure there was some point in my life when I wanted to be an inventor or something, kind of waking up in the morning and going, ‘So what has never been invented before?’ It doesn’t work like that. The way it works is that you’re presented with an opportunity, whatever that is, and you think ‘How can I put my own individual voice into this? How can I make it my own? How can I make it unique? How can I do it differently to the ways that it’s been done before?’ So innovation on its own doesn’t really mean anything. It has no substance. It’s more about how you approach projects that will come to you anyway.
So is it your take on things that makes you a successful writer?
If it’s not about my take on something, I don’t know why I’m a writer. The most precious thing I have as a writer is my unique voice; the script that I will write that no one else will write in the same way. They may write it better, they may write it cleverer, smarter, funnier, I don’t know, but they won’t write it in the way that I do. I think that that’s really important because once I lose that I haven’t got anything, I’m just a hack. So, I’m always aware that I have to hold on to my individual voice.
Sometimes that sounds quite pretentious, but for you it resonates. You’re very honest.
No, no, it’s true. You have to do that, especially with something like the Nativity. If you come to the Nativity and just do something with a donkey and a couple of sheep and just do word for word what’s been done a million times before, then what’s all that about? What gets you to the typewriter? I still want to set the world on fire.
I’ve been writing for 20 years [and] I still want to write something that no one’s ever written before. I want to change the face of television programmes, I still want to do those things, and you can only do that by using your own voice. You can’t do it by just being derivative and going through the motions, and reading some guru’s book.
I heard that when you approached the Nativity you were thinking you would do it in a way that’s never been done before, and then you had a change of heart. Is that accurate?
It’s true. My company made this, Red Planet Pictures, and so it is my vision of the Nativity, not the BBC’s. I did it through BBC Wales, that’s where the original commission came from. I was in Cardiff, with a group of people trying to do a new take on the Nativity story and I suggested that what you do is you just do the inn. It’s really iconic – the inn that turned away Mary and Joseph. We create the story in the inn and tell the story with the landlord and his wife, a barmaid and so on. A bit like ‘Allo, ‘Allo but without the comedy. About three-quarters of the way through the barman remembers the couple in the barn. They actually commissioned the script. So, for about three days that’s how I was going to approach the storyline.
But then something changed your mind?
I’m a family orientated man and I realised that I couldn’t just be silly with it. So I started doing the research. The first part of that was to watch everything that’s been done before on the story of the Nativity, because I was aware that everybody knew the story. I suddenly had this blinding revelation, for want of a better phrase, which is that nobody had ever done the story properly. No one had ever done it in the way that I thought it should be done. You don’t know who Mary is. Who’s Joseph? You don’t know who they are as people. They don’t seem to have particular character definitions. Who are Mary’s mum and dad? Why is she with Joseph? Did she meet him in a field? Was it an arranged marriage? How did that all come about anyway? Who are the three wise men? Who were they? Were they kings? Where did they come from? Why were they there? What did they follow? What’s the star of Bethlehem? Is it a conjunction of planets? What’s all that about? And the shepherd blokes in the fields…God goes to Joseph in a dream, has a little chat, but actually visits Mary. But to the shepherds in the field on the night of the birth, he opens up heaven and shows the shepherds heaven.
Who were they? What were they called? And so I realised that no one had ever done those things. They’d not actually gone any deeper or investigated any further. So, once I realised that no one had actually done it properly, I decided that I could bring, not my innovation necessarily, but my unique voice to the story by just telling the story properly.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ made millions but films of the Nativity never seem to. Do you think people are more interested in Jesus’ death than his birth, or has it just not been packaged right?
I don’t think people get the story. They dismiss it immediately. If you have no faith, you’re sitting in a pub with four or five blokes and they’re plasterers and builders and scaffolders and whatever, you can talk about the life of Christ and the teachings of Christ and it kind of makes sense. The parables all make sense, it’s kind of cool, it’s all within the realms of believability and understanding. Jesus’ death, the crucifixion, the Romans’ part in that, the betrayal of Judas, yes, OK, I get that, I completely understand it.
