The Jesus story with a hint of EastEnders

Tony Jordan's latest BBC drama proves you don't have to be a believer to make a good Nativity film, says Gerard Gilbert

I'm not sure I'd describe Tony Jordan – elder statesman of EastEnders and co-creator of Life on Mars – as a non-believer, but to judge from his comments to a BBC press website to promote his new BBC1 series The Nativity, he sounds like what you might call an open-minded agnostic.

Claiming that his knowledge of the Christmas story was confined to his children's school nativity plays, Jordan sought out sceptical historians and scientists as well as devout believers for his research.

"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," he says of the potential audience of his four-part series, which is being stripped across the week leading up to Christmas. "More importantly, I think it is really nice for an audience to just be reminded of what Christmas is."

These plainly aren't the words of a zealot – and don't zealots make some stinkers. Take The Passion of the Christ – the gospel according to Mel Gibson, the Catholic traditionalist whose 2004 movie concentrated so much on the beatings taken by Jesus that one critic dubbed it "a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie". At least the actors spoke in subtitled Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, so we didn't have to listen to English being turned into a dead language, as it is in most Jesus films.

One of the many strengths of The Nativity is that the dialogue might have been lifted from EastEnders. "Who is the father?," demands Joseph (Andrew Buchan) of Mary, having kicked the furniture around like an enraged Phil Mitchell. "The truth is that you went to Judea and had a few too many glasses of wine..."

I know, I know... that sort of thing can end up very Life of Brian (an excellent Jesus film in its way), but it has to be better than the alternative. In my gap year I had a job as an extra in Jesus, a film shot across Israel and the West Bank. Starring Brian Deacon (then the husband of future Celebrity Big Brother star Rula Lenska) as the Son of Man, this two-hour epic was made by an American outfit called The Genesis Project, who had plans to film the entire Bible. The film apparently holds the record for being the most translated of all time, including into 10 different sign languages – but whatever tongue you hear it in, there's no escaping the woodenness of the dialogue (and this isn't just sour grapes because my big scene as an angel was superimposed by a special effect).

Too much sanctity can be as deadly as too much sugar, and a certain distance is required. Martin Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic who once seriously considered becoming a priest, directed The Last Temptation of Christ, which featured an alternate reality in which Jesus married Mary Magdalene and (briefly) made love to her, and was written – like Scorsese's Taxi Driver – by Paul Schrader, a lapsed Calvinist whose mother used to stick pins in him as a foretaste of hell. And my favourite Jesus film of all, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew, was made by an atheist Marxist – albeit one with the soul of a poet.

Why are the best Jesus films made by non-believers? I'm not sure I know. Certainty and conviction have a way of getting in the way of good art, while believers seem to end up making a somewhat simple-minded Sunday school sermon. Now I wouldn't want to chuck Tony Jordan into the same hat as Scorsese, Schrader or Pasolini, but at least The Nativity (filmed, like The Last Temptation of Christ, in Morocco) blows a few cobwebs off the crib – and freshens up the nativity story. It's also actually rather well acted. And any drama that gets The Thick of It's Peter Capaldi riding a camel (he plays one of the magi), has to have something going for it.

'The Nativity' starts on Monday 20 December on BBC1