On Sunday night, I enjoyed one of the great theatrical experiences of my life, watching an epic ‘Tale of England’ performed by hundreds of volunteer actors in the grounds of Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland, until recently the residence of the Bishops of Durham. Inspired by the Oscar-winning work of Puy du Fou in La Vendée, western France, Kynren (meaning ‘generations’) presents a vivid and densely-textured pageant of legend, myth and history, telling the stories of England from King Arthur to the two World Wars. If you saw the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, you will know the sort of territory we are in.
Viewed from a specially-built 8000-seater grandstand, the action is played out on a broad stretch of ground overlooked by the Castle. There is a man-made lake in the centre, from which much of the stunning scenery emerges. Although the use of water as a surface for action can sometimes look contrived (with actors moving along submerged walkways), the combination of water, light and dry ice is highly successful in creating powerfully suggestive images; it is, in addition, obviously potent to see our island story emerging quite literally from the waters.
The surrounding dry land is also put to good use. Horses charge, pull carts, or amble along with a Roman centurion in the saddle. Sheep, cattle and geese are driven across the stage with breathtaking obedience. Kings are crowned, battles rage, dancers dance, and the bodies of miners killed in explosions are carried to their burial. Wonderfully, the Stockton to Darlington Railway is recreated: we see the first train steaming past us, clean, punctual and with seats apparently to spare.
So three cheers and a kiss on both cheeks for Jonathan Ruffer, the astonishing Christian philanthropist who has bought Auckland Castle (with its Zurburan paintings), created two charities, and declared his intention to make Bishop Auckland, if not the centre of the universe, then at least a tourist destination to transform the region and the quality of life of its inhabitants.
Which brings me to a first reflection.
I grew up not far from Bishop Auckland, in a small village on the other side of Durham City. Later, my family moved to east Durham, where I worked for a year as a supply teacher. We were in former pit villages which, although they had been a byword for strongly supportive community life, would never receive awards for architectural beauty or outstanding services to the tourist industry. They tended to be composed of row after row of soot-smudged terraced houses, interspersed with a church, a chapel, a couple of shops and a pub. I therefore grew up with a belief that, despite the Norman glory of Durham Cathedral, I belonged to an ugly part of the world, blighted by poverty, lacking self-belief, condemned to a repeated cycle of little expectation and less achievement.
Now, it is a dreadful thing when the people of a region believe that they are no-hopers; when it’s the Nazarenes themselves who believe that nothing good can come out of Nazareth. So the thought that all of this might change is remarkable. I know that the process began years ago with the greening of the slag heaps, grass growing where once the grim dark matter of mining waste had stood in little mountains across the region. But now Mr Ruffer promises to advance that work and complete it so that Bishop Auckland will soon have a Spanish gallery, a series of gardens, an exhibition of the history of faith in the UK, and ‘the best tea room north of Antarctica.’
What he offers, in fact, is nothing short of resurrection, not only for a tumbledown castle but for an entire town and region. It is resurrection for a people told for generations that they couldn’t, now seeing that they can. Today, a thousand volunteers learn to enact mediaeval battles and work as part of a slick welcome team worthy of anything in London, Paris, New York. They learn a host of technical, logistical and practical skills to bring off what will be one of the great success stories of our cultural history. So who can say what they won’t achieve tomorrow? Their being from ‘round here’ makes it all the more marvellous. The local is powerful and beautiful, not narrowly parochial but the place where the whole wide world begins.
This is heady, potent, gospel stuff, and it gladdens the heart to see it. Let us all catch hold of Mr Ruffer’s Christian vision and see that, just as a town can be made new by faith and focus, so can we all.
A second thought moves from the local to the national, asking what our history is and how we should express it.
It was obviously necessary to bring Kynren to a rousing conclusion. So we were taken from a speech in praise of ‘a love of England, my dear England’ to the speeches of Winston Churchill (‘their finest hour’), and on into ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, sung while a few members of the audience, primed by reviews, waved the little Union flags they’d brought (or bought: the merchandising has also been exemplary) as the entire cast appeared on stage in all the summative finery of the costumes of every era. This piece, the programme explained, was a ‘fitting and uplifting finale, to celebrate all that is great about the British nation.’
I do understand that the writers didn’t have too many other avenues to explore in search of a big finish (certainly having concentrated on Kings and Queens and derring-do), but I found the choice of music troubling and unsatisfactory.
Our problem is that we have no English history that is separate from our British history; we certainly have no supply of popular patriotic songs that are unconnected with the spirit of lofty entitlement that led Britain to rule the waves, forging and maintaining a mighty empire with ‘wider still and wider’ bounds. Expressing the love of our country (even if we could separate England from the rest of Britain) will therefore always lead us into contentious company, like that of the wife of a British captain who allegedly refused to let the Maharajah of Kashmir escort her into dinner, claiming he was a ‘dirty Hindu’. Even Churchill, for all his fine speeches and bulldog spirit, is far from straightforward, especially in the still strongly Labour north-east.
Which is perhaps why Kynren would have been well advised to follow (in some way) the 2012 Olympics, whose inclusion of the NHS and our musical and fashion expertise allowed a very different atmosphere to pervade their account of our history.
Indeed, with our nation standing as it is, threatened by post-Brexit fragmentation, terrorist attack and ecological trauma, perhaps our most urgent task is the creation of a culture of celebrating all that holds us together. We need to commit ourselves to the late Jo Cox MP’s ‘greater unity’, finding words and music which express this, proclaiming a message of cohesion in diversity to our violent and divided world. We should not forget past virtues or make light of our vices, but see clearly that our past taste for dominance (driven by whatever mixture of motives) must be replaced by a present and future thirst for cooperation for the good of all people.
We need if not a new flag then a new understanding of our old flag; if not new songs then new songs to add to our old songs.We need a new belief in the power and potential of the local for the sake of the national and international. It is only if we do this that Kynren will continue to have a meaningful tale to tell to future generations. If we do not, it is hard to imagine the survival and thriving of a ‘dear England’ that is worth the love of anyone.