Looking Back at a National Tonic

from “Country Life” - November 11, 1976 by Hugh Casson

“ ‘A Tonic to the nation’. That at any rate is what Gerald Barry called it. (He was the man who thought up the idea of the Festival and rightly was given the job of running it!) Certainly we all needed something to cheer us up in those disenchanted post-war years. True we had survived a war. Behind us also by now were the great reform programmes of the National and Labour governments, the 1944 Education Act, the National Health Service, the Town and Country Planning Act. Yet Utopia seemed as far as away as ever and the rationing of food, clothes and building materials was sharper-edged even than it had been in the war. We were more than ready for a reassuring word or an encouraging event.
The time then for the Festival (if a tiny bit late) was right, and the peg - the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851 - seemed reasonably appropriate and after a couple of years of desultory debate the Government in 1948 gave the go-ahead . It was to be not an international trade fair but a national celebration, a show that presented ourselves to ourselves. An organisation similar to the present Arts Council was swiftly set up. Herbert Morrison became the Minister in charge to whom a non-party Council reported, assisted by advisory panels of specialists in the Arts and Sciences. Finally a small executive was established under Gerald Barry to run the show.

I joined in September 1948. "There won't be any building", said Barry. "It's just keeping an architectural eye on things, but it looks like being fun." Fun it certainly proved to be and not just for those of us in the engine room. It was genuinely nationwide. All over the country the Festival was celebrated in locally organised events of every size and kind.

The centrepiece of the official programme was the South Bank exhibition in London- two small versions of which toured the country, one of them aboard the converted aircraft carrier "Campania" . There were supporting shows at Belfast (agriculture), Glasgow (industry), Kensington (science) and Poplar (architecture). There was also an unprecedented (for England) explosion in national patronage of the arts - opera, films, painting, poetry, sculpture and crafts. In sum, a lot of people enjoyed themselves and it was all a great success-achieved let us remember against two preparatory years of almost universal derision and hostility. The press, either snooty or abusive was against it throughout. The establishment suspected it was all a smokescreen for advancing Socialism. The Left decided it was middle class; the academics that it was populist; Sir Thomas Beecham said it was imbecile; Evelyn Waugh that it was pathetic;Noel Coward that it was not worth more than a mild giggle. But Morrison and his Council stood firm, and we in the Festival office were any way far too busy to despair.

Our main concern was the South Bank Exhibition- 27 acres of treeless and derelict mud flats, split in half by a railway bridge, but bang in the centre of London and commanding splendid views of the river's curve. The theme we were given - largely devised by Ian Cox - was the British development in the Arts, Science and Industry. The job of putting this story into visual terms was given to the Design Group- three architects and two designers. These were later to be assisted by an army of designers and engineers, landscape artists, typographers, painters, sculptors and scriptwriters- all comparatively young and experienced. We had to work hard and fast and we did. We were given the site in Autumn 1948. By Christmas the Master Plan had been approved. By the following March the architects had been given their briefs, their sites and their budgets. By May their sketches were in, and on July 29, work had started on site. It was open on time and virtually within its budget. In five months it was visited by over eight million people-something, I think everyone concerned should be proud of.
Just think of the problem. A narrative story to be told in separate chapter/pavilions (agriculture, industry, transport, recreation, and the like) each demanding a different site and budget, each to be separately scripted, designed, built and filled. Yet it was to be composed into a coherent complex with a common visual language and to be equipped with all the essential services of a great exhibition-gardens and cafes, lavatories, open air displays, fountains, bandstands, seats and litter bins, plus of course, all the behind-the scenes facilities.

Nothing could start until it had been approved and costed - whether fireworks or cleaners overalls, fodder for exhibition cattle or fees for scriptwriters, models of Viking ships or crockery for restaurants. One of the principal organisational difficulties was where to put anything on this cramped and busy site-bricks or concrete mixers, cranes or huts. For two years every inch of the site seemed to be either dug up or in constant use. When the exhibits arrived it was an even worse nightmare of controlled confusion. Every object-cricket bats, railway engines or prize sheep- had to be labelled, installed, catalogued and protected, and all the crates and packing had to be cleared away promptly. It was all by any standards a remarkable achievement.

But was it anything else? Was it really a tonic, as Barry claimed or, as some critics suspected, a tranquilliser- a political device to distract the national from its discomfort? Was it an architectural milestone or just a rehash of Paris and Stockholm? A true release of creative activity or another retreat into our national artistic hideyhole of whimsy and nostalgia?

A bit of everything no doubt. Certainly it was a bit priggish. There was a whiff of Workers Educational Association, a touch of didactics about the South Bank Exhibition. (You would expect that from the background of the people running it.) It was also "professional" rather than participatory. (It had to be-you cannot get an exhibition up to that speed by holding public meetings to discuss attitudes and content.) Some of it perhaps- as Robert Lutyens said in a sadly dismissive article in "Country Life"- was "fearfully silly". Yet though modestly self congratulatory it was not boastful nor nosily nationalistic. Nobody was taught to hate anybody. It was intelligent (in Bertrand Russell's sense of being the rational execution of something conceived in passion) and it was light hearted and visually it was certainly a knock-out.

The South Bank became- as we had intended it to become-not just a complex of buildings but a "popular place", relaxed , enchanting, informal, human in scale. The solution, it seemed, suggested itself. On such a small site, and with an unpredictable variety of building, axial planning and formal symmetry even if desired were physically impossible. So the South Bank was arranged with deliberate informality - with "rooms" of different uses and character opening one out of the other, rather like some roofless Victorian Mansion.

Such a planning device requires dexterity and skill in the use of recognisable but unobtrusive barriers- using changes of level and paving texture and planting or water barriers to delineate areas and to guide the visitors from one section to the other. There were no "Keep Off" notices, and interestingly, no vandalism. Sculpture and murals were not stuffed into a hallowed Pavilion of Art but were made frankly part of the general scene. All the details -lamp posts and litter bins, direction signs and cafe furniture-were as carefully considered as the buildings. It became in its way, a pattern book for our new urban landscapes, and its influence-with all its faults- is with us still.

Could we do it all again? Of course and better. There is today much more design talent about. The annual flood of designers from the new art schools positively foams with talent and energy. Dockland is empty and just waiting for some hot waterbottle to warm it up for future use. We all long for more places to walk about in free from noise and motor cars, to listen to music in the open air, and to be bewitched by the unexpected or the beautiful. Who would run it this time? Again the Herbivores (as M. Frayn termed the Festival Team), or the Others? Jonathan Miller,as it were,or Lew Grade? I wonder."