Beacon for Change
How the 1951 Festival of Britain Helped to Shape a New Age
London: Aurum, 2011
Hardcover. 282 p. ISBN 978 1 84513 524 9, £16.99
Reviewed by Hugh Clout
University College London
I remember visiting the Festival of Britain as a 6-year old in the summer of 1951. Together with my mother, I travelled by Tube to Waterloo Station and was caught up in a crowd of people heading for the South Bank. I recall the Dome of Discovery with its walkways and various levels, the metallic Skylon, and the mysterious shot tower left over from a former factory that produced lead shot. Barry Turner, then aged 13, also visited the Festival and recounts its short life, from early May to late September, with an engaging sense of humour. After years of war and rationing of food, clothing, furniture, fabrics, sweets and everything else, Britain endured some extremely cold winters, industrial strikes and power cuts. Despite wartime bombing and a start on slum clearance, some twenty million Britons lived in houses without baths and hot water; ice on the inside of the window was a normal early morning occurrence in winter time. Something was needed to celebrate peace and to raise British hopes for the future. The solution was to be a national festival that echoed the Great Exhibition of 1851 and subsequent trade fairs. Its conception was entrusted to Gerald Barry, former editor of the News Chronicle, who was appointed to his new role in November 1947, and was soon surrounded the numerous advisers drawn from the British establishment. Barry had great faith in social and economic planning, and was a firm believer in putting modernist architects at the heart of reconstruction. What he and his technical team favoured was ‘bold, clear lines, light and space, a satisfying amalgam of practicality and beauty’ . These virtues were to be embodied in the Festival of Britain.
Numerous possible sites around London were considered but the ruinous South Bank, between Waterloo Station and the Thames, had the virtue of an accessible, central location. Battersea Park provided space for an amusement park to complement the Festival proper. Both sites had the disadvantage of occupying damp, low-lying terrain adjacent to the Thames. The South Bank was crossed by a main railway line, had housed numerous factories and timber yards before war-time bombing, contained mountains of rubble from post-war clearance, lacked a solid embankment among the river, and covered only 27 acres. Using Barry’s unpublished papers, held by his family or lodged in the library of the London School of Economics, Turner recounts how the challenge of installing the Festival was surmounted. Coming from the officer class, whose instructions had been obeyed during the war, members of Barry’s team had to learn to accommodate the regulations and restrictive practices of trade unionists on the building site. During months of incessant rain and high river water, both the South Bank and Battersea Park reverted to their marshy state. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the building site, Her Majesty remarked: ‘I thought it would be rather muddy so I brought a pair of boots. I can change them in the motor’ .
Despite many difficulties, the Festival was duly opened on 4 May, however on the previous evening VIPs attending the inaugural concert in the Royal Festival Hall were stuck in a lift and had to be man-handled one by one from the floor of the lift to an adjacent corridor some two feet higher. At the very same time, a group of men were busy killing rats that had appeared from beneath the floorboards in the Dome of Discovery where contractors’ huts had only just been dismantled. When the King and Queen visited the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion on a later occasion they entered through the exit and saw the whole exhibit back to front. Regardless of all the problems and last minute improvisations, most of the 8.5 million visitors to the South Bank had a good time. They marvelled at the modern architecture, the innovative furniture and fabrics, and colourful displays, at a time when most British manufacturers were fixated on ‘any colour so long as it is black and white’ . But many realised that the kind of materials on display were beyond their means to purchase and remained a far-off dream in their own lives. Those with educated tastes dismissed the show for its vulgarity but even they had to admit that the modernist architects had something important to express. The Telekinema (soon to be known as the National Film Theatre) proved very popular, as audiences donned spectacles to experience films in 3D. The standard of catering on the South Bank lived up to disappointing English standards, but was notably better at decentralised parts of the Festival beyond central London. These included the Ulster Farm and Factory Exhibition outside Belfast, the Industrial Power Exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall, and numerous sites in Wales. Individual towns in the provinces put on shows of their own to capture the Festival spirit. A special ‘living architecture’ exhibit was provided by the Lansbury Estate in Poplar but only part of this reconstruction scheme was completed by the time of the Festival. Unfortunately, the viewing tower had to be closed because of overcrowding. On 22 September, the last day, a high wire artiste drew vast crowds as he walked his way across the Thames. A total of 158,000 visitors were recorded at the South Bank on that day, with 76,000 people on site at the same time; the health and safety maximum of 20,000 for crowd control was ignored in the euphoria. At the final cabaret, Gracie Fields sang ‘Wish me luck as you wave me good-bye’. The crowds clamoured for more, but when she finally left the stage the audience drifted away and the site emptied before the gates closed at midnight for the very last time. Barry’s contract soon came to an end and the site was cleared with remarkable haste, leaving the Royal Festival Hall in a kind of limbo land. One enduring legacy was the solid embankment along this southern section of the Thames.
The hero of Barry Turner’s story is unquestionably Gerald Barry, who ‘was a visionary with an imagination that was both original and practical … The Festival was essentially his creation, a heady mix of inspirational ideas and entertainment which to this day remains a controversial talking point’ . In Turner’s words:
For the first time since the war,ordinary citizens were given a vision of the future which took them beyond the everyday concerns of keeping body and soul together. They might not have liked everything they saw but they were made aware that design was for living, that the arts needs not be elitist and that technology was stronger in promise than it threat. The festival was a beacon for change .
Turner’s book is an easy and enjoyable read, enlivened by countless anecdotes, and illustrated by a cluster of evocative black and white photographs. Despite its title, its focus is on Barry, preparations for the Festival and the event itself rather than its contribution toward ‘shaping the modern age’. To satisfy that concern, readers will have to look elsewhere.
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