Jesus, Mary and a soggy palm tree

Inadvertent comedy - from grumpy innkeepers to nit-ridden Virgin Marys - is a staple of nativity plays. The former schools inspector Gervase Phinn reflects on some memorable festive muddles
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The Independent Online

When I became a school inspector one of my first visits was to Broom Valley Infants - the school I attended as a child. To a five-year-old, that featureless, pale brick structure with the flat roof and large metal-framed windows was like a huge castle, a vast building of endless corridors and high ceilings, but now it seemed so small. The smell in the school had lingered and so, as I was soon to discover, had my teacher, the wonderful Miss Greenhalgh.

"Hello, Gervase," she said appearing from her room. She was now the deputy headteacher.

"Miss Greenhalgh!" I spluttered. "You're still here!"

"Yes, indeed," she said, smiling, "and isn't it a strange world. I taught you to read and here you are checking up if I do it properly." There was a mischievous glint in the dark eyes. "I can't have done that bad a job," she continued. "You've got more degrees than a thermometer." The long lustrous hair, slim figure and flawless complexion had gone but she still had the smiling eyes of the dedicated infant teacher. And she had the unnerving memory too. "Do you remember when you wet yourself?" she asked.

"Oh yes," I replied. "I remember."

I was the palm tree in the infant Nativity play. Encased in green crepe paper with a crown of yellow fronds on my head and two papier-mâché coconuts dangling around my neck, I had taken centre stage. I had been so terrified on the night, seeing all the faces in the audience, that I had disgraced myself. A dark patch had gradually appeared on the front of my costume much to the amusement of the audience. "Oh yes," I told her, "I remember it well."

"And do you recall when I asked you later who had had a little accident what you replied?" Miss Greenhalgh asked.

"No," I said, "but I have an idea you are going to tell me."

"You pointed at Jimmy Everett and said, 'It wasn't me, Miss, it was him.' I always thought you'd end up a school inspector."

Every teacher of young children has a story to tell about the Christmas Nativity play. There was the time the Innkeeper, when asked if there was any room in the Inn, answered, "Plenty" and ushered the startled Holy Family inside; the occasion when Mary dropped Baby Jesus, immediately bursting into floods of tears as the head of the large pink doll rolled off the stage and bounced along the front of the hall; the time that the Archangel Gabriel informed Mary that he had tidings of great joy to bring but had completely forgotten what they were; and the memorable moment when the giant cardboard star, which had been suspended on a wire above the stage, fell onto Joseph who, very much out of character, rubbed his head and exclaimed, "Bloody 'ell!" Then there was the performance when the little boy playing Joseph strode confidently onto the stage and asked the small figure in blue, cradling her baby, "And how's our Jesus been today, Mary?" "He's been a right little so-and-so!" came the blunt reply.

In one Nativity play Mary cradled a large doll with a mass of blond curls but as she rocked it in her arms it suddenly began to speak in a tinny American accent: "Hi, my name's Tammy and I need by diapers changing. Hi, my name's Tammy and I need by diapers changing. Hi, my name's Tammy and I need by diapers changing."

The little boy playing Joseph came to her assistance and, seizing the doll by the hair, punched it in the face, which promptly shut it up. Another time, the six-year-old playing the Innkeeper was most disgruntled with his part, having wanted to take the lead as Joseph. When the Holy Family arrived at the Inn and asked for a room the Innkeeper pulled Mary through the door and told a startled Joseph, "She can come in, but you can bugger off!"

The little girl in one infant school had been asked to introduce the performance with the words: "Welcome to our Nativity," but had problems pronouncing the word so opted for "Welcome to our Harvest Festival."

One treasured memory of mine was when I accompanied the Mayor of Rotherham to a Nativity play. As we approached the school we became aware of all the children heading for home. The Mayor stopped a little boy with hair like a lavatory brush and a small green candle of mucus appearing from a nostril. "Where's everyone going?" asked the Mayor. "There's a nativity play here this afternoon, isn't there?" The boy stopped just long enough to tell him that "It's off! T'Virgin Mary's got nits!"

