Beacon for Change: How the Festival of Britain Helped to Shape a New Age

Paul Addison enjoys a sprightly account of the 1951 Festival of Britain

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Reviewed by: Paul Addison
Author: Barry Turner
Publisher: Aurum
Price (RRP): £16.99

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In 1951 8.5 million people visited the main site of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank of the Thames. Among them was Barry Turner, a 13-year-old grammar school boy from Bury St Edmunds.

At the time he had only the foggiest idea of what the festival was all about, but 60 years later he has written a sprightly and engaging history inspired by the message it lodged in his imagination – that learning could be fun.

Ostensibly the festival was held to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition, but the idea of staging another international trade fair was quickly ruled out on grounds of cost. Herbert Morrison, lord president in Attlee’s government, solved the problem by appointing Gerald Barry, a former editor of the News Chronicle, as director-general. Together they transformed the festival into a celebration of Britishness past, present and future.

Morrison achieved the remarkable feat of staging a nationwide popular event that was wholly apolitical in appearance but calculated to benefit the Labour party. But it was Barry, the festival’s cultural impresario, who conceived it as a hybrid of high culture and high jinks.

He recruited the artists, scientists, architects and designers who created the South Bank exhibition, the Dome of Discovery, and the Skylon. A muddy wasteland became an enclave of colour, space and modernity, in contrast to the drabness and austerity all around.

The story has been told before, most notably in Becky Conekin’s 2003 Autobiography of a Nation. This account is lighter in style and content but highly informative and peppered with shrewd judgments.

On the jacket, but not on the title page, the subtitle claims that the festival “shaped the modern age”.

Turner, however, cherishes no such illusion. He points out, for example, that it only promoted change on a narrow front of architecture and design: the arts in general were untouched. Nor did the cultural paternalism of 1951 survive the subversive Sixties.

It is easy to disparage Barry’s vision of a harmonious, patriotic, semi-Scandinavian Britain, but Turner stresses the positives. Whatever its shortcomings the South Bank gave people a glimpse of a new and better future.

Nor was it merely a metropolitan event or a vehicle for the intelligentsia. The hub of thousands of local exhibitions and events, it gave the British a much needed stimulus and an excuse for kicking over the traces after a decade of self-denial.

All in all it was one of the best things that happened in 20th-century Britain, and as Turner shows, it is astonishing that it ever happened at all. 

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Paul Addison is the author of No Turning Back: The Peacetime Revolutions of Post-War Britain (OUP, 2010)