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Festival fever: 60 years on

The Festival of Britain's "Skylon" being raised 300 feet above the ground
The Festival of Britain's "Skylon" being raised 300 feet above the ground

As London prepares to celebrate the 1951 Festival of Britain, the Today programme's Evan Davis reflects on its long-term cultural significance.

For some reason, memories of the Festival of Britain never seem to fade. By my experience, it takes only the smallest pretext for most respectable citizens over the age of 65 to take delight in reminiscing about it.

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Radio 4's Today programme will be broadcasting live and in video from London's South Bank Centre between 0600 and 0900 on Friday 22 April.

The email I had from my friend John as soon as he heard me mention it on the radio captures the effect the event has on people, in particular how recollections of private experiences interact with those of the public occasion: "It was all great fun and on the train journey home I had my first long kiss with a girl!!" he wrote.

I dare say he would have enjoyed such a kiss eventually even in the absence of the festival, but I'm sure it wouldn't have happened that day if it had not been for the emotional spark ignited by the Dome of Discovery and the Battersea Park fun fair.

The forthcoming 60th anniversary of the festival provides the perfect occasion for more nostalgia. The third of May is the date it opened but there is a four-month celebratory festival of British culture at the South Bank to mark it.

Families watching the Royal procession as King George VI goes to St Paul's to declare the Festival of Britain open
Having tasted a festival for the ordinary citizen... the country has resolutely stuck with "people power" ever since
Evan Davis

At this point I have to confess that I am not over 65; I have no childhood recollections of the original festival; I never caught sight of the Skylon and by the time I saw pictures of it, it was already looking rather dated. But I am interested in the event none the less.

Every couple of decades we live through some kind of shared national experience that, although ephemeral, lasts forever in the minds of those around to witness it. These events are often mildly controversial but nevertheless have a large effect in shaping a mood.

You won't need reminding right now that royal events - whether they are happy or sad - often provide such occasions. The London Olympics next year may well fall into the same category.

But there were two things that strike me about the Festival of Britain as an event of that kind.

The first is very relevant today. It is that it lifted spirits at a time when they were down and when conditions were tough.

Some would deride such an event as a distraction from the harsh realties of life or as propaganda. But it is important for a nation not to wallow in gloom or to view every issue through the lens of austerity.

Part of the Festival of Britain Grand Vista Illuminations
The Grand Illuminations of the festival aimed to shine a light on British culture

We know from recent findings in social science research that we tend to adapt our behaviour to fit the prevailing ethos; that is to say we abide by the mood we observe in others.

If we are surrounded by obese people we tend to eat more; if we see others recycling, we tend to recycle more and so on. That strand of research implies that if we see everybody else looking down at their feet as they shuffle to work we are more likely to do the same.

The effect of a festival in injecting a little ambition into the culture of the nation is not to be ignored as a positive effect of the event.

Socialist vision

By way of example, I chatted to designer Sir Terence Conran who was employed at the time by a "notorious" modernist architect, designing and building hand-made furniture for the festival, and also helping to put up a "wonderful" celebratory sculpture.

Sir Terence Conran
You saw the faces of British people light up
Sir Terence Conran

He was one of those who was inspired by it on to greater things. He told me that the festival was "the best medicine for the British public… You saw the faces of British people light up when they actually got to the site… and saw the modern architecture, the shapes, the colours, the cafes and the general atmosphere of excitement."

The second important point to make about the festival is that it marked the beginning of a new more populist era in Britain.

In contrast to royal events or even the Olympics (which of course had been in London just three years earlier) it was one of those shared national experiences that involved everyday folk. It was about us, not them, one might say.

It was even, dare one say, somewhat socialist in its aspiration with its imported modernist architecture and grand visions of planned towns.

One of the most interesting historical features of the whole festival was the opposition to it of Winston Churchill, who famously had the Skylon taken down and cut into pieces after he won the election in October 1951.

The Royal Festival Hall during the Festival of Britain with the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon
Modernist mission: The Royal Festival Hall (r) and the Dome of Discovery (l)

Sir Hugh Casson was the director of architecture at the festival. He died in 1999 but I spoke to his daughter Dinah about what it has represented.

And she said that perhaps Churchill had been right to hate it given his views - it was socialist! "It absolutely was and I think they were quite right to regard it as a socialist creep," she explained.

"Coming out of the war, there was a sense of building something new, everyone had had such a horrible time - they wanted a new Britain and a new way of living."

Britain perhaps never really took to modernism with much enthusiasm. Sir Terence agreed that it did not thrill British public, but rather "caught the affection of architects… all followers of Corbusier" who built council estates in "tower blocks, leaving as much of the land free to be green and played on."

It has remained largely ambivalent about socialism. But having tasted a festival for the ordinary citizen 60 years ago, the country has resolutely stuck with "people power" ever since.


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