Once in this royal David's city is quite enough

The great Tussauds outrage has Mary and Joseph represented by Posh and Becks
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, for the most asinine, market-led reasons, the entertainment industry stumbles upon a sort of truth. This week's accidental heroes, for example, have been Madame Tussauds, the waxworks museum that exists at the naff end of popular culture. The creative department of this venerable tourist attraction came up with a bright idea to pull in the yuletide punters: a celebrity-based nativity scene.

The great Tussauds outrage, which has occasioned solemn editorials and a tremulous identification of "a sorry indictment of our shallow age" from Roy Hattersley, has Mary and Joseph represented by Victoria and David Beckham. Hovering above them in a skin-tight white dress, her wings doing nothing to obscure her most famous asset, is Kylie Minogue, the Angel Gabriel.

The shepherds are something of an odd bunch. Graham Norton gazes camply at High Grant and the black American actor Samuel L Jackson. To the left of the holy couple are the Three Wise Men, George W Bush, Tony Blair and - who else? - the Duke of Edinburgh.

As a semi-satirical take on the world in which we live it is almost perfect, but not quite. Jordan, perhaps for reasons of wax economy, is nowhere to be seen. Surely, in an age of gender awareness, we should have been permitted Three Wise Persons, with Countdown's legendary brainbox Carol Vorderman standing in for President Bush on the grounds that announcing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh might prove troublesome for him.

The loss of nerve that has seen the holy infant represented by a doll is also a disappointment. It would not have taken much to find some tug-of-love heartbreak tot, perhaps in the company of Daddy David Blunkett, to complete the scene.

Neither, sadly, does the Tussauds historical research department emerge with much credit. It was one thing to allow Becks/Joseph an ear-stud, quite another to put around his neck two gold crucifixes, somewhat tasteless emblems of an event that, in that lowly stable, was still some 33 years in the future.

As with any publicity which involves the blameless Beckhams, the first instinct of the usual knee-jerk moralists has been to voice complaints about greed, vanity, exploitation and the trivialisation of all that is good and noble in our country's traditions. The truth, of course, is that there is nothing new in the divine being represented by a well-known human. From the Renaissance onwards, artists have flattered their patrons by including their likenesses in holy scenes. The model for Caravaggio's Madonnas were famous prostitutes.

Nativity plays themselves have been a reliable comic source for sketch shows and sitcoms down the years. When, in a particularly brilliant episode of The Young Ones, a virgin was needed for Mary in the boys' tableau and, inevitably, Rick was obliged to play the part, did the BBC receive a single complaint from viewers?

The Tussauds show has caused a fuss, not just because we are less tolerant than we used to be - although we are. It has pointed up a development that is distinctly odd: the well-known have begun to play an almost quasi-religious part in our lives. Their sins, as those of the disciples Thomas and Peter used to be, are held up as parables of misbehaviour by those great forces for morality, journalists. Instead of providing lessons about betrayal, courage or doubt, their themes are more immediate and contemporary: lust, infidelity, substance abuse, greed, ego.

It is they who now suffer for our sins, exposed in the press when they misbehave, or as they trudge miserably off to The Priory. Their Garden of Gethsemane is a TV-created "jungle" in Australia where they are humiliated, spied upon, laughed at, made to eat worms and covered in rats.

Conflating all this idiocy into a waxen nativity ritual has a certain appropriateness. The many parents who, at this stage of the year, are preparing to see their little ones perform the Christmas Story in a school hall would admit, as they complain about casting: "Darren as Joseph? You must by joking", that the event connects with many worthy things, but religious faith is not one of them.

As that master of emotional manipulation Richard Curtis proved in Love, Actually, a nativity play is essentially about social bonding, teachers to parents and children, grown-up to child, a moment for all adults to remember, with a lump in the throat, the great message of a modern Christmas: at the end of the day, it's all about kids, eh?

Not much room for Christianity there. It is perhaps time for one of our true wise men, the Archbishop of Canterbury indeed, to take a look at the Beckham nativity and decide that the moment has arrived for the Church of England to break free from the mainstream Christmas - re-invent the thing so that it is born again, liberated from sentimentality and the madness of the age.