The year the Dome finally delivered

Condemned by all as a huge waste of money, it was bankrupt within a month of its opening. Now, seven years on, it is more successful than anyone could have imagined
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The Independent Online

Few of those braving the crowds taking in the splendours of ancient Egypt at the blockbuster Tutankhamun exhibition this Christmas or excitedly nursing a ticket for Take That this New Year's Eve might credit it, but not so long ago the O2, currently playing host to these sell-out shows, was desperately unloved.

That of course was in the bad old days when everyone knew it simply as the Dome. Then, rather than rocking to the re-formed Led Zeppelin or reliving the heady days of Girl Power with the Spice Girls, paying customers milled through an unsettlingly large and unremittingly chilly Dome, a space with the power to make any crowd look sparse and miserable.

Few commentators could find anything good to say about the year-long exhibition staged in Greenwich to celebrate the arrival of the third millennium.

The exhibits, sponsored by the likes of BAE Systems and Tesco, were bland and uninspiring. The futuristic central floor show, with music by Peter Gabriel, was incomprehensible while the specially commissioned Blackadder film shown at the Sky-funded cinema was not as funny as the television show.

But what this disappointing mish-mash of exhibits really threw up was a far more trenchant truth, realised only belatedly by Tony Blair whose name will forever be associated with the fiasco namely, that governments should not run visitor attractions. Yet, Mr Blair may argue, in some ways the Dome was a success.

Sure it had soared recklessly over budget, gobbling up 600m from the National Lottery, rendering it virtually bankrupt within a month of opening, earning the fierce opprobrium of the media, MPs and even those, like Michael Heseltine, who originally championed it.

And admittedly it tarnished the political careers of virtually anyone who came into contact with it, becoming the symbol of the failed optimism of New Labour.

But there were positives. Richard Rogers' vast stretched membrane structure, technically a tent rather than a dome, has become one of the world's most recognised buildings. His homage to the concept of recorded time is beloved of film-makers and admired as much for its breathtaking scale (the Eiffel Tower could be laid down sideways inside it) as its audacity, marooned as it is on a remote peninsular in the unglamorous eastern reaches on the Thames.

And lots of people came to see it too. Some six million in total a figure disastrously below the preposterously optimistic 12 million it was originally claimed would come but still more than made the effort to visit the now much vaunted Festival of Britain 50 years earlier. In 2000, believe it or not, the unloved Dome was Britain's No 1 visitor attraction, beating the London Eye and Alton Towers into second and third places.

The fact that the Dome had potential was not lost on one Philip Anschutz. The reclusive billionaire owner of Los Angeles' Staple Centre who boasts a plethora of his own sports teams, including David Beckham's LA Galaxy and an 18 per cent share of the US cinema market, was able to provide the kind of hard-headed business focus that the great and the good on the Millennium committees could scarcely dream of.

Mr Anschutz's company AEG acquired the Dome in 2001 and set about lavishing another 600m on the site. Beneath the vast white canopy, away from the public eye, a 23,000-seat arena was created, along with a more intimate 2,300 capacity venue for smaller gigs. Then there is an 11-screen cinema, a huge exhibition space, restaurants, bars and even its own shopping street. By 2005 Mr Blair's great white elephant was generating serious excitement and even more serious money, a point proved in May of that year when the mobile phone giant O2 signed a 6m-a-year deal for the naming rights to the new venue.

Mr Anschutz knew the market for live music and sport was booming. Driven, in part, by declining revenues from recorded music, big name bands, many prepared to re-form for the occasion, turned to live shows. Just three months after Bon Jovi kicked off the opening night at the new arena, the O2 had sold more than 600,000 tickets, making it the fourth most popular arena in the world. Prince sold out 21 nights in August, augmenting each concert with an after-show performance at the smaller venue, now called Indigo. Then there were the Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand, Elton John and, despite the disappointment of the 25 million fans who couldn't get tickets Led Zeppelin.

Of course there are those who lament the arrival of this slickly-polished newcomer to the capital's music scene, those who mourn the decline and fall of the late great, sticky-carpet venues such as the Hammersmith Palais, which made way for an office block earlier this year. These are the critics who mock the corporate, mall-like sterility of the chain pizza joints and nitrogen-cooled lager dominating the O2's many retail concessions.

But there was a serious setback for AEG when its plans for a supercasino failed. Not only did it leave a physical gap beneath the big top, but the gambling palace was seen as a vital primer for the 300m second phase of the O2 project which had as its centrepiece a 650-room hotel.

But having apparently shaken off the curse of the Dome at long last, those responsible for its recent success will not be losing too much sleep.

The fall and rise of Blair's folly

* February 1994: Millennium Commission first meets.

* June 1997: Tony Blair expands John Major's plans for a Millennium project at Greenwich: "Today Britain need not settle for second best. In the Dome we have a creation that, I believe, will truly be a beacon to the world."

* July 1997: Peter Mandelson becomes first Dome minister target of 12 million visitors set.

* January 1998: Creative director Stephen Bayley quits, criticising Mandelson for running project as a dictatorship.

* December 1998: Mandelson quits in home-loan row, replaced at Dome by Lord Falconer.

* May 1999: Jubilee Line Extension opens, putting North Greenwich on Tube network.

* January 2000: Disastrous opening night as VIP guests, including newspaper editors, left to shiver in the cold.

* February 2000: PY Gerbeau replaces Jennie Page as chief executive.

* November 2000: Robbers try to steal 12 De Beers diamonds, worth 200m, on show at Dome.

* December 2001: Meridian Delta buys the Dome and begins a 600m investment programme.

* May 2005: Mobile phone company O2 pays 6m for naming rights to the new venue.

* July 2006: Deputy PM John Prescott criticised for visiting the developer Philip Anschutz's Colorado ranch.

* July 2007: The US singer Bon Jovi performs opening night at the renamed and fully refurbished O2 Arena.

* August: The singer Prince performs 21 nights at the venue

* November 2007: Tutankhamun exhibition opens

* December 2007: Rock music veterans Led Zeppelin reunite for one night at the O2.

* December 2007: Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band enhance the O2's growing reputation as one of the world's leading venues.

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