Where it all falls down for many people is the Nativity end of the story. And basically, what happens is that there’s this couple, engaged to be married, and Mary goes to Joseph and says: ‘I’m pregnant, but don’t worry, it’s God’s.’ At that moment you’ve lost them all. Now they’re all rolling about on the floor and they’re saying, ‘I can imagine if my missis came home and said, “Don’t worry, it’s God’s!”’ And then the Nativity story compounds the problem when Joseph has a dream and says: ‘Do you know what, it’s OK, I had a dream, we’re all sorted, blessed am I and I’m now going to look after you.’ You’ve lost everybody, no one believes it. They don’t believe it in the way they do the other parts of the story because there’s something about it that just sounds faintly ridiculous. Surely the trick then, is if you can remove that, if you can show those people the story, and believe it and make them believe it, and make them cry at the beauty of it, well, that’s the way to tell the story of the Nativity. So, that was kind of the premise really.
To what degree do you think that people’s classic Christmas card image of the Nativity is going to be challenged by what you’ve put together?
It will look exactly like they want it to look. Because I think it’s really important. If I’d done an image of the Nativity that was completely different to the iconic images of the story, if I’d have changed that in any way, they would have dismissed what I’d done as just another thing coming from a funny little angle and gimmicky. So what I’ve done is take the story that everybody knows and all the elements you want are in there. You have your wise men, your shepherds, Mary and Joseph. The angel Gabriel who appears, no wings, but he appears. All that I’ve done is work on character. We see Mary and Joseph meet for the first time and we see their relationship. We see her parents, we see the way they live. We see the moment that Joseph sees that Mary’s pregnant. But I’ve tried to do it in an honest way. I haven’t skirted over it with, ‘and then it came to pass that Joseph accepted that the child was his and they wandered off into the hills.’ It’s not that.
My Joseph says: ‘What, really?’ He asks questions that I would ask. When Mary says: ‘You don’t understand, it’s not the way you think it is,’ he says: ‘But you are pregnant?’ ‘Well, yeah, but it’s not like that.’ And he automatically assumes that she was raped. What else would you think? And so he asks her: ‘Were you raped?’ To me that’s a simple question that I’ve never heard, but of course you would if you were a guy. If your fiancé was saying to you: ‘I am pregnant, but it’s not what you think and I haven’t betrayed you or been unfaithful,’ then you were raped. And so we have that discussion.
So, by making it real and asking those questions that the guys in the pub would ask, and dealing with them, not being frightened of them, then suddenly it starts to come to life.
So you haven’t removed the supernatural element?
No, not at all. I had a meeting, well more of a discussion, with NASA, because one of the things I wanted to do was the star of Bethlehem. What’s all that about? You and I both know that you don’t get big stars, that actually look like stars as well, with the kind of spiky bits, moving across the sky in order for you to followthem! So, some of the research that I did suggested that around that time there was a conjunction between three heavenly bodies, which were Jupiter, Saturn and a star called Regulus. So I thought, well OK, I want to go into space and I want to get my head round that conjunction – I want to see. Because that’s a big deal, right? If God is putting together a star, or this star is there to signify or herald this birth – someone’s moving the planets. So we go into space, with CGI, and we see the planets moving. Because that then gives you ‘Woah, this is kind of big isn’t it?’ So we went to NASA and said we wanted a shot of Jupiter, Saturn and Regulus all coming into conjunction, and they said that never happened. It would take a hundred billion years for that alignment and you want to see it moving, but it wouldn’t happen.
So I said: ‘Let’s say there’s a God, let’s just accept that, let’s just say for one second that there’s a God that has complete power over the whole universe. What if he was pushing the planets together? Could that work? Could it then happen in a year?’ He said: ‘Well yes, of course.’ And I said: ‘Well that’s the thing, because that’s what the film is saying. We’re not waiting for nature to make three planets align, what we’re saying is that God is actually physically pushing those planets together to give a sign to herald the birth.’
So then once you start to do that, to me that’s not supernatural. When Gabriel arrives, it’s not supernatural, that makes it sound like witchcraft or like fairies and things. I believe, after all the research I’ve done, everything I’ve read, I’ve talked to every historian that I could find to talk about first century Palestine, I’ve read everything, I’ve seen everything – I believe the Nativity happened as portrayed. Not necessarily as in my film because the characters are a bit different, but I think my film is a fair representation of how it might have been.
And I think that all the discrepancies that people dismiss it with and say well it’s nonsense, and certainly all the historians I talked to, all miss one simple fact, which is that in first century Palestine there wasn’t a daily newspaper or News at Ten. Everything was an oral tradition and so stories were passed from village to village, from person to person. Just as in Chinese whispers, the dates, things get mixed up, but it never affects the heart of the story. It’s just the details. So whether Quirinius was really the governor of Syria at the time of the census, whether this, whether that, it doesn’t matter, because these were simple people exchanging stories and of course they added bits on here and there and they forgot a bit, but essentially the story was true.
