This look at the Nativity module of BBC Schools’ programme Watch was the first of a series of features I wrote looking at how children’s television approached Christmas in the days when they were permitted to indulge in a small amount of festive fun in the days when everyone used to go gleefully overboard with the tinsel and Christmas Tree graphics for the sole benefit of something that would more than likely only be shown once. Of course, the Watch Nativity was shown considerably more than once, but we’ll come back to that in due course. The first batch of these concentrated on the BBC in the seventies and took at look at Play School (which you can now find here), Rentaghost (here) and Bod (here) in addition to Watch. A suitably seasonal length of time later they were joined by similar features on ITV children’s shows from the seventies; you can now find the features on Quincy’s Quest here and Magpie here, though – by accident rather than design – the accompanying features on The Ghosts Of Motley Hall and Chorlton And The Wheelies ended up appearing in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, alongside expanded versions of all the other associated features (including this one). If you want to find out how Zoomer and Sir George Uproar celebrated Christmas, you can get Can’t Help Thinking About Me in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The Watch Nativity was one of the featured shows that I actually saw on broadcast; more times than I can realistically estimate in fact, as not only was it shown to us several times in school, we would always make a point of watching it at home, primarily to laugh at the ‘there must be room!’ technical blunder and to proffer the blandest item available in the front room – more often than not Thin Arrowroot biscuits – to each other whilst singing “gold for a king/ frankincense fair/for the baby, I shall bring myrrh”. Given that it was still being shown into the early nineties, that’s quite a lot of times that I will have seen it, and in some ways it still doesn’t feel properly ‘Christmassy’ now without it; as you can hear me elaborating on in Ben Baker’s Christmas Box here. Judging from the response to this, a lot of you feel the same way,
Watching television in school was a week-brightening treat at any time of the year, but especially so in the run-up to Christmas. While in those days the gap between the first week of September and the last week of December could seem to stretch on into infinity, whenever the Schools’ TV shows went into their frequently repeated festive modules, you at least knew that it was now only a matter of weeks until you were able to spend your mornings watching The Red Hand Gang and finding that all of the Matchmakers had been eaten before you’d even got near them; and – more importantly – not having to go to school.
Although Music Time‘s lavish stop motion-animated adaptations of The Nutcracker and Lieutenant Kije (which you can read more about here) probably make it a close run thing, it’s a fair bet that the most fondly remembered of these Christmassy diversions is the two-part retelling of The Nativity by Watch. First seen on BBC1 in 1977, and repeated many times up to the early nineties – sometimes in a standalone omnibus format on or around Christmas Day itself – it’s perhaps not surprising that so many erstwhile schoolchildren should look back on it with such affection. As well as tying in with memories of sitting cross-legged in front of those funny big televisions with shutters on them, it’s also redolent – much like Blue Peter‘s more widely celebrated Advent Crown – of a time when cheap home-made decorations were not just tolerated but actively encouraged, and of a long-lost simpler and more exuberant way of making and indeed watching television. Also of course with realising that the Christmas Holidays were only a matter of weeks away. It probably wouldn’t do to understate that one.
So, looking back to that simpler and more exuberant time in BBC Children’s Television in particular (although, yes, this one was technically a BBC Schools production), today we’re going to be taking a look at those two episodes of Watch and trying to work out what made them just so immovably lodged in the collective memory of a generation or two in a way that the Christmas modules of Going To Work or Mathshow sure never managed to. If indeed either of them ever actually had Christmas modules, and the fact that nobody’s quite sure whether they did or not says a lot really. Anyway, it’s time to watch Watch. A time of celebration. A time to clap your hands and be cheery…
The first episode of the Watch Nativity opens with that instantly familiar combination of jaunty jazzy flute theme music and shapeshifting title-spelling blobs of multicoloured modelling clay, which on this occasion set out their, erm, stall by morphing into a rough approximation of a crib. Instead of cutting straight to the studio, though, there’s a dissolve into expensive-looking-yet-also-battered-looking location footage of presenter Louise Hall-Taylor and her alarmingly expansive layered hairstyle sitting on a hillside in Jerusalem. Although Watch had been running since 1967, initially under the stewardship of the somewhat less with-it Rosanne Harvey, the former anchor of ITV lunchtime show Hickory House had come on board in 1976 as part of a more assertive relaunch of the well-established documentary strand to incorporate more interactivity and humour. Louise was also present for pretty much all of the other well-remembered Watch interludes, including the modules on Robinson Crusoe, David And Goliath, evolution and, well, pancakes, but this remains her definitive small-screen moment, and when you see that opening shot it’s not difficult to see why.
