False Dawn of Revolution

Book review of Beacon for Change: How the 1951 Festival of Britain Shaped the Modern Age by Barry Turner

You would now need to be at least in your late sixties to have any real memory of the two very contrasting national festivals which, in the decade after the Second World War, marked Britain’s long and painful emergence from the shadows of the war years. The 1951 Festival of Britain was a last flicker of the idealistic spirit of a “People’s Britain” which had brought about the Labour landslide of 1945: intended to renew those hopes of a brighter future which six years of rationing and austerity had all but extinguished.

Two years later, by the time of the Coronation in 1953, the mood of the nation had radically changed. With the Conservatives back in power under Winston Churchill and the return of a modest prosperity, the pageantry of this second national celebration-the feudal pomp of Westminster Abbey, the Queen of Tonga waving from her carriage in the rain and street parties across the land-seemed like the triumphant re-emergence of a more traditional Britain. 

The centrepiece of the 1951 festival, as Barry Turner records in Beacon for Change, was the exhibition on the South Bank of the Thames: a score of futuristic structures in metal, glass, concrete and plastic rising from the rubble of the Blitz, on the site now dominated by the London Eye. I recall the excitement with which so many of us in that wet and dismal summer caught our first glimpse of “modern” architecture. Floating above it all was the Skylon, a slender tapering cylinder nearly 300ft high, with below, like a giant flying saucer, the Dome of Discovery, then the largest dome in the world.

Such eager anticipation, however, soon turned to bemusement at the rather sad     banality of most of the exhibits within (although I still fondly recall “the world’s longest sheet of plate glass”). For us young schoolboys, our happiest experience of the festival was being allowed to escape up river to Battersea Pleasure Gardens, full of playful fantasies such as Rowland Emmett’s Far Tottering and Oystercreek miniature railway and above all a funfair, complete with Big Dipper.

Turner provides a workmanlike account of how all this came about, largely under the inspiration of Gerald Barry, a former editor of the News Chronicle (a liberal newspaper later swallowed up by the Daily Mail). Supported by Labour’s Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison, Barry recruited around him a team of progressive — minded young architects and designers who for months battled with appalling weather, red tape and a chippily unionised workforce to get the exhibition finished just in time for its ceremonial opening by King George VI at a service in St Paul’s.

Turner dutifully records many other worthy manifestations of the festival across the nation, from the staging of now long-forgotten plays to exhibitions of rural crafts. But, as his title suggests, his real concern is to show how the festival provided Britain with its first glimpse of the modern age that was to come — and here perhaps he rather obscures the full picture.

He is right to point out that some of Barry’s team, including Ralph Tubbs, designer of the Dome of Discovery, and Wells Coates, whose Telekinema gave thousands their first sight of television, had been among the young architects who set up the MARS group in the 1930s, to evangelise for the revolutionary ideas of Gropius and Le Corbusier. And he is right that several of those South Bank architects would play a significant part in the transformation of Britain’s cities as the visions of modern architecture swept all before them in the 1960s. 

Like others before him, however, Turner is keener to mention some of the more lauded contributions made by those festival architects to our later townscapes than the part they played in the dehumanised mass architecture which was to come. Basil Spence was not just to design Coventry Cathedral but also some notoriously brutalist blocks of council flats in Glasgow’s Gorbals. The Festival Hall, not strictly part of the festival but adopted by it, was designed by an LCC architect, Robert Matthew, who was also to build soulless tower blocks in Glasgow. Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, creators of the Skylon, were already building a modernistic council estate in Pimlico. One of the real legacies of the dreams which inspired the MARS group and the “People’s Architecture” of the festival was that deluded utopianism which in years to come was to wreak such social and aesthetic havoc in our cities.

Despite his claim that the festival was “one of the great cultural events of the past century”, the author cannot hide the fact that it was a rather forlorn affair; certainly not a patch on the 1851 Great Exhibition which inspired it and which, apart from the Crystal Palace, left such a splendid legacy in Prince Albert’s South Kensington museums and the Albert Hall itself. The only surviving relics of 1951 are the Festival Hall, never planned as part of the festival, and the National Theatre, for which a foundation stone was laid in 1951 although Denys Lasdun’s neo-brutalist building would not arise, on a different site, for nearly three decades. Apart from three river piers, the only other feature to outlive the festival was Battersea funfair, finally closed in 1974 after a fatal accident on its most popular attraction, the Big Dipper.

In terms of popular involvement, the Coronation two years later was a much more genuinely national celebration and, ironically, despite the archaic ceremony at its centre, the fact that it was watched by well over half the nation on little black-and-white television screens, most seeing TV for the first time in their lives, made it as much a “beacon of change” as anything symbolised by the Skylon and the Dome of Discovery. (The only legacy of Tubbs’s creation was the much vaster Millennium Dome it inspired in 2000, which gave visitors a feeling of bemused let-down similar to that aroused by its original half a century before.) 

 The real change in British life was that which began half a decade after the festival: that explosion around 1956 of rock ‘n’ roll, “angry young men” and youth culture in general which heralded the arrival of the ‘affluent society’ in the late 1950s. By the time Britain was seriously to enter the modern age in which we have lived ever since, the Festival of Britain had come to look like no more than a faint, false dawn of the revolution that was to come.

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