In 1984 I was still lecturing part-time on the Art & Design Foundation Course at Manchester Polytechnic. One of the senior staff at the Polytechnic knew the Dean of Manchester Cathedral, and they were looking for artists to help them replace their old Christmas Crib. It was suggested that I might be the person to organise this task, along with my students.
I had a meeting with Dean Jowett, and it turned out that we both shared a passion for David Jones – both his poetry and his visual art work. I was able to persuade the Dean to let me to direct a consecration performance in the Cathedral in return for designing and making the crib.
The crib itself consisted of a huge silk canopy with appliqué ‘wings’ designed by Joan Beadle. These extended into the cathedral’s south aisle, and the cloth structure hung over and framed a life-size, wooden, carved, holy family, positioned inside a tall gauze column that rose up to the cathedral roof. The crib fabric was made by Joan with help from Rona Lee, and Liz Mather. The wooden carved figures were designed and made by Don McKinley with Peigi Cole, who did the stitching work with Penny Marrows.
As well as the work of making the crib and surrounds, the consecration performance also involved 16 company members performing the various large-scale puppet and mask parts, assisted by 11 students from the Foundation Course. The performance was in 7 sections, each with its own visual world, and each separated by a narration.
It started with Night in the City, built around a large red puppet-model of Manchester. This had its own illuminated windows, smoking chimneys, streetlights and doorways, owls and taxis. Followed by People and the City, a procession of Mancunian characters that lead into a third section, Morning – the Cleaning Ladies See a Vision. In this section the cathedral cleaners (masked performers), with their mops and buckets, see a vision of Mary and her young Child moving in slow motion and in a haze of light through the door into the choir. This is quickly followed into Refugees, with a group fleeing from oppression who run through the city under strobe lighting.
It ends with, in quick succession, The Second Night and the musical Lament, before The Light Comes to the Crib. Lighting, designed by Brian Knox, was a particularly important element in this performance. At the climax the cathedral nave and choir were filled with clouds of smoke, and a gigantic rainbow was projected into the aisle, high above the congregation, and filling the space.
The largest resources of all were musical, and on the day of the dedication, 23 December 1984, Our composer and Music Director Mick Wilson (who had earlier toured with Seòl) oversaw four ensembles – the Athena String Quartet, Gamelan Seka Petak from York, the Tameside Youth Percussion Ensemble and Bramhall High School Gamelan. These were joined by Manchester Cathedral Voluntary Choir and their choirmaster Gordon Stewart on the cathedral organ.
The whole event was through-composed by Mick, including music for the two carols that I had written to accompany the dedication service. Because of the impossibility of getting the 100 or so performers to rehearse together in advance of the event, everything had to be learned to Mick’s precisely timed click-track. Each ensemble then rehearsed their own parts in their own spaces.
All of the logistics behind the event were very complicated. The cathedral had no storage facilities whatsoever, and yet our performance required large numbers of props and objects that were big enough to make an impact in the large interior of the cathedral. Sally Martin, our administrator, persuaded a transport company to donate two huge lorry trailers that were parked across the road on the station forecourt. During rehearsal last thing at night and first thing in the morning every last prop and puppet had to be man-handled across Deansgate, dodging the traffic.
Only on the afternoon of the day did we have a few hours to rehearse everything together. There was a last minute panic when it was discovered that over lunch I had left the only complete copy of the script in the pub. Shortly after the rehearsal finished the doors opened, and the cathedral was quickly packed out with people. The whole event ran perfectly; music, the performances, readings and lighting came together as if by magic; a great tribute to the cast – and Mick’s click-track.