O come let us adore him, o come let us adore him, o come let us adore him ... but that's enough about David Beckham's overwrought reception at Birmingham's LG Arena in the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show on Sunday; what about The Nativity, the so-called greatest story ever told compressed into four parts and written by the rather aptly named Tony Jordan?
Actually, on reflection, I don't think I have quite got the adoration of Beckham out of my system. He was received on Sunday not like a man who has wrung a great deal of fame of fortune out of his considerable talent for playing football, but like a man who has found cures for cancer, swine flu and poverty. Like a latter-day Jesus Christ, in fact, which should make us all grateful that the original walked the earth 2,000 years ago. Our modern world, just the place for Beckham, is no place for Jesus. Simon Cowell would have him signed up in no time, with Max Clifford handling his PR. It is better that he lived in a world without telephone-voting.
The first part of The Nativity set up the story nicely. It might all seem an obvious exercise in Christmas week, but it's a bit like remaking The Sound of Music and showing it in instalments. Here is a tale to which we all know the beginning, the middle and the end about as well as we know our own names. There's a conspicuous lack of suspense. Years ago, Lew Grade had the same problem, but he knew that if it looked really sumptuous, and if he could fill every stable and synagogue with movie stars, then he'd have a hit. His main marketing man was Pope Paul VI. On Easter Sunday 1977, the Pope stood on the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square dispensing his usual blessings, and then exhorted the crowds to "go home and watch the rest of Jesus of Nazareth". The BBC missed a trick on Sunday. They should have got the blessed Beckham to plug The Nativity.
Even without that, I hope it gets the audience it deserves. The cast list doesn't quite match up to Jesus of Nazareth, which gave us Rod Steiger's Pontius Pilate, Peter Ustinov's Herod, Anne Bancroft's Mary Magdalene, Laurence Olivier's Nicodemus, and even Claudia Cardinale as the Adulteress (though I can remember nothing delighting me more than spotting Harold Bennett, Young Mr Grace in Are You Being Served?, as a village elder). But we do get Peter Capaldi as a wise man. And lovely Frances Barber. And of course a Tony Jordan script.
For years, Jordan was the lead writer on EastEnders. His wise man from the east was Dr Legg. It's tempting to crack a few more EastEnders gags, but I'd be doing him a disservice. He has done a proper stand-up job on The Nativity, pulling off the considerable trick of making the miraculous sound credible, and even introducing some light comedy, which is not abundant in the New Testament. "Of course it will look different once I've finished," said Joseph the carpenter (Andrew Buchan) to his intended, Mary (Tatiana Maslany), early in the construction of the mud-and-straw marital home. "Have you started?" she said.
This all unfolded in a "Nazareth – 12 months earlier" flashback. The thing began with Mary begging Joseph for his forgiveness, and of course we all knew why, shock pregnancies being as hard to explain in 1BC Nazareth as they are in 21st-century Walford. But the first episode ended with the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel telling Mary that she had been chosen for the Virgin Birth. This is the bit of the Christmas story that always troubles my wife. "Gabriel should have sat down with her mum and dad and Joseph," she said. But then that's not how it happens in soap operas either. Think of the stories we'd lose if folk behaved in them like they would in real life.
In Come Rain Come Shine, everyone did behave as they might in real life, and yet watching it felt like being force-fed Christmas cake, so crammed was it with traditional seasonal ingredients: selfishness is bad, honesty is good, family comes first, love conquers all, credit is dangerous, and the most traditional Christmas ingredient of all, Sir David Jason.
Jason played Don, a working-class Londoner wiv an 'eart of gold, proud as punch of his property-developer son David's material success, which turned out to be illusory. David lost his smart car and his swanky house and had to move, with his high-maintenance wife and their son, back into his parents' flat in an east London high-rise. The high-maintenance wife turned out to be a trouper, finding a job as a shelf-stacker, and so did the son, selling his iPod to help the ailing finances. David, however, became increasingly feckless, and really the story was of Don's gradual realisation that his beloved boy, in whom he had only ever seen good, was a cheat and a wastrel.
An alternative title might have been "Home Sweet Home", Or better still, "Homily Sweet Homily". "I've always thought the best fing you can give your kids is yourself," said Don, issuing further Christmas-cracker one-liners thoughout. The writer, Jeff Pope, has some highly impressive credits, but this was not his finest couple of hours. Yet Jason was splendid, as was Alison Steadman as his wife, Dora. With lesser performers in those roles, I might just have gagged on all that marzipan-sweet sentimentality. Still, if there's ever a week for too much marzipan, this is it.
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