Now, take my friend Marlene: she's a very artistic type. You probably know the sort - dangly Trade Craft earrings, pencils and paint brushes pushed into her hair geisha - style: half-moon glasses precariously perched an the end of her nose and a pair of Doc Martens - one red and one green. ('I've another pair like this you know.')
She's a leading light in regional amateur dramatics with a name for her radical re-workings. Her trans-gender 'Phantom of the Opera' is still talked about in hushed tones…… in Dewsbury. Marlene is also a bit of a committee junkie, an inveterate organiser and with a reputation for not tolerating fools: (i.e. most other people she knows). So I wasn't particularly surprised when she agreed to the Church Councils' request to stage last year's Nativity, although some concern was expressed: Marlene was the sort of person who had causes. We feared her analysis of Santa’s carbon footprint and her concern that the elves should have a living wage.
The committee gathered in her large kitchen, all shaker style furniture and IKEA fittings - very Chappell Allerton. Oh, and she had an agenda. “To bring this story alive it has to be brought into the present. We must make it relevant!” And so she set about her task with relish - carrying the rest of us, I have to say, rather in the slipstream of her enthusiasm.
Marlene used her contacts at the University to cast the Wise Men who turned out to be Justin, Trevor ... and Brenda … and you probably remember that Marlene and Brenda have not been on civil terms since the unfortunate incident at the Turkish bath.
Well it won't matter' said Marlene, all hurt pride and a large gin. “No one will notice the difference: all they'll see is three moustaches – and that’s before the costumes are on.
Her neighbour's daughter, Sigourney, was cast as Mary, notwithstanding the fact that at 14, she was pushing the boundaries of virginity somewhat.
“But she's ethnic. Don't you see she's perfect for the part: so 21st century marginalized.” and that was that. Marlene brooked no contradiction.
“Anyway,” she said, gesturing to an open copy of a book by Walter Bruggerman on the vicar’s desk, “If you knew your Hebrew you’d know that it doesn’t actually say Virgin.”
“Oh she thinks she’s a theologian now does she?” muttered Brenda to Justin.
The rest of the casting fell into place: the local Imam graciously declined the role of the Angel Gabriel. "Well you can take multiculturalism to the point of political correctness and then where would we all be? Answer me that?" observed Brenda. Terry, the local postman took his place in a stunning piece of symbolism that no one got, even when Marlene, to considerable consternation insisted that he performed in his uniform.
“Philistines.” she said, as she explained with elaborate patience for the third time the symbolism of postman as messenger of God.
“Actually, Marlene, point of order. The Philistines were a very cultured people”
“Actually, Trevor, any more points of order and you’ll be the back end of the donkey."
Sigourney's boyfriend Cameron was drafted in as the innkeeper. (Fortunately the ASBO he had been given for streaking through the synagogue as a bet had just lapsed.) A night-club doorman by trade he had little difficulty with the lines- “You can't come in here, we're full' although he did tend to keep fooling around at rehearsals and ad-libbing: 'You can't come in mate, but you can, love, we're letting in girls for half price”.
Now Brenda likes to think of herself as worldly-wise, but she flummoxed us all with her references to Cameron’s musical animal impersonations. Eventually she explained: “Cameron’s hung like a stallion, Sigourney told me. So, what does that sound like then? How do you sing like a stallion?”
Joseph was to be played by Len, the church caretaker.
"But he's about 1000 years old Marlene."
"Joseph was older than Mary you know. Anyway, it says a lot about the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society."
Rehearsals came and went.
"Marlene, I'm sorry to interrupt but I'm having trouble with my character in this scene. What's my motivation here?"
"Piss off Trevor. You’re a palm tree. Any more of that luvvy-crap and you’ll be the back end of the donkey.
"Len, please! How often have I told you? Don't smoke during the birth scene - the baby Jesus is inflammable."
"Marlene, if I hear another religious person say: 'and Wise Men seek him still . . . .' I may run screaming from the building"
"Brenda, they're not religious, they're Church of England."
"Sigourney, Darling, no more piercings please - at least not before Christmas. I'm sorry Cameron ... you've had what pierced? I see .... well, we shan't need to see that on stage thank you very much"
“Point of order, Marlene, technically, its not Christmas, its Advent, which means….”
“…or possibly both ends of the donkey, Trevor! Terry. Drop the line about 'Special Delivery', it's not working-"
And so the evening arrived --- and Marlene was proved right. It was a triumph- dramatic, moving and powerful. The stable became a bus shelter in front of an old garage, back-lit in moody tones, the manger: the boot of a jacked-up wreck. Drug paraphernalia littered the floor. Three local characters shared a bottle around a brazier and stray dogs sniffed around the set. Everyone delivered their lines perfectly, and on cue it snowed.
It's hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago now, and here we are again getting ready for this year. It's going to be different this year though. After Marlene's triumph the church council members met in emergency session. Words like uncomfortable, inappropriate, trendy and travesty were bandied about.
So we're back to the traditional again- shepherds in tea towels carrying cuddly sheep and angels with tinsel halos. The relevant and the up-to date, it seems, have no place in the Christmas story.
And the meaning of Christmas in all this?
The Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special repeat, 8.00 pm, BBC2, Boxing Day, of course.