In terms of your own personal beliefs, when you took this on did you believe any of this stuff? Where were you at in terms of engagement with this story?
I think I represent a huge swathe of people that say: ‘Yeah I believe in God and all that,’ but don’t tend to do too much about it. I’m one of those people that rather annoyingly says: ‘Well, as long as I live my life properly, it doesn’t matter about the rest of it.’ It’s true to say that I had a faith. I had a faith that wrestled daily with my intellect. I really struggled with God as something I could see and touch and that had some sort of physical presence that I would know if I saw it. But then the more I thought about it, I did find a route through.
During the time that I was researching the Nativity, I read something or heard something about this dark matter and had a conversation with a scientist about it and basically 80% of the whole universe, everything we understand, is made up of dark matter. They don’t actually know what it is. They can’t see it, they can’t measure it, they can’t test it – they don’t know. The only thing that they know for sure is that it must exist because of the way that planets move and stars move, that must be due to a gravitational influence of something. The whole laws of physics don’t work unless there is this thing called dark matter, which they don’t know what it is. So, I said to a scientist, ‘OK, let’s just change the name for a minute. Let’s not call it dark matter, just for this conversation, just humour me. Let’s call it God.’ Because I think that whoever God is and whatever God is, it’s beyond my comprehension. I can’t even get my head round what it must be, or what he must be, I can’t do it. And once you understand that, I think it suddenly makes sense. So the story of the Nativity for me, I kind of found I reinforced my faith along the way.
So on Christmas day will we find you in church with your six children?
No, no. Do you know what I hate about religion? Faith and religion and the teachings of Christ are such a thing of beauty. You know when you hear pure truth? Just something as simple as ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone,’ the simplicity of that. When you understand how beautiful it is and then you actually look at how many people have been killed in wars. Not over the beauty of faith, but over denomination and interpretation. So what happens is someone reads those 800 words of the Nativity that I read in Matthew and Luke…I had people say to me, ‘You know that there was no pain for Mary? She was an eternal virgin. She was a virgin obviously by conception, she was a virgin afterwards, but more importantly she was a virgin during the birth.’ And I said, ‘She was a virgin during the birth, how does that work?’ ‘Well, the hymen wasn’t even broken.’ I said, ‘So there was no pain and the hymen wasn’t broken during the whole process? The baby just somehow appeared?’ And I hate that, because that’s not written down anywhere. Who said that? I believe it’s one of the Catholic principles, but where is that? Show me that in the Gospels, let me see that. So, what I hate is somebody who says to me, ‘Right, you come through that door, you walk down that aisle and you sit in that pew, you say these things in this order. And, if you do all that, I have God in a bottle, underneath my pulpit and I will take him out and let you have a little peep. You have a little look, there he is, have a sniff, and now he’s going back and I’ll see you next Sunday.’ And all that arrogance and that misinterpretation of something so beautiful, I hate that side of it. So, I don’t know what you can do about that really.
How do you feel about the fact that Christians are praying that people will be converted through watching what you have done?
I genuinely hope that people are converted. I’ve shown it to people that have no faith whatsoever – hard-nosed TV kind of things. And one of them, (I won’t name her because I don’t want to embarrass her, she should be the one to say it) said, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think it’s true.’ Wow! I’d love to think that people are moved enough to believe it, to find faith, but to find the beauty of the faith and not to suddenly say, ‘my denomination is right.’ Because that sounds to me like The Life of Brian. That’s nonsense. So, if people find faith, and I think the one thing that’s in the Nativity is the absolute heart and soul of the faith, the absolute heart and soul. So if that moves you, as it moved me – you know, I’ve cried like a baby for the past four years. I executive produced it. I cast it. I wrote it. I picked the costumes. I was in Morocco for a month, I ate the dust. It is my vision of what the Nativity should be. Obviously along with the fantastic director, Coky Giedroyc. But, I know what it is. I’ve seen every scene 100 times and I’ve got 100 takes. I watch it now, and I can still put it on and still sob like a child. So, if it moves people enough to find that faith, then yes, all those people should jump on the bandwagon and celebrate the fact that the Nativity story has been told, that Mary was what we all thought Mary was. That the angel Gabriel kneels down with Mary and holds her hand and he’s elated, because he’s got great news. That’s the way to do it.
The Nativity will be screened in four parts on BBC1 in the run up to Christmas