1951 then and now: Britain Mended, Britain on the Make

If you want to know what Britain was like before The Festival of Britain you should watch the masterful 1950 film noir, Night And The City. It features a chase around the industrial chimneys and postwar rubble of what was to become the Southbank Festival site.

Richard WidmarK; Night And The City (1950)

Richard Widmark; Night And The City (1950)

Watching the rather wonderful BBC2 documentary on the Festival last night revealed uncomfortable as well as pleasant truths. While a whole generation of talented young designers and architects got real creative freedom (including refugees from Hitler’s Germany),  working through the nights till opening day, none were invited to the grand opening ceremony. A perfect insight into the rigid and thoughtless snobbery of the political classes.

But the Festival itself was open to all and many felt the liberation of celebration. Joe Orton, even managing to get laid there, according to Prick Up Your Ears.

Until a couple of weeks ago you could visit a wonderful museum of 1951 which had been open much of the summer in the old Gamelan Room of the Royal Festival Hall. Full of original designs, furniture, film clips and memorabilia, it was closed and stripped out only a few days before the BBC2 documentary screened; a shame. The documentary revealed the stupidity of the new 1951 Government which insisted on tearing down the Festival buildings against strong public opinion as soon as the summer season was up. The documentary voice over pointed out that the new Tory administration couldn’t wait to knock down what was a Labour success and redevelop  the site. The concrete ugliness of the brutalist National Theatre/Film Theatre complex that eventually got built reveals more parallels with modern architects’ and politicians’ enduring failure to appreciate good existing design principles.

British engineering and science were highly valued at the time and the pavilions were full of real innovation and ideas.  My father-in-law, a future industrial chemist, remembers the inspiration reaching Belfast, where all he and his classmates doodled the Skylon endlessly on their exercise books, While we still have our Dysons and Trevor Baylisses, and the Government will fund science programmes at Universities, the dramatic slashing in higher education funding contrasts dramatically with the hope generated by  new universities and polytechnics in the 50s. Unlike the 50s, Britain is coming out of a period of binge spending into austerity. It is a new world indeed.

Not The Festival of Britain

Compare another Labour-Conservative tussle — The Millennium Dome. A shape and a public image first, then came the thinking about what to fill it with. Major corporate sponsors and fast food concessions. From the 2 hour security queues to get in on a freezing New Year’s Eve, to the rather miffed looking Queen forced to link arms for a giant pub crowd rendition of Auld Lang Syne, the Dome was a symbol of Cool Britannia’s hollowness. I spent much of my first year as a reporter on Channel 4 News covering the latest tinkerings to try to pull in higher attendance.

By the summer they had decided to build a mini Wembley stadium replica for a Football Zone, while the real one was earmarked for demolition at the other end of the Jubilee line. PY Gerbeau, the man who rebranded EuroDisneyland with a Paris on the end, had been brought in to revive it. And then, just as everyone had got used to it, the government decided to close it down and sell off the contents. Millions of pounds of state of the art audio visual equipment got sold off at knock down prices.  It was an all too familiar and rather shabby “everything must go” end. Unlike The Festival of Britain, though at least the public got a chance to own a piece of it.

In Night and The City Richard Widmark is a weaselly ex-GI always on the make. Instead of living the American dream, he’s become a British lowlife — trying to make a fast buck out of illegal gambling and forged drinking club licenses in the rubble of an old London. The clean and shining new  buildings and values of the Festival of Britain aimed to wipe that all away. But 60 years on?

The bitter copyright dispute over the Keep Calm and Carry On logo is emblematic of how the Britain that once could make do and mend, has become contaminated by the imported  TV values of The Apprentice. The combination of greed and hypocrisy has always been a potent British home brew, like in Night and The City. Now in a plot worth of an Ealing comedy,  the  man at the centre of the trademark row is a former producer of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. On the moral high ground is the Northumbrian second hand bookshop owner Stuart Manley who actually found the surviving poster, but had the quaint old fashioned idea that it represented something more than money, and belonged to all of us.

Further reading/viewing:

Watch The Festival of Britain BBC2 documentary “A Brave New World” via i-player till Ocober 1st 2011

Designing Britain website: Useful article with links on the design of the Festival of Britain.

The Twentieth Century Society website

The Southbank today — website

Wall St Journal Blog about the fiasco of The Millenium Dome 

Defence of the Dome from the Times Literary Supplement 2010

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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