Do we need; A Millennium festival?

A party for the year 2000? Great idea! Even better, get a few big business sponsors and we won't need to pay for it. After all, no one really wants a lot of art, culture, science ... By Jonathan Glancey

Imagine you have been planning your 50th birthday party. You have chosen a curious, but potentially exciting venue and have asked a firm of party organisers to arrange details of the big event in complete secrecy. The one fly in the ointment is that the shindig is likely to cost pounds 10,000 and your bank manager can only promise to stump up pounds 5,000. Rather puts the kybosh on the whole shooting match, eh? But, as always, you have a brainwave. Why not write to your 500 guests asking them to stump up pounds 10 each for the party? Or, better still, as this would reduce a lot of paperwork and postage, get five of your oldest pals to pitch in at pounds l,000 a throw?

Why not? Because your friends would think you either tightfisted or unrealistic. The joy of being host to a swell party is all in the giving. Think big, act generously and go for broke. If you set out trying to run your party as if it was some business scam or some other commercial rap, your friends will think the less of you and there is always the danger you won't raise the pounds 5,000 anyway.

Yes, but this is all theoretical: no one you know could even begin to think of acting in such a disorganised and petty manner. No one you know, that is, except Michael Heseltine, de facto Minister for the Millennium, and a government that believes unless a giant party it has promised to hold in Greenwich in 2000 is a successful business venture, able to satisfy the book-keeping mentality of the customers of UK plc and to pay a dividend to the nation's grasping shareholders, then there will no party at all. So there.

The story of the much-hyped Millennium Festival is, it has to be said, truly pathetic. With three and half years to go to the opening, the Government is still acting like a spoilt brat. It is determined that only if private enterprise matches Lottery funding will the festival get the final go ahead. If not, Mr Heseltine and his classmates in the fifth year remove at Westminster will stop the party from happening and go off into a pouting sulk and, from the point of view of the history books, obscurity.

It does seem pitiful that as we approach what is meant to be a great, if artificial, stepping stone in the story of humankind, we are willing to let a dismal political dogma set the agenda for a celebration that will represent our beliefs to people living in 2000 years' time. If we really want a Millennium Festival, then let's have one. The money exists in the pregnant Lottery coffers. If we want a truly memorable festival, then we mustn't allow politicians in the pockets of private enterprise or other market-led downsizers to run the show for us. We will end up with something tawdry and embarrassing.

Even if Mr Heseltine can cajole socially ambitious businessmen to invest in the 300 acres of riverside Greenwich set aside for this uncertain show (a veiled offer of knighthoods and peerages is normally effective), would the result be much more than a giant advertising hoarding for Britain's biggest companies? Surely any private company investing in the show would want a high-profile return? They would be the tail that wagged the festival dog, and, as such, the Millennium Festival would be little different from a giant trade fair.

If this is what the Government and, say, 40 per cent of the electorate really wants, then there is no need to waste money on the more arcane aspects of the festival - art, culture, science, that sort of stuff. What we should be doing is transforming those 300 acres of reclaimed industrial land at Greenwich into a showcase for Britain's fervent commercial culture. Companies that have shaped the face of these islands in the run up to the Millennium should be asked to create a profitable working exhibit of their wares, for these are the things we say we value above all others in the late 1990s and will be remembered for by those looking back on our era in a thousand years' time: superstores, themeparks, leisure centres, drive-thru burger restaurants, DIY centres, satellite and cable TV franchises, executive cul-de-sac housing. If we are going to bother with a Millennium Festival, then this is surely the most profitable way to go. And it is what the people want.

Imagine arriving at the Festival gates (designed by the folk at Disney) on 1 January, 2000. Cut-price sales in the vast superstores covering the greater part of those 300 acres would draw unprecedented crowds. Those waiting would be entertained by endless repeats of topless football matches broadcast on giant pay-as-you-gawp screens (designed by the clever people at Sony). Free litres of "nice'n'chilled" Coke and Festival-sized 16oz Big Macs (guaranteed free from British beef) would be offered to all Festival customers. Cheerleaders and Mickey Mouse greeters would hand out blue Pepsi baseball caps (designed with the peak at the back for "kidz" under 30). A festival theme-ride (a joint venture by Siemens and Mitsubishi) would provide a fun-packed journey ("sit back and relax as you listen to some of your all-time favourite advertising jingles") through superstores (special discount when you buy a Millennium 1,000-can family pack of US beer or German-style lager) and ideal home exhibitions. ("1,000 Tudor and Neo-Georgian styles for the Millennium"). Could this be so far away from the truth? Certainly it is what we would be happy and familiar with.

The trouble with those famous British festivals historians insist on boring us with - the Great Exhibition of 1851, the 1951 Festival of Britain - is that they were so very worthy. True, they attracted enormous crowds, but this was because, unlike today's customer, yesterday's citizen was denied free choice. Who, in all seriousness, could possibly imagine British people wanting to trot round 300 acres of boring new technology, science, art and that sort of yawnsville stuff in 2000? Let the Koreans and Chinese, the Japanese and the Taiwanese (we Brits refuse to mention smelly Europeans) have all the boring new science and technology they want. What we want is fun. And shopping, and more TV, much more football, even faster food, time-share holidays in Florida, Anthea Turner, quick bucks and loads of shares and big pension funds, so we can all be like Cedric Brown. In essence, this is the world view Britain has promoted over the past 15 years. The idea of promoting a frantic face-saving commercially-sponsored Millennium Festival at this late stage, 996 years into the millennium - smacks of desperation and despair.

Far better to shelve the whole project now and to spend the money on good works at home and abroad than to shape a last-minute festival that will ultimately have little to say and nothing to offer posterity. Of course, it is not too late to let rip with the most wonderful festival - the British, as the last 1,000 years have shown, are good at pulling rabbits from hats at the last moment - but this should be a festival freed from petty political dogma and the small-minded, fumbling-in-the-greasy- till mentality that we have turned from a nasty habit into a national policy. This, the guiding spirit of millennial Britain, is nothing to celebrate in the year 2000, or at any other time past, present or future.

What do you think?

Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject the come-on- down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171-293 2182 no later than Friday morning.

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