Pre-adolescent hearts might well have been a-flutter, but Watch is ostensibly here to engage their minds, and that’s why Louise is keen to tell us her reason for lounging around on some rocks in a natty white dress and necktie – she’s listening to some bells sounding from “not a very big town… but one of the most famous towns in the world”. After some pretty impressive shots of Bethlehem and indeed those notably sonorous bells, she tells us that over the next two weeks they’re going to be telling us a story, although it’s actually going to be started off back in ‘the studio’ by her co-presenter James Earl Adair. If you’d been thinking that this was all starting to look impressively expensive for a schools television production, then rest assured that the book-balancing is about to begin in earnest.
In fact, book-balancing is something of an understatement. James hasn’t even finished making all of the props and puppets for the story before the cameras start rolling, and after introducing us to a model house (“it’s not at all like the houses you live in, is it?”) and the Mary and Joseph puppets, and filling in the details of how they came to have to head for Bethlehem in the first place, there’s a quick cut to Louise walking along a dusty track and commenting on how the people of the past had to use donkeys instead of cars and motorways while he hastily fashions a donkey puppet on the spot; we rejoin James in the studio literally as he’s stapling the pieces together. As he pushes the now donkey-equipped Mary and Joseph along and sings a soulful rendition of Little Donkey – of which more in a moment – there’s also some location film of a couple actually riding a somewhat downcast-looking donkey along the dusty track that we saw a couple of minutes ago. While it’s hardly Cannibal Ferox, you do have to wonder if this kind of ethically-iffy animal-exploiting footage would actually be allowed in a programme aimed at children now.
Although the donkey and its charges soon trot out of shot, we stay on location for the moment as Louise reiterates just how much Bethlehem has changed since Biblical times, the most significant manifestation of this apparently being that the rooftops are now covered in television aerials. Thankfully, there’s a somewhat less technologically advanced village nearby where she can give us some pointers towards what life and architecture might have been like in the days before houses were kitted out to facilitate easy viewing of Horses Galore. Bang on cue, we then see the stand-in live action Mary, Joseph and Donkey ‘arriving’, only to meet with an overlong and overstated montage of all-too-literal representations of doors being slammed in their faces.
Taking care to remind us that “these houses aren’t made of stone, they’re made of old shoeboxes”, James is about to make more or less the exact same point back at the studio. Guiding his own Mary and Joseph between said repurposed discarded cardboard, he treats us to his rendition of You Can’t Come In, a haunting proggy number about their dejected trudging around the biblical streets; like all of the musical numbers in the Watch Nativity, this song originates from Follow The Star, a hit mid-seventies stage musical which the BBC would go on to present their own television version of – starring the once-ubiquitous Christopher Lillicrap – in 1979. Doctor Who fans might also like to note that Follow The Star was written by Wally K. Daly, who is of course best known as the creator of TV ‘Dwarf Mordant’. Anyway, perhaps betraying its external origins slightly, You Can’t Come In is a surprisingly credible and effective number for a Schools Television production, particularly on the hushed repetition of the chorus. It’s also accompanied by footage of the paper couple heading towards a suspiciously cave-resembling ‘stable’ and celebrating the arrival of Jesus (in the exact same crib as in the opening titles, which you can’t help but notice is actually presented on rather blurry and scratchy film; an odd and jarring juxtaposition of visuals to rank with the occasions when Gabriel The Toad was a real hand puppet or Windy Miller appeared stock still whilst spraying some bees with smoke. Yes these things did happen. They weren’t just hallucinations provoked by juvenile overexposure. No.
Louise isn’t about to start explaining the technical whys and wherefores of this production decision – probably a wise idea given that she’s only on marginally better film stock herself – but she is on hand to point out that back in Biblical times, ‘stables’ were indeed only glorified caves (and that’s a pretty tenuous definition of ‘glorified’ there). Inside one such glorified cave, she meets a donkey and some fairly aggressive sheep, and then there’s some overlong and unnecessarily technically detailed film demonstrating how a baby is ‘swaddled’. Thankfully this is just a temporary interruption to the business with the spectacularly arsey sheep, who we then see in tandem with their rather resigned-looking shepherd. There will be no prizes for guessing which part of the story we’re about to move on to.
