Appearing now on the South Bank, the Festival of Neighbourhood. That sounds like the sort of title an agency would come up with at an early stage of planning, a safe umbrella title for showcasing almost anything, and so it proves. All sorts of bits and stuff and things have landed around the Royal Festival Hall and its concrete environs, for your general amusement and erudition. Giant topiary twosomes of gardening figures. A lengthy sandy beach for children to dig in. Poems pinned up relating to each of London's boroughs. An inert rollercoaster made up of harvestable wheelbarrows. A wooden house full of herbs in sacks. A forest glade atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall. A maze of riverside windowframes, complete with rhubarb growing upsidedown hanging from pots on a trellis. You could have called it the Festival of Outdoors, the Festival of Growing, or even the Festival of Mastercard, the latter of which would no doubt have delighted the sponsor. It's sort of fun, in a "far better than there being nothing here" kind of way, not that you could ever accuse the South Bank Centre of having nothing on.
And then there's Beanotown. "Seriously?" I thought, when I spotted it on the map. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I ventured to the concrete alleyway between the QEH and the RFH. A fewcartoons on the wall, a pair of doors painted red and black, and a washing line of dangling letters pronouncing this to be Bash Street. It could have been nothing much more than a titled space. But there was an opening into the undercroft, which looked like it might contain more. My first thought was a creche, or at least an indoor playground for kids, and not necessarily somewhere I should be entering. I gave it a try anyway, and thankfully my first impressions were wrong.
Beanotown turns out to be an indoor exhibition celebrating 75 years of Britain's favourite comic. It's actually a genuine exhibition, put together by Wayne Hemingway and his design team in combination with DC Thomson. Umpteen pages and stories have been enlarged to display size and pasted round the walls, so you can follow the evolution of the Beano (and the Dandy) from the 1930s to the present day. A copy of the very first Beano front page features an adventure with Big Eggo the ostrich, plus a poltically very-incorrect negro biting into a watermelon on the header strip. Free gift number one was a so-called Whoopee mask, which appears to have been an eye mask with the word whoopee in front. As the exhibition goes on to show, future free gifts were sometimes fractionally more exciting. Here's what noted comic aficionado Martin thought.
One wall contains some lifesize characters like Minnie the Minx and Dennis the Menace, while another features the front cover over every Beano Annual, sorry, Beano Book. You can even sit down and read most of them, and a whole libraryful of comic-related volumes, if you go searching through the wonderfully curated Beano Bookshelf. Budding strip artists can try their hand at drawing a few panels on a table nearby, or play a game of Table Dennis, as part of the "just enough interactive retro stuff for kids" aspect of the exhibition. Or if you're a mum with two keen Beano readers in the family, you can drag them along in red and black striped jumpers and force them to pose on top of some giant letters for posterity.
There is of course a shop, not quite bursting with Beano-related goodies, but with enough to perhaps part you from some pounds. And there's a cafe. Someone thought it was a good idea to base this on toasted sandwiches, hence it's called the Breville Bar. For £3.45 the cook will bung two ingredients between some bread and heat it up, be that cheese and jam or Branston pickle and Marmite. The menu goes considerably further than toasties if you look, and you should, because this four-pager is annotated Beano-style throughout. The custard is shark-infested, the rice crispy cake has snap, crackle and poop, and even the footnote contains a smirk. But while I was there not a single soul ventured anywhere near the counter, nor the tables, which didn't seem good for mid-Saturday afternoon. Perhaps the mock menu put them off (not everybody enjoys orange juice laced with blue food colouring), or maybe it was too nice a day to eat inside.