Monday, 16 December 2013

A Christmas Confession

As I may perhaps have made clear from a blog post last December, wherein I eulogised about why I think A Christmas Carol is the finest piece of fiction ever written, I am rather fond of Christmas. This is almost entirely for nostalgic reasons, and as with many people in this country it's an enormous contradiction - some might say extremely hypocritical - because I'm not a Christian. Not only am I not a Christian, I'm not even a member of any religion at all. I'm an atheist, and have been pretty much ever since I can remember.

So this blog post is by way of a bit of a confession, an admission of a sordid secret from my past. I'm afraid that a couple of years ago I, Paul Hayes... helped to write a nativity play. A retelling of the most Christian of all Christian stories.

It was all because of my colleague Emma Craig, the station sound producer where I work at BBC Radio Norfolk, and formerly the presenter of our Sunday Breakfast show, from 2010 until 2012. Back in 2011, Emma realised that as Christmas Day fell on a Sunday that year she'd be presenting in the morning, so she wanted something a little special to mark the occasion. What she came up with was the idea of doing The BBC Radio Norfolk Nativity, starring our presenters.

I was Emma's broadcast assistant for the two years she presented Sunday Breakfast (basically, I answered the phones and made the tea). Knowing my penchant for a bit of writing, she asked if I would help her to write the script for the nativity - initially, I think she was planning to take an existing school nativity script and just tweak it to suit our presenters and add a few radio in-jokes.

I faced a bit of a dilemma over this. On the one hand I was very flattered to be asked to help out, and always enjoy taking part in special projects of this sort. On the other... well, being involved in anything religious is always a bit off-putting for me.

In the end though, my arrogance and my ego won out - I simply couldn't bear the idea of a bit of fiction being written involving the radio station, and not being involved in it myself. So I told Emma I'd have a go, and ended up bashing out the six episodes one morning before work - they were only short, about four pages each. In the end, I justified it to myself as being no worse than writing something based around any other set of godly myths, like the Greek myths of Zeus and so forth.

And do you know what? I think I actually did rather a good job.

Most of the main ideas were all Emma's, of course. It was she who decided we should cast our Treasure Quest team of the time, David Clayton and Becky Betts, as Mary and Joseph. She also decided that the Bishop and Archdeacon of Norwich, the dynamic duo of Graham James and Jan McFarlane, should be our narrators, which they very kindly agreed to do as they're good fun and up for a laugh. Emma also knew that we should have local MPs as the "Three Wise People." Casting-wise, I just made sure we filled the rest of the roles with as many regular on-air voices as possible.

 Emma Craig with two of our "Three Wise People" - South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon and Norwich North MP Chloe Smith.

I have always liked, and I think the audiences like, the idea that we are one collective whole at the station. That vague notion that we all live in the same house, and it's Nick Conrad's turn to buy the milk. I wanted to bring something of the sense of a broadcast pantomime, all your old favourites together and in roles that reflect and mock their on-air personalities. That old Children's BBC "the Broom Cupboard and Blue Peter" feeling of us all being together in a broadcasting factory.

I think I succeeded best at this in episode four, the best of the episodes, where we had our football commentary team doing a re-cap of events so far, and Nick Conrad chairing a debate in a "Bethlehem town square" with "Leader of Bethlehem City Council" - actually Norfolk County Council's then-leader Derrick Murphy.

The "Wise People" ended up being MPs Norman Lamb, Richard Bacon and Chloe Smith, opposite whom I gave my King Herod to the world. I was rather crestfallen when Chloe Smith said she'd been made to sound like "the boring one" when I thought I'd given her the best lines of the three! Probably because she had most of their exposition, I suppose.

We had regular on-air voices like antiques expert Mike Hicks and farmer Chris Skinner in it, and my fellow producers Thordis Fridriksson and Edd Smith were so keen to be in it in some capacity that Emma cast them as sheep!

After all the fun and games, to avoid offending anybody and bring home the point of the thing, the very end had to be done dead straight. To this end I had to write something completely alien to my way of thinking, a paragraph of straight Christian praise for the Bishop of Norwich to close the thing with. And do you know what? It's actually rather good. The Archdeacon of Norwich said how much she liked it. I was oddly rather proud of the fact that I could write a bit of effective prose about something I actually had no interest in.

Of course the main work was all down to Emma, recording everyone's parts, putting them all together and making the whole thing sound right. She did a superb job, we ended up with a great little production which was very well-received by the listeners on Christmas Day. Emma even ended up being nominated for a Jerusalem Award for it, which was thoroughly deserved. I don't know what ended up beating her to the win, but I bet they didn't have as much fun making it as we did.

So, despite not being a Christian, I have to admit I am rather proud of my little role in The BBC Radio Norfolk Nativity, which you can still hear online in its entirety by clicking here. I think it succeeded in doing exactly what we wanted to do with it, works as a nice time capsule of some of the people and personalities around and about at BBC Radio Norfolk in 2011. Something to be nostalgic for in Christmases to come.

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