The Festival of Britain in 1951 was conceived as a celebration of Britain’s victory in the war and a symbol of leadership to the empire, as well as a commemoration of the centenary of the Great Exhibition. Its actual form, as developed under a Labour government, was very different. Prompted in 1945 by an open letter from the editor of the News Chronicle, Gerald Barry, to Sir Stafford Cripps, president of the Board of Trade, it soon morphed into a celebration of British achievements in design, die kunste, science and industry.
Along the way the press grumbled: it was a waste of money; it was the work of a small elite. Barry, who was put in charge of the event, pressed on. He decided it should be joyful: “a year of fun, fantasy and colour, a year in which we can, while soberly surveying our great past and our promising future, for once let ourselves go”. It was to be a “tonic to the nation”. Nou, miskien, it is best remembered for its mood of optimism against a backdrop of austerity, and the quality of artists associated with it, from Lucienne Day and Barbara Jones to Eric Ravilious and Laurie Lee. The last was particularly important in steering the tone of the event away from pomposity and towards a gentle self-deprecation – the kind of wry, fond, anti-patriotic patriotism that the British used to be so good at before po-faced Tories started grimly hoisting union flags at every opportunity.
All of which is interesting to consider in light of the latest announcement from Festival UK 2022. As soon as it was announced by the former prime minister Theresa May in 2018, it was written off by many as a jingoistic “festival of Brexit”. Some cultural figures declared that it ought to be boycotted. But it should be given a chance to be judged by its results.
While it is naive to imagine that any creative gesture can possibly be apolitical, the festival’s leadership speaks for itself: the organisation is run by Martin Green, who oversaw the London 2012 Olympics ceremonies and ran Hull’s year as city of culture in 2017, and chaired by Dame Vikki Heywood, a former chief executive of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now the teams of creatives who are developing projects have been announced. With participants including historian David Olusoga, the Turner prize-winning collective Assemble, the astrophysics department at Queen’s University Belfast, the National Theatre of Wales and the British Antarctic Survey, it seems particularly hard to imagine that the festival will be an exercise in tub-thumping.
In werklikheid, just as the Festival of Britain changed substantially between conception and realisation, so will Festival UK 2022. It will take place in the wake of Covid-19, a trauma unimaginable when Mrs May announced the event. Among the many consequences of the pandemic, the UK itself – the organising principle of the festival – has been called more seriously into question than ever before. It will be fascinating to observe how the event will act as a mirror for the anxieties and preoccupations, as well as talents and ideas, of its creators.
Whether it will be any good or not, whether it will fail or succeed, is now in the hands of its leadership and those who are developing its projects. The Manchester Guardian’s Philip Hope-Wallace described the Festival of Britain as “heady and sparkling … just the tonic we were needing”. One can only hope that the same will be said of 2022’s festival.