The dome revisited

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
Another one? You can't be serious. Half a century ago, London was home to an exhibition that foreshadowed last year's controversial project. Gerald Haigh was there

Fifty years ago this summer, I was at the South Bank Exhibition (by the Thames, near Hungerford Bridge), which was the focus of the 1951 Festival of Britain. In fact, if you look closely at the contemporary Pathe newsreel footage that's aired on television from time to time, you might spot, for the briefest of moments, a boy in a blue mac and National Health specs gazing up at the Skylon. That's me - and if you doubt it, please keep the thought to yourself. Our school in Yorkshire set up a summer-long camp site - in Slough, would you believe - where groups stayed for three or four days, travelling into London each day by train. We saw the exhibition, the festival funfair in Battersea Park, and toured a London still scarred by enormous, cleared bomb sites.

You see a lot of raincoats on the photographs and films because it rained consistently throughout the five months - May to September - the exhibition was open. Nevertheless, 8.5 million people paid their five shillings (half a crown for children) to see the optimistic, celebratory exhibits in the Dome of Discovery and the other pavilions, based around such themes as "The Land" and "The People". (Only 6.5 million people visited The Dome in the whole of 2000.) "The British," stated the catalogue, "have been among the explorers of every sphere of the universe - from outer space, inwards to the centre of the Earth."

There were cars - a Standard Vanguard, a Triumph Mayflower - railway locomotives and glimpses into outer space in an astronomy section where a radio telescope bounced signals from the moon. There was also an education exhibit, with the latest ideas of what a classroom should look like. The catalogue advertised "a fully furnished classroom in which a 'project' is shown - that is to say, a co-operative exercise in which all members of a class, or group of classes, take part". (And there you were, putting all the blame on the Sixties.) Memories fade, but I guess most people who went will remember the Skylon - a 200ft shiny aluminium pencil airily suspended on wires and, of course, the Dome of Discovery itself, 100ft feet high and 365ft across. My own favourite was a big aluminium work of art that would today be called, mundanely, a "water feature" - buckets filled, clanged, tilted and swung back as water made its way from top to bottom. Every time I see something like it in miniature in a garden centre, I say to my family: "Did I ever tell youI?" The post-war Labour government devised the festival as an affirmation of national confidence after the war - "a tonic for the nation" was the phrase that stuck. Everything about it - the design style, the exhibits, the art - captured the lighthearted feel that somehow evaded our more cynical selves in 2000. At Battersea Park, for example, was the jolliest funfair you could imagine, its approach exemplified in a ride designed by cartoonist Rowland Emett, a crazy rural English branch line called "The Far Tottering and Oystercreek Railway".

The South Bank and Battersea are what people know about but the Festival of Britain was nationwide - altogether 10 million people visited the six major exhibitions, and it's reckoned that 18 million people took part in around 2,000 local events, ranging from concerts and exhibitions to community parties. Our local engineering works' operatic society put on an open-air performance of Edward German's Merrie England and there was a huge youth pageant in Sheffield at the climax of which a young Britannia figure, perched perilously high on a platform, far from the possibility of a prompt, disastrously forgot the half-dozen lines she had undoubtedly rehearsed at home 1,000 times. The South Bank Exhibition had two travelling versions, too. One in a series of trucks, the other on a converted aircraft carrier, "Campania", that toured British ports.

The whole enterprise had its critics, of course. The two years of planning were accompanied by a barrage of cynical comment. It was too elitist for the left and too plebeian for the right. It was "pathetic", "imbecile" and, in the words of Noel Coward, "not worth more than a mild giggle". But the Attlee government - most notably Herbert Morrison, the grandfather of Labour MP and failed Dome supremo Peter Mandelson - drove it through and in the end, just like its 1851 predecessor, it was a triumph, remembered fondly by those of us who were there.

Now there's little left. Soon after the festival closed in September the whole site was quickly cleared, an action that some connect with the return of Churchill and the Conservatives in October that year. (The Tories always considered it a suspiciously socialist enterprise.) We're left with some sculpture scattered around the country (Epstein's "Youth Advancing" is in Manchester City art gallery, for example), some black-and-white newsreel footage and occasional rumours of bits of the Skylon lurking in suburban back gardens. The architectural and design "look" of the exhibition, though, under the direction of Sir Hugh Casson, set the style for the Fifties - primary colours, tubular steel, functional elegance - that we called "contemporary".

And the festival still has its enthusiasts. There's a Festival of Britain Society and a lively trade in ephemera (a Skylon pen set, if you can find one, will cost you pound;100; a toffee tin with the festival emblem is about pound;20). Most importantly, though, there's the Royal Festival Hall, opened by King George VI in May 1951. Planned in 1948 when, theoretically, building materials were available only to replace bombed homes and factories, the hall stands as a reminder of a time when our nation was endearingly capable of cheering itself up with a big gesture it couldn't really afford.

Festival of Britain Society, George Simner, 23 Langton Avenue, East Ham, London E6 4AN with a SAE. Or email: or tel: 020 8471 2165. The best website, poorly organised but wonderful for browsing and exploring the many links, is Martin Packer's at

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