For Christmas 1999, ITV aired a special one-off TV film which gathered together as many famous faces from comedy as possible. Written by playwright Tim Firth – later known for the smash hit Calendar Girls – The Flint Street Nativity is a sweet, moving and very funny production revolving around the mishaps and primary school politics of a class of seven-year-olds as they put on their school Nativity play.
Firth built on years and years of anecdotes from friends and family in the teaching profession, including his mother, who worked at his own primary, Stockton Heath, which was fictionalised as Flint Street Primary. The production was filmed at Lansdown Primary School in Cardiff, with mocked-up, oversized furniture and fittings to create the illusion of child-sized performers. And it's a veritable "who's who?" of nineties British television.
Stephen Tompkinson (Drop the Dead Donkey, Ballykissangel) leads the school play as Tim the narrator, tirelessly working before curtain up to memorise his lines so he can impress his father, who has separated from his mum. Leading the classroom shenanigans is his Ballykissangel co-star Dervla Kirwan (also well known for Goodnight, Sweetheart and A Time to Dance) as brassy Scouse lass Jaye. In spite of having the choice role of the Angel Gabriel, Jaye is determined to play Mary in the Nativity ("Ah'm gonna be Mary!"), dragging along her best friends/co-conspirators/minions Shemima and Dawn. They're played by Mina Anwar (The Thin Blue Line, The Bill) and Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous) respectively.
Jane Horrocks (also Ab Fab, and already a noted film actor for Little Voice and The Witches) is Zoe, a farmer's daughter appropriately playing a shepherd and happy to provide gruesome details about what actually happens in stables. Hywel Simmons (another regular on The Bill) is Errol, her fellow shepherd. The Three Wise Men are headed by the aforementioned Dawn. Adrian is played by Neil Morrissey (a constant nineties fixture for Men Behaving Badly) is plagued by a lisp and cursed with having to try to say "frankincense," and ultimately terrified that he'll be sent to the "special unit" like his brother. The third Wise Man (his actual character unnamed) is played by Tony Marshall, who had previously starred in Firth's sitcom All Quiet on the Preston Front, although these days he's mostly recognised as Nelson the barman from Life on Mars. This little sod is a conniving, borderline bully who gets others to do his dirty work with the overpowering phrase, "Dares ya!"
Mark Addy, then known for The Full Monty and The Thin Blue Line but since recognisable worldwide as the ill-fated Robert Baratheron on Game of Thrones, plays Andrew, a sweet boy who is in the dreaded special unit and is relegated to playing an ass in the stable. (The actor's identity is kept secret through much of the film due to the cardboard box mask on his head.) Jason Hughes (This Life and later Midsomer Murders) is Warren, struggling with his big role as Joseph, opposite the class sweetheart Debbie Bennett as Mary, played by Josie Lawrence (Outside Edge and later Eastenders, Humans and Good Omens). Ralf Little (The Royle Family and later the bafflingly popular Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps) is Clive, an astronaut-obsessed Star of Bethlehem, who accidentally lets the class iguana escape. The iguana is named Michael Owen, after the footballer. England had done very well in the football the year before, you see.
Frank Skinner might actually have been the biggest star of the cast at the time, already a firm fixture on ITV as co-host of Fantasy Football League and host of The Frank Skinner Show, and known by everyone during the late nineties for his single "Three Lions" with his collaborator Dave Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds. His character, Ian, who portrays Herod, is obsessed with football, Des Lynam and A Question of Sport, and so can't have been that much of a stretch for Skinner. Finally, John Thompson (known then for Cold Feet and The Fast Show) is Christian, playing the innkeeper. Christian is that kid, the unnerving outsider who is quietly terrifying as he goes about whatever it is he spends his time doing. He's also in schoolboy love with Debbie, which motivates his strange actions.
Of course, having a bunch of twenty-to-thirty-somethings playing seven-year-olds is going to require some suspension of disbelief, yet somehow they manage it. Aside from the oversized props there are some gestures to their age – the female cast would naturally have particular trouble looking prepubescent, so wore undersized swimming costumes under their clothes to strap themselves down – but they still look like adults pretending to be kids. Of course they do. And yet they absolutely convince, thanks to some brilliant writing and some truly heartfelt performances. Kirwan, Tompkinson and Sawalha are the stand-outs, really selling their young characters, but everyone impresses.
Firth's writing is excellent, with some brilliantly observations of primary age life. The girls bicker and scheme, the boys squabble and trick each other, and as the story moves from the pre-play classroom to the production itself, the chaos increases until a catastrophic finale ends the play prematurely in some great slapstick. It's in the quieter moments, though, that the film is both at its funniest and most moving. The kids reflect their parents' hang-ups, particularly the girls, who re-enact their mothers against the bemused boys. Where it really gets you though is those moments when a child is left dealing with their own insecurities; Tompkinson's narrator in tears as he struggles through the last of his lines because he doesn't think his dad has turned up, and Morrissey's tearful attempt to master the pronunciation of frankincense whilst sitting out in the rain, and his triumphant way around it. In those scenes, you can honestly believe, for a moment, that you're watching a schoolchild.
At the end of the film, the cast appear as the parents of their characters, providing some exquisitely written and performed context to their kids' obsessions. Also praiseworthy is Lynn Hunter, a little known actor who provides the voice of Mrs Humphries, the class teacher, and gives an excellent, world-weary performance in spite of never being seen on screen (any time she addresses the children, the scene is shot from her point-of-view, looming down on them).
The Flint Street Nativity is absolutely gorgeous, at once a completely nineties production at the tail-end of the decade, and yet strangely timeless. A critical hit for ITV in the day, it was adapted by Firth for stage for two sell-out productions in 2006 and 2007. In a sea of Christmas television specials, The Flint Street Nativity stands out as something really special.
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on December 21st, 2020. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.