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Thursday, August 26, 1999 Published at 05:39 GMT 06:39 UK


Muppets give Dome a hand

How the Home Planet zone should look (NMEC/Hayes Davidson)

By BBC News Online's Giles Wilson

The BBC's Andrew Bomford talks to former creative director Stephen Bailey, who walked out on the project
The organisers of the Millennium Dome have dealt with such a welter of cynicism and criticism that they now seem to be immune to it all.

Where they once might have expected ridicule, they have now self-confidently - and even with relish - revealed their new secret weapons.

It's a couple of muppets.

[ image: Max and Gaia, tour guides to the new zone]
Max and Gaia, tour guides to the new zone
Not Bert and Ernie, or Kermit and Miss Piggy, but two aliens called Gaia and Max. Created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the green and brown aliens are visitors' guides through the new attraction, the Home Planet zone.

The characters boast "muscles that bulge, joints that move, perfect eye movement and personalities all of their own", and the organisers are clearly hoping they will be a hit with children visiting the dome.

Journey to the centre of the Earth

Taking place inside what has been dubbed "the blue Smartie", the zone will involve the Dome's only ride, taking visitors on an imaginary ride to Earth from outer space. (For a picture gallery showing building progress at the Dome, see Relevant Stories.)

Once "arrived" on Earth, visitors will see and feel some of what the planet has to offer, including a tornado, an ice cave and a volcano.

There will then be a three-minute video directed by Hugh Hudson, director of Chariots of Fire, and the party political broadcast which showed famously Neil and Glenys Kinnock walking on the cliff top instead of falling down on the beach.

Michael Grade, the former boss of Channel 4 who leads the dome's group of entertainment experts, said Hudson had been chosen to make the video because one of his specialities was "encapsulating big ideas into short spaces of time".

[ image: Michael Grade: Home Planet will
Michael Grade: Home Planet will "entertain, inspire and educate"
"It's important that along with the fun and wit and knowledge people do have some emotional experience within this dome," he said.

"And he was available," he added.

Sponsorship has been a controversial matter for the dome, but the tab for the Home Planet zone is being picked up by British Airways and the British Airport Authority.

As a nod to their input, the 15-seat hypershuttle on which visitors will travel will bear the name of BA's "airline of the future", British Spaceways. The intergalactic spaceport they set out from will be called "Intergalatwick".

Sponsors' motivation goes beyond name recognition, though. It is at least partly wanting to be involved in what they are hoping will be a huge national event.

It must be, because BAA Chief Executive Sir John Egan said the dome was "already part of the British way of life", which was "a source of immense national pride". The UK, he said, was "arguably the creative capital of the world".

Bob Ayling, the Chief Executive of British Airways, said the dome was going to make London the "millennium capital", and that there wasn't a place he went to in the world that wasn't "interested, astounded and astonished" by the dome.

[ image: A lot of work still to be done]
A lot of work still to be done
All this could well be true, but what is going to make their sponsorship worthwhile in cold cash terms is the number of tourists expected to come to see the dome.

An extra 2.5 million tourists will head to the UK next year, they estimate, and this zone's sponsors are hoping a good proportion of them will fly on their aeroplanes into their airports.

The dome is sponsored to the hilt - £160m from various companies - yet the names of the muppets raise the awful possibility that a trick could have been missed in calling Gaia's companion Max.

Gaia - the greek goddess of the Earth - had according to some readings a grand-daughter called Nike. If they can pay Tiger Woods $90m, they could surely have been approached to sponsor a muppet?

State of play

Not surprisingly, the sight inside the dome resembles that of a building site, with scaffolding, pneumatic drills, and dust.

There are just 18 weeks to go until opening night. Jennie Page, the boss of the New Millennium Experience Company, says everything is going to schedule and budget. It is a deadline they cannot and will not miss, she says.

But it's clear that, even if some people decide to sit in the balcony criticising like Statler and Waldorf, she has got far too much work to do to worry about it.

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25 Aug 99†|†UK
Picture gallery: Millennium Dome

23 Jul 99†|†UK Politics
The Millennium Dome minister answers your questions

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