Comment: I'd put my money on the rough edges of the Wheel
Wednesday 15 December 1999
The Wheel admirably injects fairground giddiness into a segment of London which has never shaken off the deadly air of municipal drabness. No one in their right mind goes to the South Bank just for a good time. You go with ticket in hand for a concert or a play, or hope there's no queue for an art show. You scutter in, through the puddles and the concrete. As soon as you've had your shot of culture, you get back out.
Grandiose schemes for changing this drabness have got nowhere. But two brash intruders - part of no grand plan - have swaggered in: the vast aquarium in County Hall, and this glittery new Ferris wheel. They are starting to rough the place up, which is what it needs. If some idle or dissolute visitor looks across the Thames to the South Bank, it should have the come-on wink of a place where you just might enjoy yourself if you went over the water for half a day. The Wheel, especially, holds the promise of time well wasted.
The Dome, however, is an attempt to smooth out an environment which was already as rough as a fly-tip clinker. Its very existence would, it was hoped, cancel out the blight over what was, in pre-Dome maps, always called the Blackwall Peninsula (no mention of Greenwich). The Dome would be a pharmaceutical antidote to poisonous debris left behind by the biggest gasworks in Europe.
The pharmacist was Michael Heseltine. The Dome is where it is because he saw it primarily an instrument of east London regeneration. This urban crusade is what he hopes history will remember him for. If the Dome works, a bronze statue of Heseltine, twice life size, should be erected at the tip of the peninsula, golden locks flowing.
The Wheel is the outcome of an idea, pursued by a couple of obsessives. Though it's a feat of pure engineering, the concept came from two architects. They pursued it through all obstacles and got what they wanted.
Not so with the Dome. It was created back-end on: first the public quest for a site; then the quest, never resolved, for an idea; it has been completed with no creative director, only committees. The Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park in 1851, had Prince Albert (for high politics) and Henry Cole (for the vision). The Festival of Britain, on the South Bank in 1951, had Herbert Morrison (politician) and Gerald Barry (visionary). If Heseltine hadn't been busy at the time hoping to succeed John Major, the best thing would have been to give him his Greenwich toy to play with and ask him to get on with it.
The Wheel is like rough-necked William Brown putting one across on his older sister's ultra-smooth boy-friends. It's already been taken to people's hearts. As you go round London, it changes the cityscape. It rears up in the most unexpected places, cheering the dreariest of views, like a clockwork rainbow.
Its millennial rival is still surrounded by public agonising, which BBC2's fly-on-the-Dome series does nothing to dispel. But, even before it begins to turn, the Wheel is full of bounce. If you ring up the Wheel people, they are delighted to tell you that, after telephone sales opened on 3 December, they sold 15,000 individual tickets, on top of half a million sold as group packages (schools, coach parties, travel agents, corporate).
But the Wheel is also a spur-of-the-moment treat, like buying candy floss on a bank holiday beach. You can just to turn up and buy a ticket when the mood takes you, like going on the Prater big wheel in Vienna. (I don't remember Orson Wells and Joseph Cotten, in The Third Man, having to book in advance.) The South Bank wheel was reckoning on about 1.2 million riders (at 800 a time) by the year end. Now its organisers think it may be four million.
If you ring up the Dome people, mystery descends. Tickets went on sale in September, and they hope for 12 million before the year is out (35,000 a day in winter; 55,000 in the longer summer hours). But it's "policy", I'm told apologetically, not to say exactly how many tickets have gone. They'll issue sales figures only after each month of operation.
Hmm! This nervousness only underlines the Wheel's showbiz chutzpah. When I rang the Dome, like any customer, to see how early I could get in, I was told I could book (you can't just turn up) any day from 4 January, "No problem".
Neither the Wheel nor the Dome is yet open for users. For all its problems, I wish the Dome luck. But if I went down to Ladbroke's, I'd put my money on the success of the Wheel. You don't have to sweat to convince people it might be fun. They can tell just by looking at it.
The moral of the fable: If you put the rough up against the smooth, the rough may not always win - but that's the way to bet.
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