On 21 December 1986, the Observer Magazine got the hankies out for a trip to the nativity play at Ridgeway Infant School in Derby.
From the 175 pupils, there were 13 aspiring Marys (‘Three of whom were boys’), but Mrs Taylor – headteacher, producer, director and, apparently, also drama therapist – chose Gurjit, who hadn’t volunteered, because she ‘let her best friend do all the living for her’. Andrew played Joseph, who ‘underestimated himself’ and the guiding star was Kelly, ‘a worrier by nature – sibling problems’.
Rehearsals took place ‘after the last custard splash had been cleared from the hall floor’. Mrs Taylor’s direction required her to be ‘Cecil B DeMille’ or ‘Joyce Grenfellesque’ by turn, telling noisy travellers eager to see the Baby Jesus that ‘You’ve travelled hundreds of miles, so you’re too worn-out to stamp’ and psyching up the innkeeper’s wife: ‘Get her the baby, this is your hard acting bit’ With their ‘lovely, robust Derby pronunciation’ the kids sounded like ‘performers in a medieval mystery play’.
A set was staple-gunned into submission, from cereal boxes and Dylon-ed net curtains. The camels were ‘experimental’ and ‘hundreds of small green handprints’ formed a mossy stable roof. All the staff mucked in: ‘Mrs Laxton put up palm trees in her coffee break… Mrs Boulton passed her weekend elasticating baggy harem pants.’ The spirit of Alan Bennett seemed to hover over proceedings, in lines such as, ‘Could somebody please put a gusset in the Roman helmets?’ and ‘She was twee, Shirley Temple on the good ship Lollipop, I could have walloped her.’
Was it all right on the night? Sort of. A child playing a candle decided to be a ‘sulky little bugger’ and refused to move; the snakes got tangled with the parrots (it was unclear what either were doing in the nativity) and Mary held the Jesus doll ‘as if it were a hotdog casserole’. Still, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. ‘The lumps in the throats of the audience became almost visible, Kleenex was edged from sleeves.’ Unfolding themselves from the child-sized chairs, parents and grandparents united in a time-honoured chorus of ‘Didn’t they do well?’