Over the Christmas period you expect lots of feel-good movies and carol services, which is all very good, but every year I look out for something new, something different, a programme that engages in a creative and contemporary way with the Christmas story of the Gospels. Happily I found a few such programmes this year.
The Alternativity (BBC 2), which started with a ‘making of’ documentary on the Sunday of Christmas week, was an unusual piece of work – the artist known as Banksy had asked film director Danny Boyle to direct a nativity play in Bethlehem, in the car park of his ‘Walled-Off Hotel’, billed ironically as having the worst views… of the huge security wall erected by the Israelis.
It was most enjoyable watching the play take shape – finding a suitable donkey and making artificial snow were two of the most entertaining sequences.
Predictably there were political undertones to all of this, but Boyle said he didn’t want to exploit the children for adult concerns, and it was all sweet and innocent, though under the watchful gaze of an Israeli guard tower, which made some parents uneasy about their children taking part. The plight of the Palestinians in this divided Bethlehem was highlighted but Boyle also understood that security measures followed from shocking acts of terror.
Banksy wanted it to be a Nativity for everyone, so consultations were conducted with Muslims and Christians. It was harder to engage with the Jewish settlers due to security concerns, but that was a pity considering the origins of Jesus.
On the Wednesday following we got to see a film of the impressive live performance. The Palestinian children were excellent, the young girl playing Mary especially so. In a nod to contemporary concerns the characters had to pass through a metal detector (‘Herod’s Checkpoint’) and the annunciation was Mary getting a text from an unknown number with the crucial news! It was great to see the joy and wonder on the children’s faces, especially when the artificial snow fell on them. There were tears from proud parents.
The original story was respected and if it got too political at any stage it was in the song by rap group the Shoruq Girls as three wise women (‘behind every wise man…’), especially when they revealed a babygro with the slogan ‘Free Palestine’. Banksy, as always, remained unseen, but Danny Boyle and local director Riham Isaac were like little children themselves as they enjoyed the show from the audience.
Also on the Wednesday, I thought I might get another heart-warming show in Baz and Nancy’s Holy Show (RTÉ One), but I didn’t warm to it. Yes, the idea was quirky – Baz and his mother Nancy (from 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy) were trying something tamer but more challenging – Baz trying to get a meeting with the Pope as his Christmas present for his mother.
There was an interesting visit to Knock, where Fr Richard Gibbons showed them the striking new mosaic in the revamped basilica, and in Rome there was background information on Pope Francis and Rome from Bishop Paul Tighe and Fr Thomas McCarthy OP.
The highlight was being in St Peter’s Square during one of Pope Francis’ tours of the square. Nancy was a woman of strong faith, and Baz was mostly respectful, but there were unnecessary profanities, a questionable photoshoot (a family nativity with bearded Baz playing the role of Our Lady) and a kind of ironic commentary that left a bit of a sour taste for me.
I had no such reservations about Angela’s Christmas (RTÉ 1, Christmas Eve). Based on a short story by Frank McCourt, this short animation came from Brown Bag Films who brought us the marvellous Give Up Yer Aul Sins animations. It told the story of a young Limerick girl, Angela, who didn’t want the Jesus in the crib in her local church to get cold. She wanted to warm him up “like a little holy sausage” so she brought him home, leading to some consternation.
The animation was gorgeous, the storyline simple and the characterisations excellent. Baby Jesus is said to hold his arms out to the world, and there was a great quote from Angela’s mother – “that’s what families do – they shelter each other from the storm, they bring joy where there is sadness and warmth where there is none”.
One for the World Meeting of Families!
Pick of the week
THE BIG QUESTIONS • BBC 1, Sunday, January 7, 10 am
New series: Nicky Campbell presents topical debate from the University of East London.
WHEN THEY SAY, YOU SAY • EWTN, Tuesday, January 9, 9 pm; also Wed 8 am
Olivia Turner analyses the language used to dehumanize unborn children, and demonstrates how the pro-life movement can deal with this.
ROME UNPACKED • BBC 2, Friday, January 12, 9 pm
Exploration of Rome off the beaten track, including its Papal, Renaissance and Baroque history.