The secret elite club of ex-Virgin Marys

“I was always the sort of child who got picked on to DO things, you know?” recalls Julie Christie’s Darling, in the 1965 film, as we see her as a 6 year old Mary in the school nativity play. (watch from 3’20”) It’s the start of a journey to superstardom as a manipulative, petulant but beautiful blonde. The scene captures in film a first lesson that many women get from the school nativity play — that it’s looks and playing up to the boss, not talent, that gets you on life.

Communications officer Alison Charlton says: “As a non-Mary it taught me – at age 5 – that the power of patronage is arbitrary and tough to challenge.” Many adults in their 30s and 40s recall a pre-multicultural casting rule: “At my school and Brownies (in rural Essex in the 80s),” remembers homemaker and gardener Alison Gibbs, “you had to be blonde to be Mary or an angel. I was always a shepherd.” As for two future freelance writers: “Jewish girls weren’t allowed to be Mary. Ahem,” says Lucy Marcovitch. “I always got to read the bloody prayer.” Lucy Sweetman says she was cast as “the ‘foreign girl’, dressed in a belly dancing outfit, who didn’t “get“ Christmas. I was tutored in Christian ways by Angel Gabriel and Santa.”

Time to consult Philip Hodson, former children’s TV agony uncle and a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy: “At such a young age it must play to some extent with your brain. What would it be like to produce God? Does it give you a promotion? Have I got a special role in the world?”

And as for rejection? Hodson compares it to being a failed beauty queen or  overlooked in a school play, which therapists know does affect people for the rest of their life. “There’s a sense of…being dis-preferred and anonymous.”

A confession here. I was a pre-school Mary. So was my daughter. It’s not that I think I’m special. Certainly later at Catholic school I was relegated to a minor role  in the rather daring Pina Bausch Tanz Theatre-style Nativity. (Mary had to pull a yogic “bow” pose for the finale).

But even at 3 it was a unique experience to have all those children lining up to lay tributes at my feet. My daughter, now 11 recalls: “When you put that blue veil on, you feel like a goddess.” The Hindus know this of course. Naming children after goddesses and embodying them for festivals has long been an honest and open ritual.

I would claim unexpected insights. Mine came during an A-level English Lit class on the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe was the text. As we read his passionate lines about holding up his hand against the blue sky of her mantle “Rich, rich it laps./Round the four fingergaps” I remember thinking I had one up on Gerard. This is not to exclude the potentially interesting experiences of boys who played Mary, but they tend to keep it quiet. And there is in Marian blue – an early lesson in trademark style from the first woman with a signature colour.

I find myself discussing Marian style and the linked veiled elegance of nuns with  actor Murray Melvin (star of The Devils), who is like me, fascinated by them. He however has played a nun for Peter Maxwell Davies, while  I was restricted to playing at nuns by putting my navy & white C&A polyester poncho on upside down over my head in best Fraulein Maria style. Crucially both Nuns and Mary are set up as better than or not quite one of us. “Of course when you put that wimple on, you’re not a woman. You’re a nun,” Murray points out. He was educated by the Sisters of Mercy who had special beautifully made enamel pins to hold up their winged head gear. “I used to find dropped pins on the floor with this pale blue head and keep them,” he said. “The French match it with brown.” It emerges that Melvin , immaculately turned out is wearing a Sisters of Mercy blue shirt with a brown cashmere scarf.

As well as being styled divinely, some ex-Marys form a secret club of future high achievers. Journalist Claire Truscott says,“It was funny to discover living in Islamabad that 3 of us correspondents in town had also been Mary in our school nativities.” However  plenty of never-Marys can be motivated by rejection into super achievement.

And what future feminist ex-Marys will tell you is this “star” part is not all it’s cracked up to be. Writer and actor Abigail Burdess: “It looks like the main part but it’s not. Ultimate be quiet and look pretty role. The Shepherd is better. Funny beard.“

Voluntary worker Sarah Kathryn Perry still remembers her one wretched line (made more topical with the monumental media fuss over Kate Middleton): “Oh Joseph, I’m SO tired.” Charity campaign manager Pinky Badhan recalls “crying because I didn’t want to be pregnant.” I can’t have been the only Mary who instinctively wanted to be the Angel Gabriel and do some annunciating. I actually remember my kindly nursery teacher patiently explaining to me, “But you’re the most important part.”

Philip Hodson says that celebration of beautiful, silent women rightly disturbs us. He remembers being in a 1966 Oxford University production of Dr Faustus with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. “He had a billion lines, but all she had to do as Helen of Troy – a mute part- was go from stage left to stage right – where there was a maid waiting with a G&T in the wings. It was weird to see the biggest draw in Hollywood at the time in a non-speaking part.”

But Mary doesn’t have to be mute and meek. My favourite Mary ever remains the ethereal Sinead O’Connor in Neil Jordan’s masterpiece, The Butcher Boy. Sample quote: “For fuck’s sake.”

Merry Christmas.

A version of this piece first appeared in The Guardian on December 18th

Further reading

The Blessed Virgin… by Gerard Manley Hopkins

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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