Kynren: the UK’s largest live production since the Olympics

A City philanthropist is staging a £31m after-dark epic on a 7.5-acre set, featuring a full-size lake, ships, 34 horses, a cast and crew of 1,000 and a castle that rises from the earth. Simon de Burton reports

Viking raiders attack from a longship, a scene from Kynren: An Epic Tale of England
Viking raiders attack from a longship, a scene from Kynren: An Epic Tale of England | Image: Eleven Arches

I have long since lost count of the number of times airport immigration officers have asked “Where’s that?” after looking at the “place of birth” in my passport. True, “Bishop Auckland” does have a faintly exotic ring to it, perhaps even a slightly regal one – but this belies the run-down market town that it has become.

It can be found about 20km southwest of the city of Durham in the northeast of England. With a known history dating back to the 70s AD, it was chosen by the Romans as the site for a fort called Vinovia – built to guard the crossing of the River Wear and key during general Agricola’s march towards what is now Scotland. That exact area, a little north of the town, is called Binchester, and the house in which I was born, Binchester Hall, still stands nearby.

Fund manager and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, the man behind Kynren, at Auckland Castle
Fund manager and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, the man behind Kynren, at Auckland Castle | Image: Pal Hansen

Although I spent only the first five years of my life there, it’s where I have my roots – so the place means something to me. Its name is filled with early memories of my mother, an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, digging gaping holes around the grounds in search of Roman artefacts. (An adjacent field is home to one of the best-preserved Roman bath houses in Britain, complete with “hypocaust” underground heating system.)

In the early 11th century, the land on which Bishop Auckland sits was gifted to the bishop of Durham by King Canute. William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, granted the bishop powers that allowed him to command an army, levy taxes, mint coins and hold his own court – giving the prince bishop of Durham a local authority equal to that of the king.

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He and his successors naturally lived in fine style in the magnificent Auckland Castle, which has continued as a palace of the bishops of Durham for over 900 years, with one of the grandest medieval halls in England, built in the 12th century and later converted to a chapel. There, when not riding out across their miles of landholdings and hunting grounds, previous bishops and their cronies would delight in plucking figs, peaches and pineapples from their five-acre walled garden (yes, in northeast England), indulge unashamedly in wine-rich feasts and entertain England’s kings and queens.

During the industrial revolution, Bishop Auckland profited hugely from mining and became a major rail centre – until, that is, the coal began to run out in the early 1900s and the surrounding pits were gradually shut down, the last deep mine closing during the late 1960s. Since then, the atmosphere in the town has lent credence to the opinion expressed by the author JB Priestley during his 1930s tour of the region that it is, quite simply, “grim up north”.

Costume making for the show
Costume making for the show | Image: Pal Hansen

So why, some might wonder, are you reading about Bishop Auckland in How To Spend It? The answer is that this summer, the town is set to be put well and truly back on the map. And it’s not going to happen through injections of government cash, EU grants, elaborate housing schemes or expensive infrastructure projects, but through the hard work, determination and belief of its local populace, which has responded rather favourably to the arrival of one Jonathan Ruffer.

As many an FT reader will know, Ruffer is among the UK’s most successful fund managers, whose company Ruffer LLP looks after £18bn on behalf of around 7,000 clients. An avid collector and scholar of Spanish Old Master paintings, Ruffer was the one who stepped in four years ago when news broke that 12 17th-century paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán that have hung in Auckland Castle’s Long Dining Room for 250 years were to be offered for sale by the Church Commissioners.

Costume making for the show
Costume making for the show | Image: Pal Hansen

To prevent them from being removed from the castle – and probably “lost to the nation” – Ruffer donated £15m to preserve the breathtaking building and its contents by establishing the Auckland Castle Trust. Although low-key about his faith, Ruffer is deeply religious and is spending a further £18m on the castle’s development, including setting up a museum of religion in its historic Scotland wing, which is due to open in 2018. Spread across 10 exhibition spaces, The Faith Galleries will display dozens of extraordinary objects telling the story of religion in the British Isles from prehistory to the present day.

For many philanthropists, that would probably be enough. But not for Ruffer. He has also set an expert team to work on restoring the castle’s vast walled garden – which will feature remarkable new glasshouses designed by Japanese architects Sanaa and will, for the first time in its history, be open to the public.

One of Kynren’s Lusitano horses, brought from Portugal and Spain
One of Kynren’s Lusitano horses, brought from Portugal and Spain | Image: Pal Hansen

And then there’s Ruffer’s vision to make Bishop Auckland an internationally recognised centre for Spanish art – which is becoming a reality as the Auckland Castle Trust spends £5.5m on converting a former bank building in the town’s marketplace into a first-rate gallery, with the adjacent school due to become a study centre for Spanish art history. It’s also planning to create a new hotel in the town centre, as well as having bought my old family home.

But the thing that is perhaps more exciting than all of the above, the thing that (if Ruffer is right) will turn down-at-heel Bishop Auckland into a destination for visitors from around the world, is a show called Kynren – to which £31m has been allocated, with Ruffer as the core funder. A series of 14 epic after-dark performances running from July 2 to September 17 will see its cast and crew of 1,000 populate a 7.5-acre stage set beneath the dramatically illuminated Auckland Castle before a nightly audience of up to 8,000 – and what is truly remarkable is that the actors are all local people who have volunteered to be professionally trained and take part for nothing more than the privilege of doing so.

