The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Festival of Britain: A Land and its People

Harriet Atkinson (I B Taurus, 288pp, £17.99)

Reviewed by Elain Harwood

Not everyone enjoyed the Festival of Britain.  My Dad, aged 25, visited London’s South Bank with two of his mates from chapel and was unimpressed.  Even the Skylon was ‘boring, it didn’t do anything’, he grumbled recently.  Perhaps the South Bank’s reputation as a place to pick up girls let them down, but certainly the exhibition’s artistic qualities went straight over the heads of these Nottinghamshire miners’ sons.  Class had something to do with this, although many ordinary Londoners enjoyed the show, and more important (I suspect) was their distance from London and any previous experience of modernism.  The difference in emphasis between the major exhibitions of the Festival, centred on London, and the locally organised events around the countryside suggests this: the Festival village of Trowell, with its comically costumed cricket matches, pageant and factory tours, is a neighbouring village to Eastwood in Notts.  Dad and his chums went on to Clacton, which was hopefully more to their taste.  I was reminded of them by the generally enthusiastic account of the Festival found in most modern accounts, and which is largely repeated here.

Dad did make one helpful comment, that ‘the only way of finding out what the South Bank was like was to go and see it’.  The Festival of Britain was the last great event before the widespread availability of television, a last wave of innocence that gives it much of its charm today.  Atkinson concentrates on the Festival as a triumph of new ideas in exhibition design, which  became more imaginative and populist in the war only to be made redundant by television in the mid-1950s.  In looking at this, the bread-and-butter of the Festival, Atkinson’s book serves as a companion to the Society’s Journal on the Festival, reprinted last year.  This is not primarily an account of the architecture, and it would be confusing to someone unfamiliar with the basic form of the South Bank site.

What Atkinson does is to place the Festival in context, and she explains why, at a time when money and building materials were short, the Labour Government of Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison invested in a major exhibition.  She argues convincingly that, with the British Empire in decline and the world dominated by the two superpowers, it marks a necessary repositioning of the United Kingdom as a distinctive if small third force, rooted in its distinctive islands and with a long tradition in the history of ideas.  The Festival was less a reward to Britons for winning the Second World War than a statement of intent in the Cold War.  That does much to explain the structure of the main exhibition of arts and manufactures, which was divided into ‘The Land of Britain’ and ‘The People of Britain’,  even before the awkward site with its dividing railway viaduct was chosen.  Atkinson looks at the Festival as a representation of Britain in 1951, then still a ‘mixed race’ (as its reports described) of Saxons, Vikings and Normans, with immigration from the Commonwealth barely begun.  The result is a beguiling confection of traditional pageantry, with an accent on Englishness that pervaded even the Glasgow exhibition on heavy industry, coupled with a Boy’s Own Paper display of the latest science. The legacy of the Festival was perhaps less its architecture than magazines such as Look and Learn in the 1960s.

Atkinson’s book makes an interesting comparison with Becky Conekin’s Autobiography of a Nation (Manchester University Press, 2003), which positions the Festival within post-war Labour’s home policies and wears its socio-political affiliations clearly on its sleeve.  Atkinson’s is much the more convincingly researched and written, and demonstrates the contrasting styles of PhD being undertaken today.

As with many academic publications, the black and white photographs are reproduced atrociously, which is a shame as many are well-judged and unusual.  The colour section, mostly images of book covers and a few others already well-known to the Society, is less successful and a large plan of the South Bank site would have been more helpful.  The definitive book of the Festival remains to be written; for the moment, however, those with an existing interest in – and  knowledge of – the subject will find many rewards in the work.

Published October 2012