A tonic to the nation: Reviving the spirit of the South Bank, 60 years on

Thursday 3 May 1951, a crowd of Londoners gathered on Ludgate Hill to see George VI and Queen Elizabeth appear outside St Paul's Cathedral to make a special announcement: "Let us pray," said the King, "that, by God's good grace, the vast range of modern knowledge which is here shown may be turned from destructive to peaceful ends, so that all people, as the century goes on, may be lifted to greater happiness."

The "vast range of modern knowledge" to which the king referred wasn't, in fact, sitting outside the cathedral. The royal party had to make a rare trip over Waterloo Bridge to the badlands of south London to explore the resplendent vision of the future waiting there to be unveiled. And that evening, with due pomp and solemnity, George VI declared the Festival of Britain open. In the audience was the six-year-old Ray Davies, mentioned elsewhere in this issue and later to be leader of the Kinks. "What's this all about, Dad?" he asked his father. "It's the future," his father replied. k

The festival was a five-month extravaganza of national showing-off that followed an unprecedentedly dreadful decade – six years of war, blitz, carpet-bombing, fear of invasion and terrible news from abroad, followed by years of austerity and want, demobilisation, joblessness, rationing, existential breakdown and post-traumatic stress. Much of London and other major cities were, after six years of peace, still wastelands of rubble and desultory attempts at renewal.

It was time, all agreed, for some optimism, some excitement, some harnessing of energies jaded by war, some positive looking towards the future. So, from May to the end of September 1951, the nation showed off its most modern art and architecture, its edgiest designs, its most jaw-dropping new technology – and the landmark results are themselves to be celebrated next month, as the Southbank Centre hosts a major programme of 60th anniversary events paying homage to the festival, involving everyone from Tracey Emin to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Billy Bragg to Francis Fukuyama.

Sixty years ago, of course, the South Bank – now home to the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, the National Film Theatre, the Imax cinema and much else – was the centre of operations, where between 22 themed pavilions, visitors could marvel at the three pièces de résistance at the project's heart: the Dome of Discovery, the largest dome in the world, designed by Sir Ralph Tubbs; the Royal Festival Hall, commissioned by Hugh Casson; and the most enduring symbol of the Festival of Britain, the Skylon. A 300ft steel cocktail stick that pointed upwards like the skinniest rocket in the world, it was supported on cables slung between three beams. From a distance, it looked as though it was floating. "Why is the Skylon like the British economy?" ran a contemporary newspaper joke. "Because it has no visible means of support."

The festival wasn't confined to London. Sister celebrations enlivened the centres of Oxford, Bath, Cheltenham, Stratford, Bournemouth, Aldeburgh, Cardiff and as far north as Perth and Inverness. A Land Travelling Exhibition toured the Midlands and the North, displaying new industrial design and production technologies. A Sea Travelling Exhibition, aboard the good ship Campania, visited 10 major ports around Britain. An exhibition of Industrial Power throbbed in Glasgow's Kelvin Hall. A tribute to British Living architecture in bombed-out Poplar, east London, introduced the locals to a show house furnished with modern conveniences for less than £150. And in Battersea Park, beside the Thames, crowds enjoyed an American-style funfair, a "Tree Walk" (guided by safety ropes), a Regency pastiche tableau by Osbert Lancaster and John Piper, and a comic train ride on the Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway designed by Fred Emmett, based on his Punch cartoons of pre-Dr Beeching single-branch lines and the elderly locomotives that plied them.

I grew up in Battersea and vividly remember, as a child, standing before the Guinness Festival Clock in the Park, marvelling at this evidence of human ingenuity. It must have been about 1960. Every 15 minutes, the routine would start: the lid of a stripy dustbin opened and a zoo-keeper emerged ringing a school-playground bell. Two doors opened below him and, under a "Guinness Time" tree, a pair of toucans cavorted. An ostrich corkscrewed its head up and out of a chimney, the Mad Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland appeared wielding a fishing rod, on whose hook four fish were extracted from inside each other like Russian dolls. It was a magical, enduring delight for a small boy. Smaller versions of the clock were made for fans around the world. But gradually it became impossible to find spare parts for such a specialised object; the big clock was sent to the scrapyard in 1966.