The Cinéscénie, the show that inspired Kynren, at Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée region of France
The Cinéscénie, the show that inspired Kynren, at Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée region of France | Image: Puy du Fou

The theme of Kynren is, quite simply, the history of Britain from Roman times to the second world war, seen through the eyes of a boy from the northeast of England and told in an hour and a half. It will feature a full-sized lake, ships, an authentic replica of the first passenger train, 34 horses, video mapping, pyrotechnics and a castle that rises from the earth. Intended to run for decades, it will be the biggest live production to be staged in the UK since the Olympics – and the volunteers were auditioned and trained by none other than Steve Boyd, the remarkable talent responsible for the mass performances and athletes’ parades at no fewer than 13 consecutive summer and winter Olympics, from Barcelona in 1992 to Rio in 2016.

The model for the show is an award-winning French production called the Cinéscénie, which was established in the Vendée region in 1978 to tell the history of France. As is the intention at Bishop Auckland, with the Cinéscénie and Puy du Fou (the theme park that grew around the show), much-needed new life was brought to a down-at-heel area. Still going strong after 38 years, Puy du Fou now has a turnover of €84m, attracts more than 2m visitors per year between April and September and employs up to 1,500 people in the arena alone, with a further 3,300 full-time jobs having been created in the locale as a result of its existence.

Olympic mass-performance choreographer Steve Boyd training volunteer performers for Kynren
Olympic mass-performance choreographer Steve Boyd training volunteer performers for Kynren | Image: Stuart Boulton

Eleven Arches – the registered charity that manages Kynren and is named after the 11-arch Victorian viaduct that towers above its open-air stage – has entered into a partnership with Puy du Fou in order to take the volunteer-led concept out of France for the first time, and employed a supremely talented French woman, Anne-Isabelle Daulon, as its CEO. Daulon spent 13 years in senior marketing, sales and strategy roles with three leading investment banks before retraining as an interior design and “space modeller” – all skills that she has put to good use in everything from negotiating with local planners to helping to envision the giant Kynren stage. With her undiluted French accent, chic dress and go-getting style, she is not what could be called typical of the sort of person one might meet in Bishop Auckland. But she has embraced the role, and the town, with precisely the type of commitment and unstoppable enthusiasm that it takes to get things done in an area that, it is fair to say, had all but been abandoned as a hopeless case by the establishment. Put another way: even McDonald’s has pulled out of Bishop Auckland’s town centre.

Yet now, thanks to the promise of Kynren, the locals have been given a new lease of life. An initial appeal last summer for volunteers to take part in the performance attracted 1,000 men, women and children on the first day – and, since October, those who have signed up have been rehearsing during evenings and weekends under the guidance of some of the best professionals in their fields.

Le Secret de la Lance, a medieval re-enactment at Puy du Fou
Le Secret de la Lance, a medieval re-enactment at Puy du Fou | Image: Puy du Fou

The 98 men and women chosen for the equestrian team, for example, are being instructed by leading German eventer Anna Warnecke. A substantial sum has been spent on acquiring thoroughbred horses for the show, with Portuguese and Spanish Lusitanos for riding, Polish Wielkopolskis and Czech Kladrubers for pulling the various carriages and chariots, and French Percherons for heavyweight work.

Other actors, playing roles such as Viking axemen and English spearmen, are receiving rigorous fight training from film combat experts who have worked on productions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Beowulf, while troupes of hundreds of men, women and children are being coached by some of the mass dance choreographers responsible for the opening ceremonies at the Athens, London and Sochi Olympics.

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And while this is going on, Ruffer, the visionary behind it all, isn’t simply watching from afar – he’s right there among the action, spending large amounts of time in Bishop Auckland. But, as we sit together in the castle, I’m still somewhat baffled as to why he chose Bishop Auckland – this all-but-forgotten town of my birth – as the target for his philanthropy. “I was brought up in the northeast [Stokesley, North Yorkshire], went to Cambridge, moved to London and ended up in the City, where I prospered,” he explains. “But I always knew that I wanted to do something that combated deprivation – and, as sentimental as it sounds, there’s no place like home. After the coal mining went, this area somehow lost its personality and sense of being, so I thought it would be a good place to tackle. Someone asked me what qualities I could bring to the table, and all I could say was that, while I’m totally impractical, I do have a nice smile and can encourage people and bring them together.

“Acquiring the Zurbarán paintings was, I suppose, running a flag up a flagpole – but it was Jacob Rothschild who pointed out to me that, by doing that, I had unlocked a door but not opened it. As a result, I found myself at the start of a long and stony road to creating something that people would want to come to visit and saw, very quickly, that Bishop Auckland needed to be a place of entertainment,” says Ruffer. “Having seen the success of Puy du Fou, it seemed that was the answer – it has an intensity that is both awesome and quite frightening if you go in as an outsider. If Kynren works, and it has to, it will continue indefinitely and have the same effect as Puy du Fou. “The idea is to create a force that helps people find a purpose without coercing them, to give them something that encourages them to come together and do things that they didn’t think they could do – it’s not about simply spending vast amounts of money.”

I, for one, look forward to congratulating Ruffer and the key players involved – and, perhaps, to not having to explain where Bishop Auckland is any more…

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