Yes, surprisingly enough, James is busy making his own sheep and shepherds – a process that appears to take twice as long as swaddling a newborn – along with a possibly non-canonical and very alarming-looking wolf. Thankfully, some stock footage from Horizon startles the lupine interloper, who sidles off-screen in head-hung celestial chastisement, and the shepherds get their heavenly message delivered through the medium of another extract from Follow The Star. Arriving at the manger in glorious manky film stock-o-vision, they elect to spread the good news around the cardboard boxes, knocking on doors, opening windows and generally greeting fellow puppets to the accompaniment of There Must Be Room, a jubilant funked-up gospel-inflected variant of You Can’t Come In exhorting all and sundry to ‘clap your hands and be cheery’. This was, famously, the cause of much teacher-disconcerting classroom hilarity, when the line “there must be room” was accompanied by the sight of one shepherd attempting to enter a doorway he was a good inch too tall to get through…
“And that’s how Jesus was born!” beams James. “But our Nativity story isn’t over yet” adds Louise in quick-cut succession. Which is somewhat convenient, as we’re about to move on to Part Two…
Suggesting that the BBC Schools department had scant concern about potential ‘spoilers’, the second part opens with the modelling clay turning into three camel-bound individuals bearing gifts. Back in Bethlehem, Louise duly gives us a quick recap of what was apparently “only half the story” – a little too convenient, given that they’ve split it into two – before moving straight on to introducing the Three Wise Men. Lo and behold, they (or at least close approximations thereof) actually appear in her field of vision, subtly accompanied both by an off-screen James singing the title number from Follow The Star and by a very poorly patched in, erm, ‘star’.
Partway through, the three dimensional three wise men dissolve into their cardboard counterparts, and as James has only just been singing “gold for a crown, frankincense fair, for the baby I shall take myrrh”, it’s only right and proper that he should take the time to explain what those oft-namechecked gifts actually were. After he’s spent a ridiculous amount of time detailing how to make your own camels and attempting some kind of academically accurate introduction of Kaspar, Melchior and Balthazar (of whom he gamely admits “we don’t really know very much about”, whilst also conceding “strange names, aren’t they?”), that is. ‘Gold’ of course needs little introduction, but some ‘frankincense’ is brought on in a bowl and explained as coming from “the inside of trees” and “something that you burn to make the air smell nice”, with James doing a somewhat suspiciously blissed-out face as he inhales some suitably nice-smelling air, while myrrh – which “also comes from trees” – is shown in both its raw and medicinal state and its apparent usefulness for teething babies is spelt out in no uncertain terms. And then Melchior falls off his camel for accidental comic effect.
As they trot off past paper palm trees to the accompaniment of yet another rendition of Follow The Star, it’s over to Louise to show us the kind of real life desert that they might well have traversed, and offer some scientific facts about camels and how this combination of land and transport might actually have hampered the voyage of the Magi. This she then proceeds to illustrate by taking a ride on a camel called Leilla, looking somewhat green about the gills as she does so. Still, she manages to deliver her narration to camera without throwing up into the lens, although you do have to wonder how many takes were required. There’s then a quick look at present day Bethlehem and its social and architectural parallels with ancient history, before James picks up the story with the Three Wise Men’s decidedly unwise detour to the palace of King Herod.
In something approaching a dramatised section we get an inkling of Herod’s intentions towards the metaphorical pretender to his throne – albeit without a song to rank with “that man David, he’s a threat, catch him catch him in your net” from Watch‘s retelling of the story David And Goliath – but the story judiciously moves straight on to the Wise Men’s arrival at the stable and the timely Angel-issued alert about Herod’s intentions, mercifully stopping short of a puppet depiction of The Slaughter Of The Innocents. Instead, as Louise advises, if you want to know what became of them all, “you’ll have to ask your teacher about the rest of the story”; a comment that was doubtless greeted by a mass outbreak of frowns and folded arms. There is still room, however, for a closing comment from James about how Mary and Joseph “like all new parents, felt sure that their baby was the best baby in the world”. A remark that was presumably not at all pointed in any what whatsoever.
Sidestepping the rather more complicated issue of whether an educational programme with such a singularly religious slant would even be made today – something that is complicated further by the fact that Watch more normally traded in cold hard scientific and historical fact and preferred to tackle such vexing questions as how post reaches the right address – it is still true to say that the two Nativity episodes belong to another age of television, when the presenters and producers weren’t afraid to, appropriately enough for a Schools programme, show their working. in fact it was probably precisely that mismatched ramshackle charm that caught the attention and imagination of its intended audience at the time; well, that and the endless repeats. It was also possibly the closest that Children’s Television around this time got to recognising the ‘real meaning’ of Christmas, even if it did subject it to some degree of veracity-testing analytical rigour, which quite possibly helped it to stand out all the more. With most other shows, though, it was Yuletide entertainment all the way…
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You can find an extended version of Christmas With Children’s BBC: Watch – The Nativity, alongside features on festive editions of Bod, Play School, Rentaghost, Quincy’s Quest, The Ghosts Of Motley Hall, Magpie and Chorlton And The Wheelies, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. You can get Can’t Help Thinking About Me in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. I’m sure somebody probably does do a Myrrh Latte by now, but… not one of those.
There Was A Gentleman From Way Up North, And Kije Was His Name is a feature on BBC Schools show Music Time‘s module on Lieutenant Kije; you can find it here.
You can find me talking about the Watch Nativity on Ben Baker’s Christmas Box here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.