Coventry Cathedral: Building for a New Britain
by Mark Macey, BBC
Coventry Cathedral: Building for a New Britain is a 74-minute documentary made for BBC Four as part of BBC Television’s contribution to Coventry UK City of Culture 2021.
In November 1940 German bombers destroyed much of the city centre of Coventry and reduced the city’s medieval cathedral to rubble. Just 22 years later, in May 1962, a new cathedral designed by Basil Spence was consecrated on the site. Built in a bold modern style, incorporating the ruins of the old cathedral and adorned with a wealth of modern artworks, Coventry Cathedral is recognised today as one of Britain ‘s greatest post-war buildings.
Presenting a wealth of rarely-seen archive in an innovative style utilising a split-screen visual language, the film has no presenter but employs voices from yesterday and today to tell the story of the new cathedral and of the times in which it was created.
Provost Howard made a commitment to rebuild the cathedral immediately after the air raid. He did so in a spirit of reconciliation which is expressed in the words “Father Forgive” engraved in the walls of the preserved ruins. In 1951 the architect Basil Spence won the competition to design the new cathedral, and despite the opposition of the local council, shortage of funds, and major architectural challenges, the new building was consecrated in the presence of Queen Elizabeth just a decade later.
Plain and unadorned as a building, the Cathedral contains works of art commissioned by some of the major artists of the 1950s. Graham Sutherland designed a vast tapestry of Christ in Glory, John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens created a glorious multi-coloured window for the bapistry, and John Hutton carved angels and saints into a huge glass screen for main entrance.
The cathedral was a key element of the post-war reconstruction of Coventry, which also saw the city create an innovative pedestrian precinct, build many new homes, schools and hospitals, as well as open a new theatre, the Belgrade, and the Herbert Art Gallery.
The film features sequences filmed in the new Cathedral during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2021 but it largely comprises a wealth of rarely seen archive film and television to tell the story of the cathedral. The archive comes exclusively from the years 1940 to 1962 and includes vivid footage of the bombing raid, recorded in a German newsreel, and of BBC Television’s outside broadcast of the 1962 Consecration Service.
Director John Read filmed the construction for BBC Television from the mid-1950s to the cathedral’s opening, and the 35mm colour footage from the final documentary An Act of Faith (1962) is a central source for the programme. Kenneth Clark, who was later to present the BBC’s series Civilisation (1969) made an outside broadcast report just before the opening for the ITV company ATV.
The film also draws on footage shot by the builders John Laing as a record of their construction work and on an extensive record of the process commissioned by the cathedral authorities which has remained unseen for 50 years.