Entertainment & Arts

Bishop Auckland looks to past for its future

Kynren: Knights Image copyright Peter Haygarth
Image caption Kynren's cast of characters includes medieval knights, World War One soldiers and two British queens

Kynren, a "live action night show which showcases 2,000 years of English history on a spectacular scale", claims to be the UK's biggest open-air performance event since the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Played out on a purpose-built site the size of the golf course which was previously there, it sees around 1,000 volunteer performers and crew members gallop through two millennia in around 90 minutes, stopping off for set pieces involving William Shakespeare, William the Conqueror and Sir Winston Churchill.

But the scale of the show is nothing compared to the ambition behind it - to reinvigorate the town of Bishop Auckland, which gazes down the flood plain upon which Kynren stands.

Nestled in the heart of County Durham, the town peaked during the Victorian era, but the decline of coal mining has left it and the villages that surround it lacking both employment and funds.

Kynren, the name of which is derived from the Saxon for family, is based on Puy du Fou, an attraction near Nantes in France's western Loire region which in the past 40 years has entertained almost 30 million visitors with historical shows, bringing additional prosperity to the surrounding region.

Image copyright Peter Haygarth
Image caption One section of the show sees characters from William Shakespeare's plays take the stage

It is philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer's attempt to change the local community's fortunes.

Ruffer has used the wealth he accumulated during a career in investment management to take a significant stake in Bishop Auckland, planning galleries and museums, taking over the town's castle and purchasing the land on the banks of the River Wear where Kynren is based.

He says his interest in the castle "was the mouth, but Kynren is the trousers".

"This is the thing that's going to do it.

"What I want to see is people energised into a single community. I saw that in Puy du Fou and I thought what they were doing there would work well here."

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Media captionThe BBC's Fiona Trott went for a sneak preview of the show

Puy du Fou's president Nicolas de Villiers has served as Kynren's artistic director, bringing his team of French creatives with him to produce the event.

He says the show will definitely improve prospects in County Durham, just as his attraction has in the Loire region.

"When someone spends one euro in Puy de Fou, they will spend between two and three euros outside.

"So it's economically very profitable for a lot of people - for hotels, restaurants and all the tourism jobs which are linked to our activity."

The event, which will run annually, is being run by Ruffer's charitable trust, Eleven Arches - named after the viaduct that towers over the Kynren site.

A spokeswoman for the charity says Ruffer's plans are "brave, radical and transformational", and will give those living in the area "what they badly need - opportunity".

Image copyright Peter Haygarth
Image caption Kynren uses moments of North-East history, including the birth of the railway, to frame the story

The charity predicts the show will bring £4.75m a year into the local economy, a figure which Ruffer says is "not at all pie in the sky".

"I'm used to analysing figures and they are very robust.

"Simply in terms of the show, it will employ over 200 people - and the multiplier in terms of bed and breakfast, hotels, meals in France is five times that, so we're looking at some really big numbers."

English pride

The show's own profitability is tied to that cast of 1,000 volunteers.

Vanessa Pearson, a locally-based credit controller, is one of those who has given her time free of charge to be part of the show.

She says she is glad to be taking part "in something that's going to bring excitement, joy and life back to Bishop Auckland".

"There's loads of negativity that's going on and people are like 'is this going to work?' But it will.

"Yes, we're not being paid to do it, but we see the vision and it's going to be an amazing project."

Analysis by BBC arts and entertainment reporter Chris Long

Image copyright Peter Haygarth
Image caption Kynren's impressive set pieces feature fireworks and special effects

Spectacular and idiosyncratic, Kynren is an often thrilling romp through English history, delivered at a breathless pace.

It is an England told through a prism of the North East and comes with more than a passing nod to Jonathan Ruffer's evangelical Christian beliefs.

The story sees a bishop guide a young boy through an individualistic choice of English and North-Eastern highlights - the Battle of Stamford Bridge gets equal billing with the one at Hastings, St Cuthbert follows on the heels of Joseph of Arimathea and the pits replace the usually-seen mills of the Industrial Revolution.

Brought to life by hundreds of talented volunteers and a supporting cast of horses, sheep, goats and geese, it is a vibrant spectacle that will leave an Englishman's head dizzy from the historical whirlwind.

Fellow performer Carl Howe, who plays the Viking chief King Harald Hardrada, agrees it can only be good for the area.

He also says it has given the people of Bishop Auckland the chance to try out their performing skills.

"I drive buses for a living so this is the polar opposite of it.

"I sit down all day and on a weekend, I get to dress up like a Viking and run around with a big axe.

"I've done bands, I was a wrestler for a while, and this is just the next thing."

Image copyright Peter Haygarth
Image caption The Battle of Stamford Bridge features alongside the Battle of Hastings in the show

He says he had no idea what to expect when he volunteered to take part, but is impressed with the result.

"I'm supposed to be a big scary Viking, but at the end, after the finale, I just can't get the smile off my face.

"From start to finish, it flies by."

The "epic tale of England" has been put together by de Villiers' French team, a move that might seem odd, given the nature of the content.

The Puy du Fou president does not see it as a problem.

"We are French and we are proud of being French - we know that we are not English.

"But we have put all our hearts and all our energy into making a great English show, so that people will be proud of being English when they leave the show.

"That's the main purpose."

Image copyright Peter Haygarth
Image caption The cast includes horses, sheep, goats and geese alongside the volunteers

Ruffer is firm on what he wants the result to be for the locals.

"We have over 1,000 volunteers - why are they doing it? They're not doing it for me or for Bishop Auckland - they're doing it because they're having a great time in meeting with one another.

"It's bringing people together, that's the very heart of the regenerative spirit.

"It's a truism but people are the investment of a region.

"This is a game-changer for the area and it's marvellous to see that we're on the eve of something wonderful."

Kynren's first season opens in Bishop Auckland on 2 July and runs until 17 September.

Those interviewed were speaking to BBC Breakfast and BBC Look North.

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