Will the Brexit festival happen after all?


When a UK festival was announced by Theresa May in 2018, you could almost hear the nation’s collective sigh. It was immediately dubbed ‘the Brexit Festival’ and, after May’s successor as Prime Minister reiterated his support for the event, that name went unchallenged, albeit much mocked. Now that the hardships that accompany our departure from Europe, not to mention those of the terrible past year, have combined with such a disastrous effect, a huzza in just over a year with a budget of £ 120million must surely strike a flat note. . Or can he deliver against all odds?

When the Festival of Britain was announced in 1947, with a launch date of 1951 (to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition), it had a budget of £ 414million (in current terms) and was envisioned as an international trade exhibition. But by the time Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison presented what had become essentially his own project in the House of Commons, it had been reduced to a ‘national display illustrating Britain’s contribution to civilization, past, present and future’ ‘. Considering the post-war austerity, this was quite ambitious.

The emblem of the Festival of Britain, designed by Abram Games

Adrian Forty, in his insightful essay “ Festival Politics ”, included in A tonic for the nation (1976), credits Morrison and his remarkable permanent secretary Max Nicholson with driving the Festival up and down. Resolutely non-partisan, it seemed to perfectly reflect a nation divided into camps memorably described by playwright Michael Frayn: Churchill’s “carnivores” versus designer-led “herbivores”. The right-wingers of the old camp, never to be seen again, as Forty presciently wrote, “until the Common Market debates,” were opposed to the “radical middle classes – the benefactors” of Frayn. Forty reminds us that the former “were silenced by the obvious popularity” of the event. Conceived as a “good humor event”, the festival combined the serious with the gently encouraging. Skylon’s soaring rise to the South Rim site appeared to some as a “living symbol of rejuvenation”, to others as a gimmick. But like the neighboring Dome of Discovery, these aimless structures have caught the nation’s imagination far more than well-meaning attempts to roll out the festival across the UK, like the Land Traveling Exhibit or the Festival Ship. , “ Campania ”. Even if it turned out, to use Forty’s term, more “narcotic” than “tonic,” the event then resonated and still resonates, 70 years later. Those responsible for the 2022 Festival should take solace in how it (mostly) unfolded in 1951. They might also remember the turbulent history of the Millennium Dome from 2000, another building with no long-term purpose overseen by Morrison’s grandson, Peter Mandelson.

An exposure view of the south bank of the north bank of the Thames, showing the Skylon and Discovery Dome. Photo: Peter Benton / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The key figure of the UK * 2022 Festival – the asterisk indicating that a better name has yet to be chosen – is its director Martin Green. It might not be a household name, but it’s pretty ubiquitous nonetheless; the Deus Ex machina successful ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympics, he also chaired the acclaimed program for Hull’s Year as Britain’s Capital of Culture in 2017. Appointed in January 2020, Green had to blow his first plans for the Festival UK 2022 out of the water by the pandemic, but it has already demonstrated copper resilience. The “cynicism” (his term) that plagued these two previous endeavors has given way to remarkably positive reactions. As he said at Guardian when he was appointed, “I’m in good shape in this area”. However, the culture secretary with whom he first discussed the plans, Nicky Morgan, has left, to be replaced by Oliver Dowden. He or whoever is the Minister next year may find it difficult to divide his attention between several events, ranging from the UK 2022 Festival, the BBC Centenary and the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (also under the responsibility of Martin Green). Meanwhile, the nation will mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

The UK 2022 Festival will not be linked to a single site, but will involve audiences from all four countries. Ten “creative teams” have now been chosen from a long list of 30 to take their ideas forward and will attract more independent contributors to enrich the mix. The blinds are drawn until later this year, when the proposals are unveiled. The composition of the teams indicates a rich cross-fertilization between fields – science and technology, music, visual arts and more. Clues have been dropped as to what topics might be covered – so far there is something about the UK weather and growing your own food.

When Hugh Casson, director of architecture at South Bank, rethought the Festival of Britain and the young designers, architects and others who collaborated on his watch, he saw it as a ‘fifth year project turned away from everyone ”. Playwright Arnold Wesker, who visited the festival in his youth, remembers taking away a sort of diffuse inspiration: a suggestion “that you had the spark of something in yourself.” In 2022, perhaps it is a similar vague optimism that will make the difference. Either way, it looks like the festival will arrive a bit rushed, with its elusive name more satisfying. Nothing went well in 1951 and the discomfort and, in places, irrelevance of what Brian Aldiss called “a memorial to the future” stuck with many visitors when they rethought everything. But with the wind following, and the confidence that Martin Green inspires so widely, we hope for the best.

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