The festival was the brainchild not of a government minister, but of a journalist called Gerald Barry, editor of the News Chronicle. In September 1945, he wrote to Sir Stafford Cripps, president of the Board of Trade. Barry pointed out the approaching centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, an undoubted high point of mid-Victorian imperial pomp and grandeur, held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. "A great Exhibition in 1951," wrote Barry, "would surely be a profitable way of advertising our products and of displaying to the world British prowess in design and craftsmanship." It would be "a powerful stimulus to both manufacturers and designers". And, he concluded with breezy frankness, it would attract not only rich traders, "but large numbers of foreign tourists who would spend their money in this country and... would be encouraged to repeat their visits in future years". Idealism and national pride were all well and good – but the festival was conceived from the start as a money-making venture.

"Perhaps," wrote Cripps guardedly, in red ink, across Barry's letter, "it might be a good idea." His Cabinet colleague Herbert Morrison – grandfather of Peter Mandelson, the overseer of the Millennium Dome project – was more sanguine. Calling it "a tonic for the nation", he gave it the green light. A budget of £8m was earmarked to clear a public space by demolishing warehouses and slum dwellings on the southern shore of the Thames at Waterloo. In 1948, Hugh Casson, charming, determined and well-connected (and later to be one of Prince Charles's chief confidants), was appointed director of architecture. He signed up a team of 40 young designers and architects, among them a young man named Terence Conran.

"I left art college in 1948, and was working with an architect called Dennis Lennon, who was given quite a lot of work in the festival," says Conran. "Practically every designer or architect who was any good in Britain at the time was involved. I actually slept on site for six weeks before the opening, in an atmosphere of increasing panic. You cannot imagine the colour and excitement of seeing all the new architecture, all these new buildings, in war-torn, rationed Britain. It felt like a new beginning. I used to get a magazine from California called Arts and Architecture, which was full of exciting new ideas in architecture. And on the South Bank I felt, thank God, Britain is in touch with the rest of the world."

How did he rate Casson? "The great thing about Hugh Casson was that he was on site most of the time. He'd come round and ask how you were getting on, and if a decision needed making, he'd make it on the spot. Of course, that's exactly what was wrong with the Millennium Dome – there was nobody who had any visual control over it." Conran has vivid memories of the opening days. "It was k terrifically exciting. It was extraordinary seeing people's faces – grey from undernourishment, some still carried their gas-mask cases round their necks – filled with amazement when they saw the exhibition, the sheer energy and brightness and colour of it all. It was a real demonstration of what colour can do to cheer up the place."

The resulting festival structure was in a style called International Modernist and represented some crazily avant-garde modern town-planning ideas – most importantly, it steered clear of a street "grid" pattern, going instead for a futuristic display of multi-level buildings linked by elevated walkways. The Dome of Discovery will sound spookily familiar to anyone who lived through the millennium celebrations: a concrete and aluminium structure inside which were galleries highlighting certain themes, notably, the Living World, the Sea, Earth, Polar, the Physical World, the Land, Sky and Outer Space.

"My job was to make furniture and textile prototypes for the Homes and Gardens Pavilion," Conran recalls, "and to fabricate a section of the interior of the Princess flying boat in the Transport pavilion. And I had a disaster. I was asked to make some letters in resin – chair-maker's resin – to go over the entrance to the Country Pavilion. I put some bugs and beetles and some shrimp and sea urchins inside the resin, for effect. Unfortunately, the resin had a few pinholes on it and when the sun shone, various bits of crustacea started to smell. People began to remark on the terrible pong on the way into the pavilion..."

Fishy pong notwithstanding, the punters flocked to the festival in impressive numbers – 8.5 million in the five months of its existence – but the didactic agenda of the Dome wasn't what they were after. In Family Britain, the historian David Kynaston recalls that among "the more worthy attractions on the South Bank", the most popular was "the less than educational 'Home of the Future' pavilion" – a prototypical Ideal Home exhibition, showing rooms with modern furnishings, ceramics, glass, metalware and domestic-goddess paraphernalia.

