Unveiling gets a mixed reception

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The Independent Online
REACTION to the unveiling of the contents of the Millennium Dome was mixed yesterday.

Tory culture spokesman Francis Maude called on Tony Blair to ensure the Dome and the millennium celebrations were non-political. "Is Tony Blair big enough to declare the Millennium Dome a politician-free zone?" he said.

"The project has been bedevilled with controversy and bad publicity since Peter Mandelson took over last year. He is the most controversial party politician in the country."

Away from politics the Booker prize-winning author Ben Okri, was worried the Dome's designers had not been bold enough in their plans. "I would rather be proud of the Dome than not," he said. "And I am behind it if it is on the side of the angels. I still think it is an excellent idea and I hope they get it right - I want it to be a success.

"But I don't think they are being original enough. I don't think they are making enough of the rich cultural reserves of this nation, the land of Shakespeare, Keats, Byron; they're not reaching in to it enough."

Lord Peter Palumbo, former chairman of the Arts Council, was concerned the exhibits would not stand the test of time. He said: "I wonder if it is likely to make a lasting contribution. Things move on so quickly, people could get bored."

Stephen Bayley, who last month quit as creative director of the project, was critical of the plans. "Peter Mandelson tends to dismiss all criticism about the Millennium Dome," he said on BBC radio's Today programme yesterday. "He will say that all great national projects like the Great Exhibition and the Festival of Britain attracted their critics and, of course, he is right. But the difference is that in 1851 and 1951 the philistines were on the outside; today I'm afraid the philistines are on the inside."

Raymond Gubbay, the theatre impresario, said he was opposed to the concept of the Dome. "To be honest I would much rather have Mendelssohn than Mandelson. I find the whole Dome prospect rather sad - it is a complete waste of money which could have been much better used elsewhere."

On the religious front, the Right Rev Gavin Reid, Bishop of Maidstone and chairman of the Archbishops' Advisory Group on the Millennium, said he was cautious about the proposed spiritual content of the Dome. But, he said: "I welcome that there is going to be material about Christianity and I'm very pleased that in a cosmopolitan world there will also be that which talks about the contribution of other faiths."

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the London Arts Board, said the contents of the Dome would have to be spectacular for it to be a success. He said: "We have got to have something pretty stupendous to justify it. I think people are going to come and see it just for the size of the damn thing and there has got to be enough content for it not just to then be a terrible disappointment.

Wayne Hemingway, head of the fashion company Red or Dead, pronounced himself a fan of the Dome. "My children have been very excited about the Dome and provided it does not lose loads of money and lasts for a long time it can only be a good thing. It should educate and entertain kids. It has to be better than a massive art display which will just bore them."

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat spokesman for London, supported the Dome as long as it did not become "a politicians' plaything".

He said: "The Liberal Democrats will support millennium initiatives for the people. But if this Dome is for the self-aggrandisement of politicians and the commercial interests of big businesses, then it will not win the people's support."

Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister who was charge of the Dome under the Tories, denied the project was party political. "Everything that Tony Blair said today is actually part and parcel of the original concept which we established. It's very important for a national event of this sort to rise above party politics."

Alex Falconer, a left-wing Labour MEP, said the money for the millennium celebrations at Greenwich could be better spent.

"It is currently estimated that pounds 400m of lottery money will be spent on this ill-founded and elitist Tory-conceived venture, and tax breaks for private sector sponsors will cost us another pounds 50m. It should not be supported by Labour."

But Claire Ward, Labour MP and past critic of the Dome, said: "If that is only half of what they can deliver, then we are in for something quite special."

Millennial countdown

The Dome will be built at breakneck speed to ensure it is up and running for the year 2000.

March 1998: Roof fabric will begin to be placed.

April: Plans for the layout of exhibits finalised.

June: Roof completed.

July: Ticket prices for show of the Millennium will be set.

September: Construction of the Dome structure completed.

October: The first exhibits and attractions installed.

January 1999: Businesses can buy the first tickets.

March: Structures for key attractions will be installed.

May: Central area will be completely installed.

July: Tickets will go on sale to the public.

November: Installation of the contents will be completed.

December: River services will become operational and three days of free previews for Greenwich residents will take place.

December 31: Dome will be opened.

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