Southbank Centre celebrates the Festival of Britain



















If you go down to the Southbank today you’re in for a big surprise. The huge wedge of the embankment between Waterloo and Hungerford bridges has been transformed into a celebration of the 1951 Festival of Britain and asks the question: Who does Britain think it is in 2011? The four-month summer fete is the vision of Jude Kelly (Artistic Director of the Southbank) who has done so much to integrate this jumble of cultural bunkers and open it up to the public.

I was commissioned to help the festival find its voice by Shân Maclennan (Creative Director, Learning and Participation) who coordinated and focused the designers, curators and consultants. The brief was to honour 1951 and explore contemporary British-ness through installations, environments and exhibitions. At first, no one was sure what role the words would play other than delivering a narrative. But as our understanding of the scope evolved, the language became a fundamental element.

The festival is loosely structured around four ‘LANDS’ borrowed from 1951: PEOPLE OF BRITAIN, POWER & PRODUCTION, THE LAND and SEASIDE. After meeting the other participants, I put together a presentation reflecting Jude’s thinking, Festival of Britain literature, documentaries and press reports. Then I added observations from British writers, artists and musicians on the struggle for creative identity (William Blake, Ray Davies, Tracy Emin, Tony Harrison, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Christopher Reid), and these perspectives began to suggest possible routes.

I proposed that we should use rhyme and rhythm, symbolism and allegory. The language should be evangelical, heroic, and encourage visitors to become part of the drama. We should echo the happenstance that occurs when millions of people converge on a public space, and we must amplify the creative spirit of the Southbank. These criteria triggered discussions around 21st century vernacular. Could feral language such as texting and Tweeting, lyrics and slogans, sound bites and catch phrases help us reach audiences who never use the Southbank?

Festival of Britain 1951: The Way To Go Round

The 1951 festival recommended visitors follow a proscribed route – ‘The Way To Go Round’. But today’s Southbank is so porous on so many levels we decided the narrative should be deconstructed. It would run like a ribbon throughout the site, signalling the contents of each LAND and prompting visitors to tell us their own stories. I emailed batches of texts to the designers and they bubbled with responses for look and feel and substrates. We needed high visibility vertical beacons that would act as landmarks and carry the graphic identity, map and streams of information. But we also required lateral sequences of words to define and contain the Southbank canyons. Budgets were extremely tight so options were limited, but eventually we decided on zinc plated spiral tubes for the beacons, and printed fabric for the horizontal wraps.

To see the words writ large and knitted into the architectural infrastructure is thrilling, but the big buzz is watching people interact with them. In The Marketplace, lovers pose to be photographed by phrases that say something about them: BRAVE HEARTS / SERIOUS FUN / FIND YOURSELF. The behaviours of families on the Thames Beach are subtly influenced by messages tied to the railings: BUCKET AND SPADE / WISH YOU WERE HERE.

Words trigger emotional reactions

Groups of friends gazing out from the Riverside Terrace have no idea they are underlined by emotive phrases: MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN / ARE WE THERE YET? Picknickers sitting amid the flowering shrubs on the Container Staircase debate whether they have ANALOGUE OR DIGITAL personalities. Every visit reveals another performance. It’s a theatre of collisions. A word close by lines up with a word far away and they merge into an unholy alliance. It’s an encapsulation of the creative process: when ideas are let loose they develop a life of their own.

A theatre of collisions

Words had to travel beyond the Southbank site and sell tickets for Ray Davies’ MELTDOWN, Tracey Emin’s LOVE IS WHAT YOU WANT at the Hayward Gallery, Lang Lang’s piano workshops, and events from April to September.

Spreads from the Southbank monthly diary

The factual stuff can speak for itself, but the festival needed a linguistic framework to leave an indelible impression on websites and posters. It had to tickle people’s curiosity, and carry a wide range of emotive references. I played around with the FESTIVAL-OF-BRITAIN structure and found that using the ‘OF’ as the link, I could generate unlimited couplets that conjured up different aspects of British-ness and the exhilaration of creativity: HEARTS OF OAK. BAGS OF ENTHUSIASM. LEAPS OF IMAGINATION. LEG OF LAMB. FLURRY OF KISSES. LOADS OF MONEY. TEARS OF JOY. ALL OF YOU. LOTS OF LOVE. CUP OF TEA. Accessible ideas with strong rationales allow other contributors to express themselves, and Southbank staff dreamed up wonderful variations for different communications. The solution was not to create rigid language guidelines that had to be complied with, but a series of springboards everyone else could leap off.

