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
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