London celebrates Festival of Britain, 60 years on

AP News
Posted: Apr 21, 2011 11:08 AM
London celebrates Festival of Britain, 60 years on

Britain is getting ready to party like it's 1951.

Starting Friday, London is looking back at the Festival of Britain, a five-month exhibition-cum-party that 60 years ago helped a war-battered, austerity-hit nation look to the future and have a bit of fun.

Six years after the end of World War II, London was still scarred with bomb sites. Singer Billy Bragg described the 1951 festival as a beacon "in a very dark, austere decade between the end of the war and the birth of rock 'n' roll."

Six decades on, in a new era of foreign conflict and economic instability, the festival is being recreated and celebrated at the Southbank Center, a cluster of arts venues on the original festival site beside the River Thames.

Eight million people visited the original festival, which featured fairground rides and public art, exhibitions on history, science, exploration and design, and some dazzlingly modern architecture including the rocket-like Skylon tower and the modernist Royal Festival Hall.

Bragg said the original festival was strikingly forward-looking _ not "some chocolate-box idea of what Britain was."

The 60th-anniversary celebration _ a sort of Festival of Britain 2.0 _ sees the 21-acre (8.5-hectare) site festooned with art and installations celebrating all things British, from the nation's sea and land to its industry and polyglot people.

There's a bandstand, a rooftop garden and a riverside beach with a row of brightly painted beach huts. There are sculptures _ including a giant straw-bale fox glowering down at passers-by _ and a museum dedicated to 1951. There will be sing-a-longs, concerts and public lectures.

And of course, there will be fish and chips.

The weekend starting April 29 is devoted to a celebration of love. The royal wedding will be shown on giant outdoor screens, there will be food and music, and on Saturday some real couples will marry in the venue's Chapel of Love.

Despite the success of the 1951 Festival of Britain, most of its attractions were dismantled. Skylon was towed down the river to a scrap yard. But the Royal Festival Hall remains, alongside concert halls, art galleries, the British Film Institute and the National Theatre, all built later.

Artistic Director Jude Kelly said the new celebration was not an attempt to recreate the festival, but to capture its postwar spirit of optimism.

"You shouldn't try to recreate the depth of feeling people have when they have lost so many and feared so much," she said. "But what you can do is see if you can pay respect to those feelings and re-engage with optimism.

"We're saying, have a good day out. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself with thousands of strangers. That's a slice of optimism."