Words provoke curiosity: Buds of May - RIP

The stream of consciousness below is one of many texts that emerged from countless conversations, and helped us all articulate the festival content.


The Festival of Britain emerged from the ashes of a tempest. World War 2 had blown everything apart; physically and psychologically, emotionally and sensually. But despite the sorrow and trauma, the people of Britain found the strength to envisage a future where freedom of expression, free healthcare and education would be an inalienable human right. The jamboree was dreamed up by the Labour government, hungry for a cultural awakening. It was to acknowledge Britain’s contribution to the arts, sciences and technology. After so much suffering, the British needed a party and they declared it ‘A Tonic To The Nation’. Bright young things demobbed from the services were hired to design the future on a bombed out bend of the River Thames. Its mission was to reach out to the shiny shopping precincts, frothy-coffee bars, community centres and model council estates of the burgeoning welfare state.

Throughout the summer of 1951, eight million people clicked through the Southbank turnstiles. Millions more experienced local events across Britain. Four Festival of Britain Routemaster buses kitted out with displays and information desks toured Scandinavia and Europe. The festival ship – HMS Campania – chugged around the coast visiting Southampton, Dundee, Newcastle, Plymouth, Cardiff, Belfast, Birkenhead and Glasgow. The idea that humanity could unite for good – as opposed to ill – was a cause for rejoicing. This was such a huge shift of emphasis – from the aggressive masculinity of war towards warmth, playfulness and inclusiveness – the organisers dubbed it ‘Propaganda of the Imagination’.

Explaining the educational choices of the Welfare State

The Festival of Britain opened to storm of media hyperbole. It was a “flight of surrealist fantasy and a mirage of hope”. All 22 acres bristled with “zig-zag patterns, jazzy murals, café society and foreign food in exotic restaurants”. You could “dance through hanging gardens to salsa combos in the shade of the Dome of Discovery”. The illustrator Beresford Egan hated it:

“Husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and lovers were still being slaughtered in Korea which struck a discordant note in the symphony of jubilation. It must have been enormous fun wasting money on ineffectual frivolity. It suggested a skeleton wrapped in a Joseph coat of many colours, banging a tamborine with Salvation Army zeal.”

Dylan Thomas recorded his impressions in Quite Early One Morning:

“Here they will find no braying pageantry, no taxidermal museum of Culture, no cold and echoing inhuman hygienic barracks of technical information, no shoddily cajoling emporium of tasteless Empire wares, but something very odd indeed, magical and parochial: a parish pump made from flying glass and thistledown gauze-thin steel, a roly-poly pudding full of luminous, melodious bells, wheels, coils, engines and organs, alembics and jorums in a palace of thunderland sizzling with scientific witches’ brews, a place of trains, bones, planes, sheep, shapes, snipe, mobiles, marbles, brass bands, and cheese.”

The festival dazzled the populace steeped in rationed clothing, brown paint, fuzzy grey television and black & white movies. The installations were bursting with novel applications for light, glass, water, metals and plastics. Synthetic colours pierced the gloom of pea-souper London bringing puce pyjamas, day-glo laminates, purple loafers, saffron nylons, peroxide bee-hives and sky blue pink wallpaper.

60 years on, and the Southbank believes that the imagination is a powerful driver for building the future. Out of the rubble of memories, it has proved that art is a safe place to talk about dangerous things. Our 2011 festival is an opportunity to ponder what the next epoch might look like. If we had to fight for something about our culture – what would it be? The enduring symbol of the Festival of Britain is The Skylon, and this quote from 1951 says that no matter how much you talk about the purpose of art and culture, there is something beyond the idea of words; beyond anything practical: That by understanding what something isn’t…we discover what it is.

‘The Skylon has no purpose. It’s not functional in any way. It does not light the Festival, it burns with its own inner light. It’s not even a phallic symbol. Or a totem pole. It has no social significance. It does not stand for democracy, or future happiness. It does not stand at all. It could stand on the ground but it doesn’t.”

By understanding what something isn't, we can discover what it is












People of Britain

Riverside Terrace by the Queen Elizabeth Hall

We want this 2011 festival to become a hall of mirrors through which we can look at ourselves and each other. The arts speak a universal language that encourages people to cross cultural divides. When we are moved by a creative experience, it becomes a part of us and we pass that heightened awareness onto others.

