An Act of Faith

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A film that looks at the design and construction of Coventry Cathedral.





Film type:

B&W/Colour / Sound





Master format:



We open with a scene setting montage of shots illustrating the destruction of Coventry Cathedral by German bombs in 1940 including views of the ruins and the aftermath of the attack. A series of illustrations and stills are then used to cover the history of the city from the middle ages onwards through the industrial revolution ending with brief archive film of the city in the 1930s and further views of the bombing aftermath which is followed by views of the post-war buildings in the city including the new precinct.

The story of the new Cathedral begins with the approval of a design from Basil Spence in 1950 (we see the plans). Spence himself talks to camera about his design and the role of modernism. After shots of the architects at work we see the beginning of the work including the site clearance from the summer of 1954 (these very early shots were taken from amateur film shot by Barnard Reyner) and Queen Elizabeth II at the ceremony to lay the foundation stone on 23 March 1956 (from a recording of the live broadcast). The film then fades to colour and we continue with views of stone quarrying at Hollington in Staffordshire, and the large blocks being cut to size at a nearby masons' yard and then delivered to site by lorry. By 1958 the building was taking shape and we continue with shots of the construction site and two workers talking to camera describing the challenges they faced.

Art for the new building is considered next with a visit to London where we see Lawrence Lee and Geoffrey Clarke working on the stained glass. Lee gives a description of the designs. Next in the St John's Wood studio of John Hutton we see the artist at work creating engraved glass for the West Wall. He also explains his work with a piece to camera. The frame to hold Hutton’s glass is seen being made by a firm at Braintree in Essex. Back on site in Coventry we see the walls nearly complete in the spring of 1959 as work begins on the roof. Next in a village near Aubusson in France we see local workers creating a tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland for the East Wall. We then see the organ being constructed in a workshop in Durham and home workers embroidering covers for hassocks. Another window is then seen being designed by John Piper in his workshop near Henley on Thames. Piper describes the process.

In 1960 the art began to be installed and we see the unveiling of the St Michael and the Devil sculpture on the outside wall by the widow of artist Jacob Epstein in June of that year. In the autumn of 1960 we see construction work on the Chapel of Unity and further work on the roof. The former provost R. T. Howard talks about the significance of the charred cross and we also see a time lapse shot of the external building work. By 1962 the Cathedral was complete. We see the spire being lifted into place using an RAF Belvedere helicopter. The Provost Harold Williams then talks to camera about the overall project. The film ends with a tour of the interior of the completed building taking in the various art works as well as the Chapel of Unity, the font and the Gethsemane Chapel accompanied by a commentary and organ music.


Narrator: Leo Genn
Music composed and conducted by Kenneth Pakeman and played by a section of the BBC Northern Orchestra. Leader: Reginald Stead
Photographed by Arthur Englander
Cathedral interiors photographed by A. F. Kesting
Film Editor: James Colina
Directed by John Read
Written and produced by Robin Whitworth