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The People's Passion: Cathedrals: Who comes here? Why do they come?

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Eloise McNaulty 15:05, Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Editors note: The writer Nick Warburton talks about his inspirations for The People's Passion dramas, where stories of the Passion and the present collide, in the lives of people passing through one fictional cathedral. EMcN

Arundel Tomb, Chichester Cathedral

Arundel Tomb, Chichester Cathedral

When we were first discussing The People's Passion, Jonquil Panting (the producer) and I would go to some of London's places of worship to talk. We might meet in Southwark Cathedral, or take a walk from Bush House along Fleet Street to St Paul's.

On one occasion, in St Martin-in-the-Fields, we watched a group of workers, directed by a capable verger, setting out chairs for a concert. While they were doing this, a middle-aged woman, apparently unaware of the bustle with the chairs, sat deep in thought in one of the central pews, and, in a side pew next to us, a man wrapped in a heavy coat was fast asleep. He hadn't simply nodded off; he'd come in for the purpose of sleeping and was stretched out in full possession of the pew.

Two of the questions at the heart of these plays are: "Who comes here?" and "Why do they come?" During that brief visit to St Martin-in-the-Fields we saw people who'd come in to shelter, to work, to be alone and to ask questions. On another day we might've seen people who were there to volunteer or to make music, to protest or to look for sanctuary, to light a candle for a friend or, indeed, to worship.

In the clip above from the first play - Coming To Jerusalem - an old man stops to talk to one of the cathedral volunteers. "Look up at these walls," he says to her, and he tries to explain what the cathedral means to him.

A cathedral is a huge public space, created over hundreds of years out of vision and craftsmanship and toil. "There were those who dreamed it," says the old man in another of the plays, "and those who crafted the dream, making it into glass and wood and stone. Then there were those who laboured; who broke bones doing the work, who swore at the stone and the weather, and got it done."

But cathedrals are private places too. The massive endeavour of their creation is evident in the buildings themselves, but they're also full of small and touching details of people's lives - in windows and carvings and memorials. While I was writing the plays, I visited several of our great cathedrals and I've used some of these details in our cathedral - our new cathedral for The People's Passion.

It's a cathedral built of sound by Jonquil and studio manager Pete Ringrose and it's been done with huge skill and artistry. You can hear the cathedral spaces - the nave, the side chapels, the upper galleries and the aisles. You can also hold your breath and hear the stirring sound of cathedral silence.

One of the places I visited was Chichester, and I found myself back there last week. In Chichester Cathedral you can see the Arundel Tomb, a fourteenth century monument to a knight and his lady made famous by Philip Larkin's beautiful and enigmatic poem - "Side by side, their faces blurred, the earl and countess lie in stone."

I stopped to look at it again. Beyond the monument, in the north aisle, a man had placed a chair against the wall. He stretched, he nodded, and, in only a matter of minutes, he fell asleep. He couldn't have been our original St Martin-in-the-Fields sleeper (could he?) but he'd surely come to the cathedral for the same purpose.

I stood in the nave and looked across at not two but three figures sleeping there, linked in spite of the six or seven hundred years which separated them. I felt lucky to have seen all three.


There's still time to join in The People's Passion. Many choirs are just starting their rehearsals. Find a choir that's taking part and download sheet music, backing tracks and mp3s.

Please get in touch if you want us to add your choir to the list at thepeoplespassion@bbc.co.uk. You can also let us know how you're getting on by following @BBCRadio4 and tweeting using the hastag #bbcpeoplespassion.


  • Comment number 1.

    I have listened to two of these Afternoon Dramas for the Peoples Passion by Nick Warburton and I have found them both touching and thought provoking. This is religious broadcasting at its best. Yesterday's one on Betrayal was particularly moving since it vividly brought out the ways in which we all betray and let down our friends, sometimes for spite, sometimes for a laugh, sometimes for their good and sometimes simply for efficiency. I look forward to the rest of this series and I would to congratulate him for making such a splendid contribution to the Easter celebrations and our understanding of the relevance of cathedrals. I would love to see it on TV.


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