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FAMILY BRITAIN 1951-1957
By David Kynaston
Walker & Co.
Copyright © 2009 David Kynaston
All right reserved.
Chapter One All Madly Educative
On Tuesday, 1 May 1951, three days after presenting the FA Cup at Wembley, King George VI was at Earl's Court for the British Industries Fair. 'On one Stand there was a large collection of printed rayon cloth with ultra-modern design,' noted the Cotton Board's Sir Raymond Streat, guiding the royal party round the textile section. 'The King glanced at them and said, "What are those for?" I replied that they were fabrics for ladies' afternoon or evening dresses. He gave another glance at them and muttered, "Thank God we don't have to wear those things."' At the end of their statutory two hours, the King and Queen announced that they had been 'impressed by the great variety of British products and by the resilience of British industry'.
Two days later an ill-looking George was on public display again. 'Rushed off after breakfast to see the procession,' Gladys Langford wrote in her diary: 'Took my stand at Ludgate Hill where I saw the Royal Family very well. Just before they came along a fox terrier raced along the middle of the road. People yelled & cheered & the poor beast was frantic. About 20 yds behind came another terrier also with its tongue lolling out. After the procession had gone by, I saw the two poor beasts in Farringdon St. The first was lying as tho' dead on the pavement, the other stood over him ...' The procession was on its way to St Paul's, where after a service the King stood on the steps and declared the Festival of Britain to be officially open. 'Let us pray,' he said, 'that by God's good grace the vast range of modern knowledge which is here shown may be turned from destructive to peaceful ends, so that all people, as the century goes on, may be lifted to greater happiness.' That Thursday evening the King was on the newly created South Bank to open the Royal Festival Hall – an occasion marked by an all-British concert, with Handel an honorary Englishman. It was a proud moment, the Festival Hall being Britain's first new public building since the war (though involving the demolition of the magnificent Lion Brewery). But on that mild evening an observant reporter found something just as stirring in Friday Street at the back of St Paul's: 'A bombed site had been cleared and on it nearly 5,000 young people gathered to sing around a big camp fire. Nearly three tons of wood had been gathered from the East End and the flames lit up a wide area.'
Next morning the King and the rest of the world (including Princess Margaret, her foot accidentally trodden on by an over-keen young reporter, Keith Waterhouse, just down from Leeds) were back on a now rainy South Bank. Over the next five months the Festival of Britain would take many forms – including pleasure gardens in Battersea Park, a science exhibition in South Kensington, a travelling exhibition in the Midlands and the north, a festival ship, an 'Exhibition of Industrial Power' in Glasgow, and a multitude of local events and celebrations. But the incontrovertible centrepiece was the South Bank. There, amidst twenty-two pavilions and much sculpture, three constructs took the eye: the Royal Festival Hall itself, the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon. Ralph Tubbs's impressively monumental Dome (briefly the largest in the world) featured an escalator, enabling the royal party and other VIPs to reach a gallery illustrating the solar system – a means of ascent that so captivated Winston Churchill, a taxi rather than a Tube man, that he kept going down and coming up again. As for the Skylon, designed by Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya, it made the most instant of impacts: an elegant, 300-foot steel and aluminium 'toothpick' of a tower, especially spectacular at night. Yet transcending everything, in terms of first impressions, was the sheer unabashed pervasiveness of primary colours. 'Whole walls of decoration are made of squares of coloured canvas pulled taut in geometric shapes and triangles, to be lit with a variety of colours,' noted a largely benevolent Cecil Beaton. 'A screen is made by hanging Miro-like coloured balls against the distant chimney pots of the city. Arches underneath the railways are painted strawberry pink or bright blue ...' It was a style that, after a decade of almost unremitting black, brown and grey, could hardly have struck a brighter, more optimistic note.
'The King has done his stuff at the opening ceremonies,' the rather curmudgeonly Anthony Heap (a local government officer living in St Pancras) recorded on the Friday evening, 'and the crowds are beginning to pour in, despite the damp, dismal and damnably unfestive prevailing weather, to gaze upon its wonders.' Among the 60,000 or so visitors on Sunday the 6th was Kenneth Williams, still a struggling young actor. 'It's all madly educative and very tiring,' was his characteristic reaction. 'Beautifully cooked!!' Ten days later it was the turn of another diarist, Vere Hodgson, to sample the pavilions:
I wandered into the Schools, but I did not like them much – awful steel chairs, all modern, no grace and no beauty and no elegance. I avoided the Health and the Sport. But I searched for the 1851 Pavilion and found it. We climbed some stairs and there was a model of the Crystal Palace and Queen Victoria opening it ... Then I found the Lion and the Unicorn. This is a MUST for everyone. It is the British character. Obstinacy and imagination or whatever you like to call the two best characteristics of the British race. There was Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus. I was very pleased about this. By this time it was dark and the lights were on. Now it is all lovely. The Skylon looks fine inside the Exhibition and also the beam of light from the Shot tower moving round ...