The pavilion that portrayed British-ness in 1951 was called The Lion and The Unicorn. The lion symbolised bravery, the unicorn represented imagination, and

together they embodied liberty. Of course the lion is not indigenous to Britain and the unicorn never existed, but that was the whole point. Great Britain is a myth. Our hybrid identity has always been a hotchpotch of fairytales and contradictions. My red, white and blue blooded, Union Jack toting, Eastenders addicted, Arsenal devoted neighbours originate from Vietnam, Iraq, Chechnya, Serbia, China, Turkey, Somalia and the Caribbean. The British Museum is a cornucopia of stolen goods. Our Royal Family is a smörgåsbord of mongrels. British Airways, British Gas and British Telecom are owned by multinational pension funds.

English is a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up wonder

The English language is a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up wonder and the great leveller we all have in common. It’s a rogue virus that morphs into esoteric strains and thrives on idiosyncrasy, slang, tribalism and humour. We bend it, warp it, stretch it, mash it and stick our fingers up at it. But because of this it can condense lofty concepts into spiky axioms. Take these terms of endearment we use to describe each other: champagne socialists, feckless misanthropes, cowardy custards, chinless wonders, suburban guerrillas, stuffed shirts, love rats, moaning minnies and national treasures. Simply colliding two elemental words can unleash an explosion of expression.

The Land

Royal Wedding diaspora



For many city dwellers rural Britain is a theme park. Sunday drivers clog country lanes hankering after the perfect cream tea in the quintessential gingerbread cottage. Highways Agency road signs point us towards Health & Safety approved beauty spots where we devour Excalibur Cornish Pasties washed down with Old Speckled Hen. But back home in our semi-detached realities we feel mildly cheated, so slump in front of celebrity hosted nature programmes and get goose bumps over CCTV footage of gambolling badger cubs, oblivious to the urban foxes rooting through our dustbins.

New kid on the block

The snow flecked peaks and dappled dales on our kitchen calendars were never begat by Mother Nature. They have been manufactured over centuries by vested interests. Nothing is natural. The British rural landscape is as much a construct as Blake’s Satanic Mills. The shimmering copse where the cuckoo sucks was formed by an iron age smelting plant. The blasted heath where fallow deer frolic was once an oak forest that built the fleet that defeated the Armada. The quaint parish churches were instruments of repression. The Lords of the Manor were despots. The women and children were serfs. The young men were cannon fodder. Beneath the joyful harvest festivals and blithe spirits rumbled bitterly contested territories.

Everything worth something has to be defended

But the ploughing, tilling, furrowing and reaping invested our rural communities with an entrenched authenticity. Extended families survived poverty and famine through mutual support. These rooted places came to represent the cycle of life according to the seasons and the geological particularity. The customs and indigenous knowledge sprang from a direct response to the land. Animal husbandry, crop rotation and woodland management were passed down the generations; the lay of a dry stone wall indicates the characteristics of the mason – as well as the rock below. Everything worth something has to be defended. Traditions kept alive. Folk songs sung. Rights of way campaigned for. It’s up to us to decide what we want our children to inherit.

Power & Production

Digital projection from the roof of the Hayward Gallery

WW2 triggered an orgy of industry bent on destruction. The Festival of Britain demonstrated what the new production methods and materials could create. The welfare state directed massive investment into schools, hospitals and public housing. Peacetime invention went into overdrive, and designers, engineers and architects competed to build the brave new world.

Despite the horrors of Hiroshima, nuclear fission became a symbol of hope. Atomic motifs appeared on tea towels, curtains, coffee tables and lampshades. This Promethean method of generating energy promised clean and affordable power. But 25 years after Chernobyl, we are still in denial about the safety, cost and disposal of nuclear waste. Climate change is happening but still divides opinion. Industry is reluctant to act because reducing energy consumption to cut carbon emissions threatens profits. The power hungry countries of the BRIC economies feel that NOW their time has come. But we have to start working with the planet – not against it. Sustainable power and production does not have to be a ball and chain. Gobal energy consumption of fossil fuels could be cut by 75% without any loss of productivity or mobility if used more intelligently. Equatorial countries investing in extensive solar farms will become major power suppliers.