A disgruntled local government officer called Anthony Heap confided to his diary: "From what I'd heard and read about the Exhibition, I'd surmised that there was very little in it likely to appeal to anyone of my unscientific, unmechanical and generally unprogressive turn of mind. And how right my surmise proved to be! 99 per cent of the exhibits on view in the various pavilions are devoted to different aspects of the 'Land' and the 'People' of Britain, and the entire contents of the dimly lit Dome of Discovery were of no interest to me whatsoever." But Mr Heap's wife went by herself the next day and found it "an absolutely wonderful show" that was "a really enchanting spot" after dark. It's worth mentioning, without impugning Mrs Heap's virtue, that the lit-up, night-time festival soon developed a reputation among lecherous Londoners as a prime pick-up spot.

Sir Terence Conran remembers the Skylon with fondness. "It was a thin, torpedo- shaped object and it really looked as if it was floating. Just beautiful it was. But the whole festival was full of ideas, so much charm and wit."

To the comedian Kenneth Williams, an early visitor, it was "all madly educative and a bit tiring". The photographer Cecil Beaton, by contrast, looked beyond the didactic elements to the more direct appeal of colour: "Whole walls of decoration are made of squares of coloured canvas pulled taut in geometric shapes and triangles, to be lit with a variety of colours," he reported excitedly. "A screen is made by hanging Miro-like coloured balls against the distant chimney-pots of the city. Arches underneath the railways are painted strawberry pink or bright blue..."

The writer Michael Frayn was a 16-year-old grammar-schoolboy in 1951 – and an instant fan of the festival. "I only intended to look in for half an hour, but I stayed all day," he later recalled. "It was absolutely ravishing. It's difficult to imagine now, but London was still very run-down from the war. It was very poor, very grey and dirty, with bomb sites everywhere – there hadn't been the time or the money to rebuild or repaint. But, suddenly, there was this wonderful paradise, full of bright colours and stylish, elegant forms." Frayn remembers a sonic display of "supposedly typical English conversations" in the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion and an open-air space called the Fairway with lights set in the ground, where people danced on Saturdays even in the rain, under umbrellas.

The final weekend was poignant, as the festival ended on a high note. More than 150,000 came to the South Bank to see a tightrope walker called Charles Elleano cross the Thames on a wire. On the last day, 65,000 visitors came, and on the final night, 29 September, after a Thanksgiving service at the Festival Hall, the Archbishop of Canterbury went on-air to tell the nation that the festival had been "a good thing for us all", a "real family party" that had "brought encouragement just when it was needed". At 10pm, community singing broke out – "Danny Boy", "Loch Lomond", "Jerusalem" – accompanied by the bands of the Brigade of Guards. A Tannoy announced, "Stand by for general black-out!" The flags were lowered. The lights faded – then snapped back on again, a signal for the crowd to sing "Auld Lang Syne" with their hands linked.

A month later, it had virtually all gone. A Conservative government was elected under Winston Churchill, who seemed to regard the festival with loathing. Almost the first decision taken by the new government was to clear the site. All the pavilions, buildings and walkways, all the strenuous displays of Britain's future, were destroyed. The Skylon, which Churchill saw as an emblem of the Labour administration, was toppled into the Thames and chopped into pieces. Only the Royal Festival Hall remained – and, for a few years, the Guinness Clock and Battersea Fun Fair.

"A lot of people protested that they didn't know what the festival was for," Frayn concludes. "But the reasons were a bit more self-evident than they were for the Millennium Dome. There was a sense that we'd won the war and hadn't got much out of it, because the austerity of life still continued, and that here at last was a reward – the celebratory party we still hadn't had. There was a certain logic about this that captured most people's fancy."

The Southbank Centre's 60th anniversary celebrations run from 22 April to 4 September. For details, see southbankcentre.co.uk

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