'I did enjoy myself,' she concluded. 'I came away at 10.15. I got a cup of tea and roll and butter for 6 ½d. Good.'
Whatever individual visitors felt about it, no one could deny that the Festival of Britain was a major national event, the most important yet since the war. For some, looking backwards, it marked the reward for six attritional years of gradually edging towards some sort of peacetime normality; for others, looking forward, it was the welcome harbinger not only of Britain's long-awaited revival as a major force after her early post-war difficulties but of a whole way of more contemporary living. Most people took from the Festival what they wanted to find, and to its creators' credit it was rich and various enough for that to be possible.
It was in a way a minor miracle that there was a festival for anyone to see. For years it had been dogged by a mixture of poor publicity (much of it whipped up by the Beaverbrook press, led by the Daily Express) and the pervasive sense that it was going to be not only an unaffordable expense at a time of national belt-tightening but also worthy, bureaucratic and dull. 'He's got a lonely, miserable look, like the Festival of Britain on a Sunday,' was how Jimmy Edwards described a lovelorn Dick Bentley in the radio comedy Take It From Here in December 1950. There were also protracted on-site labour troubles – none from a seventeen-year-old electrician from Durham, Bobby Robson, who at his father's insistence was carrying on his daytime trade as a 'spark' while training three evenings a week at Fulham FC, but plenty from Brian Behan, Brendan's Communist brother, who had only recently arrived from Dublin as a labourer. The Labour government, above all Herbert Morrison, expended considerable political capital ensuring that, even after the Korean War had begun, the Festival went ahead; and it was fortunate that the Director of Architecture, Hugh Casson, responsible for a team of more than 40 architects and designers, was a well-connected figure who combined to a high degree the qualities of charm, ambition and determination. Even so, it was still nip and tuck whether the Festival opened on time, and in the event the Battersea Pleasure Gardens were delayed until after Whitsun.
'Don't run away with the idea that the Festival of Britain is going to be solemn,' Gerald Barry had declared in Picture Post at the start of 1951:
Not a bit of it. It will afford us all the opportunity, as occasion allows, for some harmless jollification. After more than a decade of voluntarily-imposed austerity we deserve it, and it will do us good. But the main purpose of the Festival is, all the same, strictly serious. It is intended as an act of national reassessment. The whole of Britain will be 'on show' - to herself, and to the world ... It will put on record the fact that we are a nation not only with a great past, but also a great future ... It will help to put us on our toes, to raise our morale at home and our prestige among other nations ...
Barry himself, editor of the News Chronicle but also the Festival's originator and now its director-general, was one of the progressive, public-spirited, high-minded 'herbivores' (as opposed to 'carnivores', in Michael Frayn's classic coinage) running the show. The emphasis on the future, above all on the Festival's modernity, was at the very heart of what he and the others were trying to achieve. But crucially, it was a restrained, Scandinavian-style, 'soft' Modernism – startlingly novel to most British eyes, but in fact familiar to the cognoscenti since the 1930s – and far removed from the 'hard' Modernist precepts of Le Corbusier and his followers. It was a future, in other words, that came with a warm, unthreatening, scientific yet somehow companionable aura – a future imbued with benevolent, rational and deeply paternalistic assumptions.
Inevitably the Festival got a mixed reception. 'Don't Let's Make Fun of the Fair' was the title of Noel Coward's seemingly supportive but in fact condescending song, while the increasingly anti-Modernist John Betjeman was only relieved that he had not found 'gambolling functionalists trying to be funny'. The conductor John Barbirolli bit his lip so effectively that it was not until four years later, on a visit to Australia, that he unguardedly described the Royal Festival Hall as 'a black spot on the landscape if ever there was one'. The writer and broadcaster Marghanita Laski would for one have disagreed, hailing it as 'the most exciting conception and achievement in the whole exhibition'. So too Dylan Thomas, who in a broadcast in June on the Welsh Home Service extolled 'the shining Skylon, the skygoing nylon, the cylindrical leg-of-the-future jetting', discovered in the Telecinema 'a St Vitus's gala of abstract shapes and shades in a St Swithin's day of torrential dazzling darning needles', and evoked at night-time 'the lit pavilions, white, black, and silver in sweeps of stone and feathery steel'. Among architects, 'hard' Modernists like Erno Goldfinger were of course underwhelmed, but the overall professional consensus was very positive, certainly among the 'softs'. 'The great thing is that in a single stride, though working under every possible handicap, our designers have unmistakeably taken the lead,' declared the young, idealistic Lionel Brett in the Observer. 'And they have put on a show so impossible not to enjoy that there is a real hope that it will mark the beginning of a modern style which will be generally accepted.' John Summerson, perhaps the most distinguished architectural critic of the day, was almost equally enthusiastic. The Skylon was admittedly 'a silly toy, a pretty toy and a dangerous one, whose merciless descending point is luckily just out of reach', but otherwise, the buildings were 'so good, so witty, so full of invention, so oddly and amusingly grouped' that he was able to reassure his New Statesman readers that the South Bank was 'an out-and-out winner'. For him, as for others, it was the optimistic start of a distinctive British Modernism.
