Christmas has provided some festive treats, the best of which has to be the four part modern re-working of "The Nativity" by Tony Jordan on BBC1. It was fresh, free of the trap of cloying piousness that some Hollywood productions have fallen into, and took liberties with the stories, especially that of the Magi, but at its heart was four very human stories, that of Mary, of Joseph, coming to terms with a pregnant wife who was outcast as a common whore, a young shepherd, bitter and angry under the Roman yoke, and the Magi, prepared to trust to their astrological knowledge with a quest of over a thousand miles to see the triangulation point of a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Regulus. At the heart of it, Mary was played delightfully, as a human being, not some statue on a pedestal, and the birth scenes were genuine and (for me) quite harrowing, as well as most moving when she reaches out in her desperation, upwards - and Joseph takes her hand.
Elsewhere, Christmas Carols abound. Later today sees the modern take with Bill Murray in Scrooged, and the fabulous Muppets Christmas Carol - how is it that other puppets are puppets, but you just forget it when watching them. Meanwhile there was
A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, June Lockhart, Leo G. Carroll, and Terry Kilburn
A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alastair Sim, Meryvn Johns, Michael Hordern and Glyn Dearman, with a brief appearance from a young George Cole - originally black and white, but showing as colourised.
A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Frank Finlay, Edward Woodward and Nigel Davenport. 100 min
Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004), starring Kelsey Grammer
and the one I like best of modern versions, especially for the Ghost of Christmas future - the 2000 ITV version starring Ross Kemp as loan shark Eddie Scrooge.
Meanwhile, on Radio 4, Timothy West and June Barrie head a wonderful cast in "Crisp and Even Brightly", an extremely funny comic play which tells the "truth"behind the story of "Good King Wenceslas", or as he prefers to call himself, Well Intentioned King Wenceslas (brilliantly played by West as a selfish, self-centred bully)- in which Slavonic spies intent on killing the king, a small page loaded up to carry all the goodies from the carol, and a hermit called Kermit all appear, along with a peasant by a demolished hovel (a legacy of the government's new slum clearance policy), and a man with a harpoon, and his wife Nora. Still available on Listen Again, it is a wonderful romp, and if you have ever wondered why "a poor man came in sight, gath'ring winter fuel" when surely the best source of wood would have been not in the city but where he lived "a good league hence, Underneath the mountain, Right against the forest fence", this will explain everything about how the carol came to be written - as a piece of political propaganda. It will never sound the same again!
Comedy also takes centre stage in the surrealist mayhem of the Goon Show over on Radio 7, where the Goons produce their own madcap version:
SELLERS: (offsite BBC type announcer) And here, at Christmas we see the great venerable offices of Scrooge and Marley, importers and exporters for the great year of eighteen eighty seven.
MILLIGAN: Aba, ova to you ..
SCROOGE: Aba da you. Marley is dead, Marley is deaeed.
MILLIGAN: (accent?) No I'm not ...
FX: PISTOL SHOT.
SCROOGE: Yes you are. Ahh. Now to enter certain thingsss in the all weather leather ledgers:
FX: SCRIBBLING UNDER:
SCROOGE: One barrel of blungers violent stone and ginger purge. ... One gill (*1) of rare leopard oil! Tin newts. One box of feathered shirt lifters.
Back to Radio 4, an exploration of "The Santa Story" tracing the historical connections between St Nicholas and the modern "ho ho" fellow at the North pole; five 15 minute programmes, full of anecdote and interest.
"Something Understood" on Radio 4 looks at the Nativity in words and music, and has Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, fresh from his "History of Christianity", to unpick the stories - the bible has only "magi", not kings, and doesn't give the number of them - that, and the gifts all come in later stories.
But, for me, the gem was on Radio 7 in an adaptation of Wynyard Browne's "The Holly and the Ivy" for radio.
The Holly and the Ivy is a captivating Christmas tale with a difference. Wynyard Browne's play, set in 1940s Norfolk, begins on Christmas Eve and slowly unfolds over 24 hours, during which time secrets are revealed, skeletons are wrenched out of closets and lives are changed forever. Martin Gregory is an elderly pastor who refuses to retire, despite pleas from his sisters. Cared for by his loving elder daughter he bumbles on, completely unaware that she has fallen in love with their neighbour. The pair long to marry and move away but she cannot bear to leave her father alone at the vicarage. Things come to a head when the family - made up of an errant younger daughter with a penchant for whisky, two fussing aged aunts and a carefree cad of a brother - descend on the vicarage for the festive season. The play is compelling from the outset, as characters are introduced and their stories established. Everyone is emotionally troubled in some way, and the vicar, caring as he is toward his parishioners, seems blind to his own family members' turmoil - until, of course, everyone's personal problems begin to emerge in a poignant scenario.
Surprisingly modern in tone, it packs illegitimate birth, child mortality, alcoholism, existential despair and the bitterness of old age and wasted years.
"It began with feeling, of course, but feeling soon exhausts itself. You can't feel even grief forever."
"Grief leaves an emptiness, there's always a blankness..."
"Yes: I know, but it's not that. It's something far bigger than that. It's...it's as though, in that blankness, I had suddenly stumbled on something that affects everyone. Everyone in the world. Well look, listen: Robert was killed. I really did love him, you know. And after that, I found I was going to have Simon, well that seemed important. Because, not only because of Robert, but another life in the world is...important, so for the next four years I did everything I possibly could for Simon. Well then, he died. And I just felt, well, what's the point, of it all. What was the value of all that effort? Don't you see? It was then that I first began to realize that, in the end, It's the same for everyone. Practically all the efforts that people make are simply to keep life going, well their own or somebody else's, and the whole thing's doomed to failure, we know that. Life can't be kept going indefinitely, with the sun's growing cold and in the end the human race will be frozen off the Earth, well what sense does that make?"
And as the parson points out, reflecting that he too had felt that existential despair about life, that is the start of the journey of faith, not its end.
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