Winchester pageantry

26 October 2012

Roderic Dunnett sees history unfold in a long-renowned city


From King Alfred to Mary Sumner: the narrative unfolds in Winchester

From King Alfred to Mary Sumner: the narrative unfolds in Winchester

THE history of Winchester and its cathedral is like a chronicle of Britain itself. As the capital of King Alfred (871-899), whose benign almost 30-year reign brought the codifying of laws, the ordering of the realm, and a new Bible translation, it acquired fame throughout Europe. But its bishops date back to the seventh century; and the most famous, St Swithun, was a towering figure in the land both before and during Alfred's day. He may, just possibly, have taught him; he certainly advised him.

The cathedral is mounting a striking and arresting televisual and staged production, Chronicles of Light, which regales audiences with the march of history around this nonpareil building and its environs. Towered over by an enormous backdrop, reaching to the rafters and kissing the fan-vaulting, and absorbing detail from previous son et lumière events mounted up to half a century ago, this glowing narrative spans the marriage of Queen Mary I and Philip II of Spain, the ministries of Bishops Stephen Gardiner and Lancelot Andrewes, the rapacity of two sets of Cromwellian iconoclasts, the great Jacobean bishop and hymn-writer Thomas Ken, and the devotion of Jane Austen to the building where she now lies buried, and much more.

The film work that lights up the backdrop was often electrifying - marrying the naturalistic with occasional well-judged surreal touches and interfading. Music played a less central part - and perhaps what there was might have been more subtly integrated. But there was Tallis (to Ken's words), and a beautifully intoned reading of "Lead me, Lord" by S. S. Wesley (an organist of Winchester, as of Hereford and Gloucester). Would that we had more of a sniff of his fractious relations with the Close. But trouble among the clerics certainly featured; and a cheerful evocation of King Cnut's bodyguards, conceived for a 1908 pageant, and music for flute and/or harp added to the mix.


One potential landmark was Andrew Lumsden's solo organ improvisation on a theme from John Rutter's Winchester Te Deum; but this, too, was outweighed by other activity. It deserved a clearer airing.

As in any chronicle or pageant, especially with modern technology, events passed in a flurry. But the planners' decision to focus on some vigorous female figures bore fruit. Here were not just Queens Ealhswith and Emma: after Austen, we encountered the Victorian reformers Mary Sumner, founder of the Mothers' Union, and Josephine Butler, the canon's wife who spoke up for, and helped, prostitutes, and championed higher education for women.

A notable treat, near the end, was a tribute, with telling black-and-white images, to William Walker, the diver who saved the cathedral from collapse during the Edwardian era. Diving daily for five or six years, he would surface from the quagmire and light up, as he said, "to clear me lungs with a pipe of tobacco".

Praise is due to the team who conceived this modest masterpiece: Canon Roly Riem, who oversaw it (a video will be produced); the skilled filmmaker Terry Braun, aided by Alex Braun; Alex Hoare for apt props and evocative costumes; and, above all, the writer, Philip Glassborow. All craftsmen indeed.

If I mention that Dame Judi Dench, David Suchet, Bernard Cribbins (as Izaak Walton), Anthony Andrews, Hugh Dennis, Jon Snow, and umpteen others were dragooned into lending their voices and faces, bringing marvellous intonation and enunciation to ecclesiastics, royals, and other laymen alike, you will get the feeling not just that Winchester's "New Minster" is adored by the great and the good, but that this became an unexpectedly special show.

Cecily O'Neill directed the action on the stage; and, if the processions felt a bit functional, her handling of the two real stars, in nicely understated lighting from Mark Gardiner and his technicians, was beyond all reproach. The actor Andrew Williams, who has founded Retrak, a charity working with African street children, was wondrously humane as the narrator: a seasoned care- taker figure, who takes a young trainee under his wing. And the star of the whole live show, on the first night, was the apprentice (dubbed Prentice), Alex Crosley. The way he hung on every wise word like an eager sponge, as Alfred might have on those of his mentor Swithun (the comparison was intended), and then reacted was like watching an ever-changing cloudy sky in mini-ature.

Crosley and his adviser's artful antics created an inviting atmosphere from the start, gripping and drawing one in to the show. From then on, we were hooked.

Chronicles of Light runs until Sunday. Phone 01962 857 275.

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