Will the last person to leave the Dome turn off the lights?

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The Independent Online

When the end finally came, it was a terribly British finale. Hundreds of people who had been excoriated for 12 months,the butt of the biggest political joke of recent times, held hands and took a bow. And we all felt rather sorry.

When the end finally came, it was a terribly British finale. Hundreds of people who had been excoriated for 12 months,the butt of the biggest political joke of recent times, held hands and took a bow. And we all felt rather sorry.

It was perhaps the most crowded the centre of the Millennium Dome had ever been as they filed past. There were the aerial acrobats, the jugglers, actors, men on stilts and, of course, the ubiquitous P-Y Gerbeau.

P-Y, the Dome's ebullient chief executive, was there to say goodbye and to thank all those people in the middle of this vast structure, a "monstrous blancmange" in the words of the Prince of Wales. From 6pm yesterday, after a year of political disaster and public bewilderment, they were to lose their jobs and, at last, the Dome was to close.

The day had been a long one. The three breathtaking aerial performances seemed to take longer than usual. The queues seemed to move more slowly. There was, inevitably, a moribund feel about the place and it rubbed off on the visitors. Too late, there was a groundswell of disappointment that the massive tent on the Greenwich Peninsula was to be lost and, again in typically British fashion, there followed a desire not to see the underdog put down.

"They should keep it - it's wonderful," said a Londoner, Sheila Lovell, 54. "I've been here before and I'd come again. I can't believe that after only a year it's going to be torn down. If it hadn't been knocked so much by the media it would have been a huge success."

P-Y confirmed yesterday that he had put in a consortium bid to buy the business two months ago but he also accepted that it was unlikely to be considered unless the favoured Legacy bid was to be withdrawn.

That would be the only way the structure could be saved.

"I still think it could have a viable future as a tourist attraction," he said. "There would have to be some changes in content but I believe we could do it and use it as a venue for entertainment, with a central stadium that could seat anything from 2,000 to 20,000 people. But that could only happen if Legacy pulled out.

"I actually feel very sad today. I have never worked with such wonderful people. They have given everything to make this a success and I think it has been successful. After Disney in Paris, it's the second biggest attraction in Europe. Where's the failure in that?"

All day, people poured in to take their last opportunity to see this folly. By close of play, more than 27,000 were expected, taking the total past 6.5 million. Among them, in a private capacity, was Cherie Blair and her children, Euan, 16, Nicholas, 14, and Kathryn, 12, queuing for the Home Planet zone with Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Dome minister, and Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary. "It's fantastic, the children love it," said Mrs Blair. "They think it's great - it's their third time here.It's a shame it's the last day."

Perhaps we were being softened up for a U-turn? Outside, Mr Campbell's mother-in-law, Audrey Millar, added to the feeling of instant nostalgia. "This is a great attraction - I'd call it the People's Palace! It should be kept open," she said.

So was it a missed opportunity? Could the Government have bolstered it more and taken credit where, until now, there has been only criticism? Mr Campbell, flanked by his sons, Rory, 13, and Callum, 11, was pensive.

"Ever since it opened a year ago, the press had decided to do it in," he said. "But lots of people here have enjoyed it. If you had said a year ago that there would be 6.5 million visitors and 88 per cent of those polled would say they had had a good time, you would have been describing a runaway success."

More than the visitors, the staff were sad. Incredibly, most said they had enjoyed the job. "The more people attacked us, the closer we got," said Dan Torbutt, who will be returning to work as an artist tomorrow. "If we had been judged on our achievements, on the people we made happy, everyone would have agreed we did a great job."

By 7pm, the last visitors were out and the gates were locked. In adjoining buildings, thousands of youngsters were turning up to see in the new year with a rave. In the Dome itself, all was quiet save for a small crew dismantling the vast lighting system in the central auditorium.

The set had been rented and now it was being taken back. The work began at 11pm. By the time 2001 - the true start of the new millennium - arrived, the Millennium Dome was already being dismantled and consigned to history.