The Liverpool Nativity.

TV The Liverpool Nativity was rather better than anyone expected. In the run up, cynical writing and comment abounded with some questioning the casting – any scouser with an equity card – and the setting, which could potentially have led to another airing of the usual stereotypes (gosh we’re so chipper and funny and welcoming and not all like you southerners portray us etc). But in the end it was a rather winning bit of television because of the obvious passion which had gone into the organisation and the performances.

This televised modernisation of the story of the birth of Christ kicks off Liverpool Capital of Culture year and was brought to us by the people behind Easter’s Manchester Passion. However, it was logistically an even more complex prospect than the crucifixion; narrated in front of a crowd by joyous MC Geoffrey Hughes as the Angel Gabriel from a stage at the bottom of William Brown Street, his commentary and shouting intercut with scenes set in other parts of Liverpool city centre and beyond. This was everything that might appear in the average school nativity but on a massive scale and with a BBC outside broadcast unit instead of a nervous parent with a camcorder.

In St George’s Hall, Cathy Tyson, aided by some winning Busby Berkley-style dance routines, gave a panto rendition of Herod – in this version a Minister for the Interior bent on chucking out asylum seekers such as the good Joseph. She was visited by the three wise men – who included ex-Chinese Detective David Yip and Joe McGann sporting a rather natty velvet jacket. Up by St Nicholas’s Church, we met the shepherds – Andrew Schofield knocking out a decent rendition of Imagine before being visited by Jennifer Ellison doled up in a silver tracksuit as an angel. Sadly we cut away before seeing the star that would lead them to St John’s Gardens.

The most impressive journey was for Mary and Joseph, who began in the cafĂ© of the Seacombe Ferry Terminal before travelling across the Mersey by boat (instead of the usual donkey), through the streets of Liverpool and up to the stage. This central couple were rather actually rather convincing – with West End veteran Jodie McNee in particular generating real sympathy for Mary’s plight and clearly in tears at one point. This was some mean achievement when you take into account much of the show was happening across town, the duo had to wait for cues before performing and they had to ensure they reached their goal before the finale.

Most of the songs also worked well, even if the resonance of some of the lyrics was lost, despite the best efforts of the performers – a problem with the microphones led to many of the words not being quite audible. Good job everyone knows the plot. Some thought had clearly gone into the context of the selections – such as the appearance of Mary and child heralded by Lady Madonna – and why not celebrate Liverpool’s musical heritage at an event like this? It’s all a matter of taste, probably, but original composition just would not have worked in this context. It’s far more impressive to have a standing audience that looks like half the population of the city, singing en masse, All You Need is Love.

It was also dead funny – the look on Mary’s face was priceless when Gabriel apparently appeared to her and explained her physical predicament. Ditto her husband, who clearly got the wrong idea. Often the script attempted to burst the expectations of the viewer – when Hughes had to indicate Christ’s parents were taking the ferry across the Mersey he joked, “You might think that’s a cue for a song … well it isn’t.” Schofield, meanwhile, perked up on hearing free food might be available at some point, at which point a fellow shepherd suggested he should stop fulfilling the stereotype. Only some of the material Cathy Tyson had to deal with fell rather flat and listless, but after booing from the crowd, proceedings went right back on track.

I imagine there will still be some viewers who were offended by all this, either because of the appropriation of the key biblical story or a reminder that for some Liverpool is the centre of the universe. But hopefully even they couldn’t deny that, for the most part, this was done with the best of intentions. Everyone involved got into the spirit of the thing, and as the crowd parted to give Mary and Joseph a clear run away from their pursuers, you really could believe that all you need is love.

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