A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of presenting an award to one of our leading television writers, Tony Jordan, for his BBC1 series that retold the Nativity story. Tony was one of the driving forces behind EastEnders for many years. He has since gone on to create many a small-screen hit, and has written Dickensian, the mash-up of Dickens stories that begins on BBC1 this Christmas. So when I asked him what made him choose the Nativity – after all, it’s fairly well-trodden as a narrative path – I knew I was picking the brains of a master storyteller. He replied simply, “I know a true story when I read one.”
Well, this is why millions of people go to carol services and nativity plays, to relive the story together. We engage with stories because they bring us together in ways that create a common experience. And not only did Tony Jordan shine a new light on a familiar story, but he also set off a wide conversation about our response to that story. How? Because people watched it together.
It isn’t all that long ago that the prophets of media doom were confidently predicting the demise of television as a medium for common conversation – that is, for example, a family sitting together and watching the same programme at the same time and in the same place.
In a world where anyone under 40 has to be surgically removed from their mobile or tablet, the screen on the wall or in the corner still has the power to get people to sit together and watch together. Indeed, in a recent poll of 2,000 parents, watching television was seen as one of the top activities for family bonding.
The exciting new manager of Liverpool FC, Jürgen Klopp, recently told an interviewer that his aim is not to be the greatest manager, but to “live in the moment”. I guess this is why he seems always to enjoy himself. And his phrase is relevant to how we celebrate Christmas, too.
So here’s a thought: for all those lucky enough to have someone with whom to share the remote this Christmas, put down your mobile, switch off your tablet and, like Jürgen, live in the moment. You may be surprised by what you can do.
Whether you’re joining in a carol service from a distance, watching an imaginative retelling of the Christmas story, debating the merits of Dickensian or the latest relationship catastrophe in EastEnders, the telly still has the power to bring us together… and gives us the perfect excuse to ditch the personal devices and enjoy a digital detox. Live for now with the people who are there with you.
In the original Christmas story, it was groups of people who came together to meet Jesus. Presumably, this also meant they could talk about it all when they went away. Wise men from the East travelled together and, after a bad brush with a mad tyrant, worked out between themselves where to go next. Shepherds had an encounter on the hills with choirs of angels – no one-on-one experience here. Shared experience is always more powerful than private browsing.
In a world of instant news, multi-platform viewing, privatised experience and customised catch-up, let’s hear it for the telly at Christmas. There’s life in the old screen yet.
The Right Rev Nick Baines delivers Thought for the Day on the Today programme on New Year’s Day Radio 4