diamond geezer

 Monday, April 25, 2011

It's 60 years since the Festival of Britain launched on London's South Bank.
(Actually, no it isn't. The Festival of Britain opened on 3rd May 1951, but the 60th anniversary of that falls next Tuesday, immediately after the mega-bank-holiday double-weekend is over, so they've started 2011's celebrations several days early)

Ah, the Festival of Britain. That marvellous moment when the UK shook off the shackles of austerity, built a monument to Empire on the banks of the Thames, and looked to the future. A concrete playground emerged on a former bomb-site, and the people of Britain came in their millions to celebrate hope, technology and achievement. Truly "a tonic for the nation".
(Actually, that's over-stating it somewhat. Post-war life didn't somehow brighten because a few temporary pavilions had been erected on the South Bank, did it? And exhibits like "Minerals of the Island" and "The New Schools" didn't exactly have the public overflowing with joy)

Ah, the glorious Festival of Britain, much loved by all. How much livelier and more worthwhile than the New Labour travesty which came along to blight the North Greenwich foreshore half a century later. Conceived as an echo of the Festival of Britain, the Millennium Dome turned out to be a tawdry waste of government cash besmirched by scandal.
(Actually, that's not entirely fair. The Dome's reputation suffered greatly at the hands of a venomous media, which had been non-existent 49 years earlier, and the event was much enjoyed by many of its visitors. Equally, the Festival of Britain was so hated by the incoming Conservative government of October 1951 that PM Winston Churchill ordered the site to be cleared and the 'socialist' Skylon to be dismantled, chopped up into pieces and sold for scrap)

So how wonderful to see the Festival of Britain commemorated on the South Bank in 2011, with a variety of evocative displays, exhibits and pavilions.
(Actually, don't get your hopes up. There's no Dome of Discovery, although there is a row of painted beach huts. There's no "Land of Britain" pavilion, although there is a dry-stone wall and something coal-related as a token reminder that Britain extends beyond the Home Counties. There's no "Lion & Unicorn" crowdpleaser, although there is a multicultural work of art of the same name comprising several paper poems on string. And as for the most popular attraction, the "Appearing Rooms" fountain, that's popped up here several summers before)

Thousands came at the weekend to bask on the pretend beach, stare at the giant straw fox and take photos of the seaside garden. They strolled beneath the Guinness-approved world's longest bunting, paused for thought at the portraits from Helmand, and climbed the yellow staircase to the roof garden. All in all, a proper inspirational day out.
(Actually, not really. I mean it's quirky, and it's a lot more interesting than the usual concrete promenade with skateboards, but everything's a bit on the low-key side. Take the roofgarden, for example. In 1951 they'd have had astroturf because it was futuristic. In 2011 we've got astroturf because it's cheap)

One of the most successful aspects of the Festival of Britain was its funfair. Over 8 million visitors passed through the Battersea Pleasure Gardens in 1951, delighting in such attractions as the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway, the Guinness Clock and the legendary Big Dipper. All now long gone. But sixty years later, yes, of course there's another funfair.
(Actually, 'fun' is probably not the right word. The 2011 pleasure gardens are laid out on a scrap of car park, hidden from the passing crowds behind an inflatable purple cow. The stallholders wait around in case any family with small kids should stumble upon them and want to fork out cash for a ticket for a ride. There won't be a queue for the helter skelter, I can guarantee that)

The 1951 festival was famous for its design, with architecture playing a key role in delivering the 'vision' on site. And then there was the acclaimed festival logo, designed by Abram Games, which cleverly combined Britannia's profile, compass points and bunting. Sixty years on, its reappearance still stirs the heart.
(Actually, not quite. Some marketing philistine has taken Abram's original and slapped a giant MasterCard logo in the southeastern quadrant, which looks ghastly. It's a sharp reminder that the original Festival was paid for by a government in post-war financial trouble, whereas this latest recreation comes courtesy of a company which makes its profit from public debt)

2011's commemoration of the Festival of Britain continues on the South Bank until September. In truth it's nothing but a clever bit of promotion to get you to book tickets for a series of events at the Royal Festival Hall and other nearby venues over the next few months. Sorry, you won't be telling your grandchildren about this one with a special nostalgic lump in your throat.
(Actually, it's not that bad. There's plenty to see around the complex, at least once, and if the weather holds then that fake beach could be the place to be this summer. And it's hugely more impressive than was the Mayor's cut price attempt at a St George's Day extravaganza in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, where two catering trucks and various no-fee orchestras turned up to serenade flag-wrapped families from the suburbs. Sometimes government does it better, but alas not always)

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