But the most cherished memory for me was in a small school in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, where one of the greatest stories of all time was performed in Yorkshire dialect. Joseph, a thick multicolored towel draped over his head and held in place by an elastic belt with a snake clasp and wearing a Care Bear dressing gown and red socks, knocked loudly on the door of the Inn.

The door flew open and a stocky little boy with red cheeks and large glasses shouted, "What?"

" 'As tha gor any room in t'Inn?" asked Joseph.

"No!"

"Thy 'as."

"I 'aven't!"

"We've been on t'rooad all day, tha knaas," Joseph announced.

"Can't 'elp that, there's no room!" The little innkeeper folded his arms tightly over his chest and thrust out his chin like a miniature Mussolini.

Joseph pointed to Mary, a large girl with a face like a death mask and enveloped in a blue cape. "I've got t'wife out 'ere, tha knaas, and she's 'avin' a babby."

"Can't 'elp that," snapped the Innkeeper. "It's nowt to do wi' me. Tha can gu round t'back if tha wants. There's a barn theer and it's warm and dry."

"I don't want to gu in a barn," Mary piped up, pulling a face that would freeze soup in pans.

"Tha can suit thissen, missis," said the Innkeeper, "there's nowheer else."

"Come on, Mary," said Joseph, "we'll mek do," and he led her off.

On stage came the shepherds: three little boys in dressing gowns with tea towels over their heads and all holding toy sheep. They sat crossed legged until the Archangel Gabriel appeared. He was dressed in a white sheet with tinsel around the hem, cardboard wings and white trainers which flashed and lit up.

"Hey up," said the angel.

"Who are you?" asked the first shepherd, getting to his feet.

"I'm t'angel of t'lord. There's nowt to be frit abaat. I'm not gunna 'urt thee. I've summat to tell thee. I've cum down to earth to bring thee reight good tidings."

"Oh aye?" said the second shepherd.

"There's a babby king what's been born toneet in Bethli'em," the angel announced before wiping his nose with the back of a finger.

"Let's gu and see 'im," said the third shepherd.

"What abaat t'sheep?" asked the second.

"I'll keep an eye on 'em," said the angel.

As the shepherds exited stage left, the Three Wise Men entered stage right. The first king was dressed in a faded red velvet curtain, still with the hooks in, and a large cardboard crown.

"I am Gaspar," he proclaimed.

"I am Melchior," announced the second.

"Who am I again?" the third king whispered in the ear of Gaspar.

"Balthazar!"

"I am Balthazar," said the third.

"Hey up," said Gaspar, pointing to the large silver star fastened over the stage. "What's that up theer?"

"Wheer?" asks Melchior.

"Up theer in t'sky, that reight big star."

"I don't know."

"Does thy know, Balthazar?" he asked the third king. Balthazar shrugged and shook his head. "Come on, let's see weer it's goin'."

On stage strode Herod, his tangled mop of straw-coloured hair circled in a gold band. He waved a wooden sword and pulled a gruesome face.

"We're lookin' for a babby king," said Melchior.

"Hast seen im?" asked Gaspar.

"Nay," said Herod, "'e's not 'ere, but appen' if tha finds this babby king come back an' tell me, will tha?"

The three kings left and Herod faced the audience. "There's only gunna be one king round 'ere," he said, "and that's gunna be me! Mek no mistake abaat that."

In the final act the stage was filled with children: Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, kings and assorted animals all gathering around the manger. And, much to my relief, there at the back, perfectly dry and smiling broadly and encased in green crepe paper stood the palm tree.

Gervase Phinn is a former principal adviser of schools in North Yorkshire and the author of numerous books. His latest work, 'A Wayne in a Manger', is published by Penguin/Michael Joseph, priced £10

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