As for the public at large, the conventional wisdom is that the Festival was a resounding hit. The exhibits on the South Bank attracted almost eight and a half million visitors; a Gallup poll during the summer found that 58 per cent of people had a favourable impression of what they had seen and/or heard of the Festival; and 'Skylon' became an instant nickname for the long-limbed. Yet there are some debits to be entered. The American-style funfair rides at Battersea (such as the Skywheel, the Bubble-Bounce and the Flyo Plane) pulled in just as many daily visitors as the more worthy attractions on the South Bank; among those attractions, the less than educational 'Home of the Future' pavilion was the most popular exhibition; the overall figures for the South Bank would have been markedly less impressive without a 50-per-cent cut in evening ticket prices after early targets were not reached; those evening figures were further distorted by the South Bank's increasing reputation as an easy pick-up place; and, in the country as a whole, there seems to have been apathy at least as much as enthusiasm – an apathy typified by the Festival's lack of impact in Reading (notwithstanding the inevitable historical pageant), the flop of J. B. Priestley's carefully timed novel Festival at Farbridge, and the unremarkable listening figures for BBC Radio's almost saturation coverage (a trend that started when a repeat of Mrs Dale's Diary on the Light Programme topped the audience for the Home Service coverage of the opening ceremony on the South Bank). Three schoolboys had perhaps representative experiences. John Simpson (seven) 'saw the Skylon, and put on red and green plastic spectacles to watch a film in 3-D, and listened to a recording of the accents of England and someone saying in a Cockney accent, "Come on kettle, boil up"'; Robert Hewison (eight) was 'disappointed to discover that the soaring narrow pod of the Skylon was held up by wires'; and George MacBeth, about to go up to Oxford, won third prize in the North-East Regional Festival of Britain Competition with an unashamedly mocking poem in which the 'rather depressed look of the dome', the 'finicky skylon confessing its failure on legs' and the Festival Hall 'on its very best behaviour' induced between them no more than an adolescent 'yawn'.
A headache for the organisers in the early weeks was litter, but the situation improved once the public-address system began to say loudly and frequently, 'This is your exhibition; please help to keep it tidy.' The problem had been ironed out by the second Monday in June, when Henry St John, a misanthropic civil servant living on his own in Acton, paid 5s to take his father to 'the South Bank exhibition' on what seems to have been a particularly busy morning:
We explored part of the Dome of Discovery, but a broadcast voice asked people to keep on the move, as others outside were waiting to get in. The Dome contained exhibits on synthetic dyes, electrical instruments, mutation of species, physiology of sex, a megatherium or ground sloth, a developing embryo, and many other things which require, but did not get, unhurried study ... After a long wait in another queue, we had a fair lunch at 3/3 each in a cafeteria. D showed some desire to go in the shot tower into which however a long queue was winding, so we had a superficial look round the health pavilion, which dealt with blood, the nervous system, vaccination, training of nurses, surgical instruments, burns etc. The only noticeable foreigners I saw at the exhibition were 2 Asiatics, 2 American servicemen, 1 negro, and 1 woman talking French.
Another diarist, Anthony Heap, waited until a Tuesday evening in mid July:
From what I'd read and heard about the Exhibition, I'd surmised that there was very little in it likely to appeal to anyone of my unscientific, unmechanical and generally unprogressive turn of mind. And how right my surmise proved to be! 99 per cent of the exhibits on view in the various pavilions are devoted to different aspects of the 'Land' and the 'People' of Britain and the entire contents of the dimly-lit Dome of Discovery were of no interest to me whatsoever. Admittedly the whole thing is handsomely designed, laid out and, at nightfall, illuminated. And, unlike the Pleasure Gardens at Battersea Park, there are hundreds of comfortable chairs all over the place where one can rest one's weary limbs free of charge – as well as a continuous supply of good tuneful music relayed through amplifiers so that it can be heard where e'r one wanders – or sits. Even so, the evening scarcely seemed worth the 6/6 it cost me ...
Excerpted from FAMILY BRITAIN 1951-1957 by David Kynaston Copyright © 2009 by David Kynaston. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Co.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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