We need an Albert, not an Anthea

That scuzzy old lottery is producing lots of money for the Millennium. Let's go for the big one, says Bryan Appleyard

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We don't have Prince Albert, but we do have Anthea Turner. He, the visionary consort, decreed that we should have a Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. She, the bubbly blonde, giggles us into paying for a Millennium Exhibition in Greenwich, Derby, Birmingham or Bromley-by- Bow. The National Lottery is many things - a loathsome Treasury scam, a degrading rip-off - but edifying, inspiring, improving it is not. The line that joins Albert to Anthea is a descending plot of national decay.

But the punters' money for great public works is rolling in. Sums that would have glazed over the eyes of Francois Mitterrand, that enthusiast for great public works, are suddenly sloshing about the country looking for someone - anyone - to spend them. The nation is engaged on a manic spree, a binge bigger than anyone expected. A ramshackle apparatus, apparently designed to hand out no more than a trickle of charitable cash, has become a vast no-profit bank raking in millions a day. Nowhere is the gulf between big money and little organisation more obvious than in the planning of the year-long Millennium Exhibition. This is now being fixed in conditions of outrageous secrecy. An announcement of site and operator will be made in January, but discussion about what we want and what we might be given has been non-existent. People scarcely know it is going to happen and, if they do, they probably expect little more than a neat futuristic theme park, a well-meaning Chessington World of Adventure.

It still might be. Given the political culture, the source of the funds and the miserable, lurching littleness of lottery spending so far, no one would be surprised if this exhibition turned out to be a tacky catastrophe. But let's be optimistic, let's pretend it can be made to work. Let's pretend Albert is in charge. What would he do?

Step one: he would sack the Millennium Commission. Perhaps they are nice, good people; perhaps, in a way, they know what they are doing. But they could be running anything. They are just a carefully balanced, bureaucratically acceptable committee. Not one of the nine - I include Michael Heseltine - qualifies as the kind of risky, cantankerous, obsessed visionary this exhibition needs to make it work. They are, quite simply, too polite. Bring in, say, George Walden - he is, after all, giving up the MP game. Or Sir Crispin Tickell. Or Sir John Harvey-Jones. Or, dare I say it, Baroness Thatcher.

Step two: change the rules ... all the rules. This is a difficult step, since no one seems too clear what the rules are; indeed, no one on the commission seems to have the slightest idea what the exhibition should be. We only know that there will be a year-long party and it will be half- funded by the lottery and half by the private operators.

Two private bidders are now left - Imagination, a design and communications consultancy, and a consortium headed by Touche Ross in which the leading light seems to be Lord Hollick. The commission has so far said it will provide up to pounds 100m, making the total cost of the project pounds 200m. But, rumour has it, that figure could rise to pounds 500m, making this one helluva party. In fact, it would probably make it the biggest millennium celebration on earth, a World Expo comparable to Seville - and that drew 46 million people in eight months.

This financing structure, this spread of risk, is all wrong. It encourages the worst possible solution. It encourages Disneyland. There is no doubt that real money can be made out of this show. Almost pounds 1m a year still flows from the proceeds of Prince Albert's Great Exhibition. The freeholds of the Albert Hall and Imperial College are still owned by the commissioners charged with administering the legacy of that fabulous celebration of British colonial and industrial might.

Yet the profit, brilliantly invested in Kensington land, was an afterthought. The idea - or "concept" as we would now call it - came first. It resulted, among other things, in the Crystal Palace, one of the greatest buildings of the 19th century. It was also, thanks to the brilliance of its architect, Joseph Paxton, a cheap building. Public and private money served the concept and the result was a financial and cultural triumph.

That is what we should go for this time round. Someone should already have made it clear what this exhibition is meant to be as a way of preventing it becoming simply the lowest common commercial denominator. For once, the lottery money should underwrite excellence. The quality of the overall idea should be guaranteed from the outset, not buried beneath fatally cautious risk assessments. Anything may fail, but at least this way we could be sure of a glorious failure.

Step three: give it to London. Greenwich and Bromley-by-Bow are close enough to be regarded as one site, and the catchment area - which, thanks to the Channel tunnel, includes Brussels, Amsterdam and Paris - is vast. A hundred million visitors in the year is not an impossible target. Nothing like this could be achieved in Birmingham or Derby, and if either of those sites were chosen the party would have to be scaled down to a possibly grand but essentially predictable theme park. The whole of the country can, in any case, be included simply by electronically networking the event. Provincial sites can work, but only on a national basis. This exhibition will have to be international if it is to mean anything.

Finally, step four: acquire a certain pigheaded confidence. A member of the commission has been heard to say that the exhibition should be 95 per cent about the past and 5 per cent about the future. One can hear the dull rumble of Prince Albert turning in his grave. The future may be frightening, it may be something the modern British have decided they are not very good at, but this is, after all, an exhibition about the millennium. If we self-consciously make it about the past, then we are admitting failure, we are taking one more giant step down the road to Britain as a heritage theme park. I can just see the Tudor burger bars, the "authentic" Pickwickian inns serving microwaved Cornish pasties.

Pigheaded confidence would ensure the suppression of such trash. A resurrected Albert would have the site wired to Shanghai and Los Angeles, to the whole world. He would find a new Brunel to engineer his boats and bridges. He would know that a past recreated is no past at all. Only by understanding and accepting its embodiment in the present is the past really allowed to breathe.

Taking all these steps is difficult. This is not our contemporary style. We are a low-key, ironic culture, displaying what Martin Amis has called "the sullenness of post-greatness". We laughed at Mitterrand's grands projets and we laugh even more now that the French economy is lurching towards implosion under the pressure of bureaucratic vainglory and inflated popular expectation. That, we think, is what you get for showing off, for taking yourself too seriously.

Of course, low-key irony has a certain value. We are still, happily, one of the funniest nations on earth. But a diet of nothing but irony and under-ambition stunts the growth. It lets the wrong people run things because the ironists cannot be bothered. It hands the nation over to the suits - the managers and accountants - while the rest of us giggle and whine. And what would the suits build at Greenwich? A theme park, because they have seen one of those before.

So, occasionally, even the modern British need Albertian big ideas and ambitions. Our wit should derive some consolation from this, for there is a peculiarly pointed irony in the fact that something as scuzzy as the lottery has placed us, reluctantly maybe, in the position of being obliged to come up with some grands projets of our own. The British appetite for trash has forced us to make up our minds about what constitutes quality.

There are two - only two - alternatives when it comes to the Millennium Exhibition. Love it, to borrow from a fellow columnist, or shove it. Go for it, or forget it. A cheap theme park would be worse than nothing. A big, confident gesture would be better than anything. The lottery money is an absurd, disreputable windfall. But it is there now, and tinkering with a restaurant for the Royal Court theatre or thousands of tiny handouts to dubious and contentious organisations merely compounds the shabbiness, the Anthea Turnerishness of the entire enterprise. So let's suddenly, anarchically, offend against the mean spirit of the age. Let's go for the big one. It is what Albert would have done.

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