The Diary: Power up the cameras, we're live from Bethlehem

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MONDAY. Five days before Christmas several tons of television and radio equipment arrive at Haifa Port in Israel en route to Bethlehem. It will be one of the BBC's most important broadcasts of year. Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity in the town "where it all began". But there's a glitch in the customs papers and our agent warns me it could be days before the problem is sorted. Luckily a few hours later the gear is cleared and on the way.

Bethlehem has had its problems preparing for the celebrations to mark Christmas and the millennium. Until 18 months ago nothing had been done to get the town in shape for the hoped-for millions of tourists who will visit the Holy Land during 2000. A massive programme of renovation and reconstruction was organised: streets paved, rubble cleared and new attractions built to keep tourists interested, and spending.

But there is still a lot to be done. Yasser Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority which now governs Bethlehem, has decreed that all work must be finished before Christmas. On rooftops and roads Palestinian workmen are hurrying - slightly wide-eyed, power tools in hand.

TUESDAY. We are on the roof. It is a great view over Manger Square, which will be the focus for all the most important events staged by Bethlehem 2000, the organisation set up to promote the town during the next year- and-a-half. Until last year the Square was a bus station. Now there are trees, ornamental fountains, public benches and a huge new "Peace Building" built on the site of the old police station from where the Israelis used to control the city.

Media events are much like military campaigns. Secure the high ground, position your troops as best you can, and try to screw the opposition. CNN's Jerusalem Bureau Chief has just tried to interview me, thinking I'm a tourist. I am happy, we have the best spot in town overlooking the illuminated crosses on the Church of the Nativity. In the distance the red hills of the Jordan Valley provide a Biblical backdrop.

There are a lot of bare cables on the floor and less than 36 hours to our first live broadcast. Two BBC engineers tell me that I'm 12db negative on one leg and 6db down on the other; oh and the chroma is flat, too. Hell, it sounds bad, and apparently it is.

WEDNESDAY. As the big day approaches the town is experiencing another new phenomenon: gridlock. That presidential decree has spurred on the re-paving of the key approach road to the town centre. Nothing is moving. Nothing.

We are planning a 30-minute special live broadcast for the BBC's international channel, BBC World, going on air a few minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve. The presenter is anxious to have as much information about the service as possible. Our cameraman is a Bethlehemite and connected with the Franciscan Catholic Church, so within hours I have a handful of written detail - in Latin.

Other broadcasters start to arrive in town. I see a Japanese crew and one from Argentina obeying the first rule of television: if it moves, film it. The town has a buzz today; something is in the air. The people of Bethlehem are used to being ignored - this is their week in the spotlight. It had been hoped that some really big stars would perform in the live shows going on in Manger Square: Celine Dion, and Michaels Bolton and Crawford were rumoured. In the end the music will be from local groups and leading Arab singers, and perhaps it's more appropriate that way.

THURSDAY. We are on the air: "Good morning from Bethlehem." People look up and see the television lights: we are the first broadcaster to be live and we'll be the last to leave, apart from the camera crews from Orthodox Christian countries, which celebrate Christmas nearly two weeks later.

We must be finished by 11am: I have to pick up a turkey from a local butcher. There are people from London who will be working here at Christmas and away from their families, so I'm staging a traditional Christmas Day dinner for them and our local staff. The news business can be much like a family: long hours spent together, rows before teatime (bulletins), but getting on with it the next day. In the luggage from London came cranberry sauce and brandy butter. It will be an education for our Israeli staff, who usually work on the 25th.

CHRISTMAS EVE. There are still problems to juggle. We have rented out a room in a local guesthouse (availability has improved 2000 years on). Our equipment is plugged in and ready but the power points in the building have been installed by the local comedy electrician. Powerful electric shocks are being delivered from the radiators.

CNN places a noisy generator next to our cameras; the neighbouring mosque blares out the call to prayer bringing all conversation to a halt, and a coalition of European journalists is squabbling about where they can base themselves for the night.

But the studios in London can hear us in perfect quality through our millennium-bug compliant satellite telephones.

Fifteen minutes before midnight: the cameras are powered up. Lines are being practised, lights set. This is, after all, the real millennium. Scores of people in the square light candles. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the church. The service is broadcast to the crowds gathered in the square, and through our cables and satellite, to the world.

CHRISTMAS DAY. Thirty minutes after midnight we hand back to London. Time to celebrate a bit and reflect on where we are and what it may mean to each of us involved. This morning we keep our heads down, my turkey cooking ensures a news blackout is enforced until the mince pies are finished.

Adrian Wells is the Middle East bureaux editor for BBC News

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