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Friday, March 03, 2006

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The National Archives Research, education & online exhibitions Exhibitions Public Information Films

A public information film produced by The Central Office of Information and The Observer two weeks before The Festival of Britain buildings were demolished.

There's something downbeat about it, as if it was already known that a brief moment of opportunity, a 'jumping off point' had passed. In the opening moments we see images of the future that would be so familiar later in Britain.

Despite being new and shiny, these buildings are presented as ruins or remnants, the Skylon standing like a totem for a culture already superseded. Somehow, this version of postwar optimism was already obsolete and strangely laughable. In the first thirty seconds there's a great shot of puddle with a sheet of newspaper trapped in it, underneath the canopy of the Dome of Discovery. There are strangely shaped buildings of a purpose made unclear sitting in amongst scrap metal and odd remnants. The figures in this landscape wander as if bewildered.

In the film, Patrick O' Donovan of the Observer describes the Festival, and by extension the possibilities it represents as: "Really, the place was like a gigantic toyshop for adults. It was a series of surprises; now serious, now witty, now rather vulgar, now even a little mad"

It seems to me that there's a message here about the prevailing attitude to the future present in the concrete and aluminum of the Festival, a certain desperate whimsy in the face of actual conditions. The film contrasts the Festival with the London that surrounds it, talking of darkness and drabness and churches put up 'on the cheap'.

Patrick O' Donovan paints a the visitors that seems to sum up Britain and it's relationship to the idea of progress and the future as much as it sums up the Festival:

"In among these unfamiliar shapes, there were the visitors, and they were not dwarfed by the show, they were part of it. There were the thousands of women whose feet hurt and weren´t going to give up. There were clusters of fierce little boys, filled with their secret purposes. There were suspicious housewives who wondered what they´d have to buy the disappointed ones who wanted free samples. There were the militant individualists who weren´t going to take any notice of the officious arrows, and blame the organisers when they got lost. There were the lovers that were indifferent to it all. There were people who began to feel uncomfortable yet hesitated to ask. There were cautious intellectuals who´d seen better in Stockholm and Paris There were the foreigners in un-English clothes who secretly got stared at behind their backs, while they were often amazed at this spectacle of the British at their ease. There were people who wanted tea, and people who wanted a four course dinner with two sorts of wine. And all of them in a special mood, slightly excited, slightly exaggerated. A mood that had been made by the building, the colour and the music."

As he summarises:

"Here at the South Bank there was a blueprint for new towns, light hearted, sensible, not too dear, practical and never boring... There were no resounding proud messages here, no one was taught to hate anything, At a time when nations were becoming assertive and more intolerant, here was a national exhibition that avoided these emotions, and tried to stay rational. In a bad year in the world´s history, it had a spiritual quality that is worth remembering. "

The Festival of Britain is cast as a tentative toe placed into the sea of the future, a possible direction taken where the major factors are lightness, shininess and, overall, fun. Like the Skylon, the film suggests, this future floats in isolation, unattached to the ground, an alien marvel destined never to be integrated into the world as it is rather than the world as it should be.

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