The Festival of Brexit – so boring that nobody came

Unboxed wasn’t exactly Glasto, it’s fair to conclude, but more like the now pitifully abandoned ‘Crinkly Bottom’ Mr Blobby park near Chard in Somerset

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 22 November 2022 11:37 GMT
GB News host left speechless as Brexit poll shows viewers now in favour of remain

I suppose the ultimate irony of a national festival celebrating British creativity is that it was so boring, nobody turned up.

Although an avid student of current affairs and occasional festival-goer, I have to admit that I’d never heard of “Unboxed”, and, like many, have only recently become aware of its existence because it’s the subject of a parliamentary investigation into the £120m of taxpayers’ money sunk into the unloved project.

Maybe it would have been better if they’d stuck to the original, working title of “The Festival of Brexit”, which would have at least attracted Steve Bray and his megaphone to heckle it. We’ve all heard of Brexit, after all, whether we knew what it was or not  – I still don’t, actually.

Only 2.8 million folk attended the live events, though more took a peek at the website, suggesting that it might have been better if they’d just done it all online, like so many things these days. A few thousand showed up after the launch in the first few months, somewhat below the 66 million “stretch target” envisaged by the organisers. Meeting that exacting challenge would have meant pretty much every man, woman and child would have witnessed its wonders. The highlight being a decommissioned oil rig, which, while admittedly impressive, isn’t that, you know, engaging – like the Oblivion ride at Alton Towers.

It certainly was a stretching target, the 66 million. It’s hard to see how it could have been met without an extraordinary wave of mass hysteria, such as was last seen at the 2016 EU referendum.

Bored school children would have had to be bussed in from all corners of our kingdom, fooled into believing they were off to Peppa Pig World. Patients lying in Covid wards on oxygen would have had to demand to be taken to Weston-super-Mare to see the latest developments in Britain’s Artificial Intelligence drive. Prisoners at high security units such as HMP Rampton, appropriately enough, would have had to be “unblocked” to attend Unboxed.

I doubt it even attracted many of the people who foisted Brexit upon a sceptical nation in the first place, the unhinged rather than the unboxed. I just wonder, for example, how many members of the European Research Group made the time to see the eight kilometre long sculptural representation of the Milky Way, which, while nice, doesn’t actually amount to imminent industrial regeneration.

Unboxed wasn’t exactly Glasto, it’s fair to conclude, but more like one of those muddy, skanky winter wonderland “theme parks” that crop up at this time of year, or the now pitifully abandoned "Crinkly Bottom" Mr Blobby park near Chard in Somerset. Rumours say it’s haunted by Noel Edmonds.

It is, though, highly appropriate that the Festival of Brexit failed to live up to its promise, and was a gigantic waste of money. It was created by that Disney of our times – Theresa May – in 2018 and described as “a real investment for the taxpayer” by Phil Batty, its executive director.

It’s also quite “on brand” that even after this colossally poor use of scarce public funds had been exposed by Julian Knight and his fellow knights on the Commons culture committee, a government minister, Stuart Andrew, offered his own piece of performance gaslighting by claiming that Unboxed had “taken culture to the doorsteps of millions in communities right across the UK” and “inspired people who attended events, got involved online or watched on TV”. Well, you could have fooled us.

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I suppose we never really learned the financial and creative lessons of the 2000 Millennium Dome experience – which at least left a nice venue behind. But just think about what a real Festival of Brexit could have been like. Visitors would be forced to queue, Dover-style, in a specially commissioned five-mile tailback of HGVs with inadequate sanitation before eventually getting tantalisingly close to the gate and being turned away by a surly French bloke because they’ve got the wrong paperwork.

There could have been a recreation of the turgid parliamentary struggles using dodgem cars and a giant foam rubber John Bercow. We could commission Anish Kapoor to design a huge helter-skelter fashioned like Jacob Rees-Mogg in his top hat and tails, and the whole fantasy park could be covered by a thatched blond hairpiece in honour of Boris Johnson.

Naturally, there would be a beer tent, where punters could listen to hundreds of Nigel Farage avatars telling us we’ll soon be as rich as Switzerland and how the EU is to blame for the war in Ukraine and monkeypox. You’d pay good money for all that, wouldn’t you?

Then again, we might reflect that Britain’s Festival of Brexit is all around us now – not unlike the “immersive group hallucination” that was one of the attractions at Unboxed. And there’s no escape.

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