If your child is having trouble mastering his or her role in the school Nativity play this year, count yourself lucky the writer Alan Garner won't be in the audience.
"I was invited to the Nativity play in our village hall and it was diabolical, as they always are. The children had not been taught how to deliver their lines. No one involved had any sense of theatre, there were no sightlines, people sitting down couldn't see anything. I'm 6ft 2in and I could just see the top of a child's head. And it went on for an hour and a half."
It was 1966 and Garner's expectations were perhaps a little high, but as it happened, the headmaster, playing Ken Tynan to Garner's Bernard Levin, agreed it was atrocious. "The head caught my eye as I was trying to leave and asked if I'd be willing to help. I thought, I've been done over again, will I never learn?"
Garner's revised version was performed in the stables at the village pub, he trained the children to act, and it lasted all of 13 and a half minutes. "The children thought we had improvised the play, they hadn't realised I had written it for 28 individual voices, but I was ruthless. I was teaching these children to produce drama for drama's sake and if they died on stage, they died."
It has since been performed on stage in Manchester and Edinburgh as Holly from the Bongs but a new expanded version, featuring music and soundscapes part-recorded in a stable, will be heard on radio for the first time as one of the drama highlights of Christmas Day on Radio 4. Now titled The Echoing Waters, it relocates the story to rural Cheshire, and focuses on Mary (played by Gillian Kearney from BBC1's Hope and Glory) as she sees her son attacked by society and eventually crucified. Much of the biblical language is replaced with traditional Cheshire vocabulary and syntax to make the story appeal more immediately to younger listeners - so lines such as "I believe in one God the Father Almighty" emerge as "I think on Him up there, Him as can do 'owt".
"Saying something quite broadly but very simply means anyone can understand what the character is talking about," says Garner. "So when others come on using more complex language, the bridge to understanding has already been made. Children are not fools. They will take ideas and run with them, provided you use the language correctly."
He's added a narrator for the radio version and has made structural adjustments, but it's been a test of endurance. In four decades Garner has published more than 30 works of children's fiction, plays, anthologies of fairy tales and libretti, but detests the publishing process and would be happy to dance barefoot on broken glass rather than revisit old work. "It's been dreadful for me as I never read anything once it's finished," he says. "It's a neurotic aspect of my nature. Proof correcting on a novel is worse than digging ditches and I know as I've done both. By the time I have done all that, I have had enough and I never look at the book again. I know that if I did, I would find a compositor's error or a dreadful statement that I …