David Cameron and I both brought up on ‘Our Island Story: A History for Boys and Girls’ and now I have seen the stage version spectacularly performed in the grounds of Auckland Castle.
H E Marshall wrote the classic children’s account of English history in 1905. She openly admits that it is a mixture of fact and fairy tale written so that her children in Australia could know all about the noble history of the old country.
I remember being entranced as a boy by the heroic deeds of King Alfred, Richard the Lionheart and Queen Elizabeth – the first of course. Bad kings like John and Charles 1 were condemned. There were stories about rebels like Wat Tyler and exceptional commoners like Florence Nightingale but the book mainly recounted the glorious progression of our greatest kings and queens.
I was especially impressed by the full page colour pictures where the heroes leaped off the page riding their chargers. And there are chargers a plenty at Kynren, the panoramic, open air family show performed by a brilliant cast of 600 volunteers, for which Our Island Story could have been the inspiration.
It never occurred to me as a child that H E Marshall was a woman. David Cameron admits that Our Island Story was his favourite childhood book. When he spoke so movingly on departing Downing Street of his great love for his country, was it with rose coloured spectacles kindly provided by Henrietta Marshall? He would enjoy Kynren.
I was spellbound for the entire ninety minute performance transported back into the legends and dreams that fuelled the beliefs of the English nation. We are sustained by the fables of our forebears.
Far be it for me to judge the artistic merits, as I have never seen anything like Kynren. It is akin to an Olympic opening ceremony with the feel of a football crowd herded into an 8000 seater grandstand. Sitting in the back row, I was on my feet captivated by synchronised processions of rustic folk, cattle, horses and carriages across the grassy stage and by the stunning special effects. It would be a pity to spoil them for anyone who has not yet made their way to the Eleven Arches showground.
In case you are wondering, the loos were good too. Not a penny has been spared on the surrounding network of paths and car parks on the 115 acre site that takes everyone away in the dark and safely home.
Bishop Auckland is a long way from anywhere so I woke up late the following morning with a start, thinking “that was phenomenally naff”. I was intrigued that the anchor man for the performance turned out to Bishop Hensley Henson, who lived in Auckland Castle as Bishop of Durham from 1920 to 1939.He acts as mentor to the football loving young hero who starts the show by breaking the Bishop’s window with his football. Why not the better loved Michael Ramsey or the more political David Jenkins to play Gary Lineker?
Henson was an inspiring demagogue who tried to be a friend of the miners but fell out with them over the strike in 1926. His colleague the Dean had been jostled into the River Wear at the Durham Miners Gala and Henson himself was stopped in his chauffeur driven car at a miners picket line near Birtley in the middle of the night. These incidents were not reported at Kynren.
History should stop at a discrete distance from the present day. Marshall calls a halt before the Empire gets nasty and Kynren concludes with ‘our finest hour’ as recounted on a crackling radio by Winston Churchill. No place then for Mrs Thatcher or the banking crisis in this story of County Durham.
There could, I thought, be honourable mention of the one redeemed banker who has made Kynren possible. It is the latest escapade in Jonathan Ruffer’s vison to restore the Christian heritage of Auckland Castle and to regenerate Bishop Auckland. It is bankrolled by his fortune made in the City. He could have been a much more worthy recipient of a retirement honour.
Will it all work? Can 1000 volunteers be reassembled next year and will I head off to Bishop Auckland, praying for fine weather, all over again? Will the new investments in watering holes in the surrounding area pay off? Will the project really benefit the more run down parts of the county? The cluster of new attractions at Durham, Beamish and Bishop Auckland could just make the Land of the Prince Bishops a major tourist destination. It may be a better bet than the Powerhouse.
There was just as much scepticism about the Metro Centre. Could a chap from Ashington turn a disused coke works into a shopping centre? There is no denying the massive achievements of the two development corporations funded by Mrs Thatcher’s government, but history may one day tell that our region’s future hung just as much on those knights in shining armour who came up with gallant ideas and dug deep in their own pockets to get them going. It is just the stuff of Our Island’s Story.