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Coventry: My Christmas film set

By guest blogger DEBBIE ISITT


Ahead of the city of Coventry taking on the mantle of UK City of Culture in May 2021, director of the ‘Nativity’ franchise Debbie Isitt tells us about the inspiration behind the films and their characters. In particular, she reflects on the central role of Coventry as the perfect backdrop for telling stories of love and family that resonate around the world – both at Christmastime and beyond.

My Christmas film ‘Nativity!’ was inspired by watching my daughter’s nativity play at school when she was about 7 years old. The school – Christ The King Catholic Junior School in Coventry – had only one male teacher, and it was his job to direct the show. The teacher put so much effort into ensuring that it went well that he became very stressed out. During the actual show, so many things went wrong, including a shepherd being sick, the baby Jesus doll getting lost, and children forgetting their lines and singing out of tune. And so, by the end of the evening, the whole idea of a Christmas comedy set around a school nativity in Coventry had been born.


One year later, I had my story, my producer (Nick Jones), the finance (BBC FILMS) and a major film distributor (ENTERTAINMENT ONE) in place, and I was ready to make my film. All the producers assumed I would be filming in London – after all, that is where the majority of British movies are made. But there was never any question for me. I didn’t choose Coventry – Coventry had chosen me.


I wanted the film to feel authentic, and I believed the city of Coventry and its children had enormous untapped potential. By turning Coventry into my own personal film set, I was hoping to put the city on the cinematic map.

A man walking past houses decorated with Christmas lights
Martin Freeman walking down Coventry's Christmastime streets

For me, Coventry had always been a place of refuge. It welcomed me with open arms when I moved there at 17 years old to study performing arts. Over the years, as it became my home, I experienced the city as an exciting mix of the urban and historical – where 1960s brutal architecture stood cheek by jowl with cobbled streets and medieval buildings. An active hotbed of creativity; warm and down to earth people; a diverse community living harmoniously. Coventry had a village feeling a small city with a big heart. I wanted people to know about it. I wanted to show off the beautiful new cathedral and the magical ruins of the old one – internationally renowned as a centre for peace and reconciliation. It seemed to me that our paradoxically beautiful yet war-worn city deserved to shine on the big screen every bit as much as the actors, the story and the local children.


When we first encounter the children of the fictional St. Bernadette’s school (shot at the real Holy Family school in Coventry), it appears that they have no obvious talents, and their self-confidence is low. We discover their teacher Mr Maddens (Martin Freeman) also thinks the children are ‘useless’ and begs his headmistress (Pam Ferris) not to give him the job of directing them in their annual nativity. As the children themselves say: ‘We’re useless, everyone knows we’re useless.’ But when the childlike classroom assistant Mr Poppy (Marc Wootton) comes into their lives, he shines a light on the children and scratches beneath the surface to discover they do have talents after all – each and every one of them unique. I felt the city of Coventry also needed a light to shine on it to reveal its hidden treasures.


I wanted the children in the film to be as ‘real’ and ‘in the moment’ as possible, so I cast them from local Coventry primary schools. Most of the children had never performed in anything before, let alone a cinema movie. The much-loved ‘audition sequence’ in the film truly expresses just how innocent the children were. They came up with their own audition routines and the results were at once hilarious and touching.

A child in an angel costume being lowered from the spire of a cathedral
The Angel Gabriel descending from the mighty spire of Coventry Cathedral

I needed a very different kind of school to create a sense of competition and rivalry in the film. Babkake school, a beautiful historic building tucked away in its own splendid grounds in Coundon, Coventry, became the mighty Oakmoor Prep, led by the hilariously arrogant Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins). Again, local children from Bablake school were cast, also proving themselves to be worthy of big screen performances.


The people of Coventry also played their part in the making of ‘Nativity!’ Residents gave up their homes to us as locations. As ‘supporting artists’, local people turned up in their droves to help us create an audience in the cathedral ruins. They also helped us create Christmas in Coventry by pulling out their Christmas lights and adorning their houses – even though it was August when we shot the Coventry Christmas streets.


We shot in so many places in the city that it really did become our own version of a Hollywood film set. We filmed in the original office building of The Coventry Evening Telegraph where critic Patrick Burns (Alan Carr) writes his scathing review. We filmed in the University Hospital where Mr Poppy takes the children to see a baby being born. In fact, even though we went to LA to shoot the Hollywood sequence, we shot all of the Hollywood interiors right here in Coventry too. The mighty Ricoh Arena served us well as large, light Californian-style film studio offices.


All the post-production was done in Coventry as well – the editing, the composing and recording of the songs and music. Once the film was finished, it felt only right that we should have our Premiere at Odeon Coventry rather than in Leicester Square. The city had helped me make the film, so I wanted to say thank you. Everyone that had helped out was invited. Mr Poppy and I arrived on a camel, with the cast, crew and the lord Mayor of Coventry all in attendance. The children all looked amazing. It felt like one big party for our town.

Children dressed in star costumes sitting on a set of stairs on a stage
Coventry's Christmas stars

Christmas 2009 ‘Nativity!’ went on to become the most successful British independent film of year. It shot to number one at the UK box office, and over the last ten years there have been three more hit ‘Nativity’ films, as well as a stage musical. All of them are set in Coventry, and all of them are firm family favourites at Christmas time and beyond.


I have taken the ‘Nativity’ films to festivals in the US and South Korea, and the films have been sold to Germany, France, Italy, China and many other places all over the world.


Millions of people have seen the Nativity films and stage show – putting Coventry and its children at the heart of the movies seems to have weaved some kind of magic. I think the reason people have taken the films to their hearts is because they are local and authentic, but with universal themes that appeal to everyone. Every country in the world probably has a city like Coventry – in the shadow of bigger cities, but with its own special magic.


Christmas films are always special, but British Christmas films have that little extra something. They tap into traditions that don’t always revolve around Santa, but instead around themes of love, forgiveness and family. Ever since Charles Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’, British films have been inspired by the idea of the Ebenezer Scrooge-type characters – like Mr Maddens – who fail to see the wonder of Christmas, and who need to be shown how to love again. The quaint chocolate box imagery of snow-covered historical British towns and countryside also inspire that Christmassy feeling. And for me, the very British tradition of school nativity plays has inspired my whole ‘Nativity’ film franchise.


So, here’s to a new year ahead that gives the world hope – to Coventry being the UK City of Culture 2021, and to many more Nativity films in the future.


Sparkle and Shine!


Two people hug in front of a house surrounded by Christmas lights
Capturing the Christmas magic of Coventry

All views expressed in this blog are the views of the guest blogger and do not represent the views of the GREAT campaign.