Will Cool Britannia be hot enough to sell the nation at Lisbon's Expo?

Nonie Niesewand gets an exclusive preview of the British pavilion at Expo '98
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN has a chance to prove that it really is Cool Britannia when Expo `98 opens in Lisbon on Thursday, with the heritage of the ocean as the main theme.

The Independent was granted an exclusive preview of the British pavilion where visitors from around the world will decide whether Britain still rules the waves.

Visitors can go on an underwater voyage with sound and light designed by architects Branson Coates. Swirly blue light plays on the walls like an animated Hockney. New Age flotation tank music pulses along as spectators move through the stand on a travelator, slower than their luggage on an airport carousel.

The trip begins on land with an outline map of Britain made of umbrellas. Clusters of umbrellas open up regionally to coincide with images on a big screen. The Angel of the North appears as Mary Poppins beneath her umbrella seems to fly over the Tyne.

Diving masks set in the walls fill with water to indicate depth changes as you wind down the spiral. Inside bubble screens like submarine portholes, touch screens give information on British maritime inventions: Jon Buoy, Hydrodig, Autosub, remote-sensing and Atlantic frontier oil rigs.

On the ocean bed four wavy sea cucumbers showcases reveal Royal College of Art designs on a sea theme. There are huge speakers shaped like the Nautilus shell. A weather-reactive alarm clock, the world's first radar reflective emergency rescue kit with a kite, Red or Dead fashion label marine life clothing, and an inflatable octopus wearing sunglasses. Designers time the experience at Expo to last just 18 minutes, a crowd-control quick, if as Expo `98 anticipates, 16 million turn up.

"People will enjoy the experience of Britain," said Derek Fatchett, Minister of State at the Foreign Office. "Japan's stand at Expo `98 is the same size as ours but has too many storylines. It looks a little dated. We appear different and innovative."

In his slipstream there are three members of Panel 2000, the group of advisers to the Foreign Office on Britain's image abroad: Zeinab Badawi from Channel 4, John Sorrell, chairman of the Design Council and Gary Campkin of the Confederation of British Industry.

Britain's national day at Expo will be on 28 June. The day will begin with songs of the sea and lunch by invitation-only on board the HMS Chatham with the Prince of Wales. It ends rather more dramatically with a street party and the mid-summer solstice burning of four huge corn dollies, followed by a rave at Sony Square at Expo.

The sponsor Allied Distributors is anxious to transfer to a Lisbon club when Expo shut at 2.30am. Our man in Lisbon, Roger Westbrook, knows all about Portuguese nightlife since club music drifts up to his embassy most nights until dawn. "But we can't ignore the young opinion-makers of the next century in our celebrations," he said. Any more than he can ignore commercial sponsorship for which he has raised half a million pounds from British companies with a high profile in Portugal.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry each contributed pounds 1m towards Expo `98, but it is a drop in the ocean. Expo blocks blatant advertising. As governments all over the world have budget shortfalls on funding expositions, sponsors have upped the ante. Rover demanded a car on the roof of the British pavilion. It was a try- on, it says now, but it resulted in logos all over the ramps and a picture pasted to the walls of a yacht with Rover's name ballooning on the spinnaker.

With Expos coming up every two years the world's imagination is sorely strained. This year's theme on oceans gave land-locked Zimbabwe an excuse not to attend. Zaire whitewater-rafted down the Congo and Switzerland glacially showed that it had sourced the world's oceans with meltdown at the end of the Ice Age. There were no whales on the Japanese stand where turtles were made of glass fibre in the children's theatre. There was no cod from Iceland, and Spain fished for compliments on environmental pollution rather than fishing rights.

Cultural events are less important than thrills. Lisbon is still fatigued from one hundred days of culture. This British branding caters for all on time and target with a crowd-pulling show. Expo `92 in Seville, Spain was a graveyard for the DTI officials who organised it. Expo `98 is a diplomatic coup.