The white heat of technology

Over the last half-century, advances in technology, software and logistics have changed the way we produce. In the 1950s, just down the River Thames at Ford’s Dagenham plant virtually all the components for every Zephyr and Zodiac were made in-house. In 2011 a car is conceived and designed in Britain but the parts are fabricated in Taiwan, Korea, India and Brazil, then aggregated in China for assembly. Superstores like ASDA use containers as warehousing and have more muscle than manufacturers. Just-in-time-production enables companies to minimise costs by following the skill base. Container ships come to the UK bulging with cargo and leave full of fresh air.

The idea of ascension has always been at the heart of power and production – from raising standards of living to exploring space. The dizzying potential for power and production is so beyond our comprehension, it dangles the possibility that nothing is impossible.


Are we there yet?

Are we there yet? Well we all like to be beside the seaside, but why? Escapism? Regression? The Big Blue Yonder? A rogue gene kicks in. Alter egos go bonkers. Sod the daily slog. Swap sensible for silly. Wrestling billowing windbreaks we morph into suburban Bedouins. Or snug as bugs in beach huts we snooze on wheezing Li-Los, our names spliced together in salty bliss: Will & Kate’s Love Nest. Pete n’ Jordan’s Shag Shack. Chez Nick & Dave.

A flight of surrealist fantasy

But the seaside is not just KISS ME KWIK and candyfloss. Our ports once fuelled the British economy. In 1951, 70,000 registered dockers handled millions of tonnes of freight. Cruise liners, destroyers and aircraft carriers slid down the slipways of Tyne, Wear, Tees, Mersey, Forth and Belfast. Fleets of trawlers regurgitated mountains of fish for the metropolitan markets. The working classes boarded trains and flocked to the seaside during factory fortnight. But now the cash cows are the giant sea container-dromes, the nuclear power plants, and refineries converting oil into petrochemical miracles.

Vikings, Saxons, Romans, Normans, Frenchies and Spaniards couldn’t keep their hands off our coast. You can still see the Martello Towers that put the wind up Napoleon staring across the Channel. When the Nazi war machine licked its lips in the Pas de Calais, our beaches were blockaded with pill boxes and anti-tank spikes. Our resorts were press-ganged into the Defence of the Realm. Elegant hotels that hosted palm court tea dances became frontline hospitals putting soldiers back together. Even the saucy seaside postcard was recruited. But instead of wenches blushing at embarrassing bulges came steamy temptresses carrying the warning: Keep Mum She’s Not So Dumb – Careless Talk Costs Lives.

We come to find and lose ourselves

Our seasides are also places of solace and contemplation. We come to find and lose ourselves. Dunes and shingle bristle with lovage, santolina, hore hound and spiky marram grass. Every salt marsh bred seafaring folk who made ends meet through oyster rearing, winkle picking and samphire harvesting. Their descendents are the arcade proprietors, mobile home operators and B&B owners struggling to stay afloat. Paradise & chips. Utopia on toast. Shangri-La in a basket.

The Festival of Britain ran for five months. It was loved by most, loathed by a few. It was lambasted for squandering public money and diverting precious resources when Britain was crippled with post-war debt. After winning the 1952 election, the new Conservative government sent in the bulldozers. The Skylon – which represented everything Churchill despised – was hung, drawn and quartered, and dispatched to the corners of the earth. But the festival gave licence to an iconoclastic generation who changed the face of fashion, music, dance, poetry, painting, performance, sculpture, architecture, theatre, film, writing, graphics and product design in the 1960s.

And that energy still burns bright in the Southbank today. One of the biggest problems I have as a freelance consultant is persuading clients to be more courageous; to do what they dare not do. When clients reject the generic and take enlightened risks, the branding, campaign or identity still sparkles years down the line. Everyone I met at Southbank seemed to be driven by a fearless sense of collective creativity. There were no egos quashing rival initiatives or insecurities determining the outcome. Everyone just gave for the good the whole and the effortless integrity shines through.

Daring to do what we dare not do

Big thanks to Jude Kelly, Shân Maclennan, Alan Bishop, Steve Smith, Jon Norton, Colette Bailey, Clare Cumberlidge, Michael Marriott, Andrew Lock, Miranda Melville, Laura Pace, Natalie Highwood, Richard Parry, Roger Nelson, Cathy Mager, Laura Hough, Deborah Moreton, Susie Hopkinson, Bea Colley and Rachel Harris.


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