The 1951 Festival of Britain: A Brave New World
A Proudfoot Company production, produced and directed by Julian Hendy
Sat 24th Sept, BBC2
A 60th anniversary documentary brings a timely reminder of an age of optimism and opportunity.
“I knew it was an exciting place to work when I had to complete a contract for a life-size unicorn,” recalls Charles Plouviez, who found himself in the main office of the 1951 Festival of Britain, fresh out of university. “It was like being in a toy shop - only with Hugh Casson and Laurie Lee across the passage.”
Such is the atmosphere of innocence and excitement conjured by Julian Hendy’s new documentary, A Brave New World, to mark the 60th anniversary of this culture-changing episode in British history - as told by the people who made it happen.
That Hendy has managed to assemble such an expansive cast of the original artists, architects and designers, 60 years after the event, is testament to quite how young the original design team was - largely thanks to the foresight of festival director, Gerald Barry.
“His great achievement was putting around him a team of young people who were equally adventurous,” recalls Barry Turner, who visited the festival aged 13 and has since written books on its history. “He was not afraid of employing the younger generation of talents and letting them have their hay.”
Scenes of the young Gordon and Ursula Bowyer pouring over crisp cardboard models of their sports pavilion, and artist Dorrit Dekk painting vast expressive murals, vividly bring home quite how radical this initiative was. It is a sharp contrast to today’s lumbering procurement processes, that strive to exclude the young and inexperienced.
“It was new, it was different, experimental; it was brave,” says Dekk, her measured German tones sounding like the very voice of futuristic modernism. “It was like waking up from a deep sleep.”
Using extensive archive footage — from news broadcasts to home cine videos - the film charts the usual narrative of gloomy, grey, post-war London, a ration-stricken, bankrupt society, to which the gay colours and impossibly space-age forms of the festival provided the perfect tonic, and set the aesthetic agenda for the next fifty years.
But what differentiates this film from the usual nostalgic montages of contemporary clips with misty-eyed voiceovers (of which it also has many), is the attention to detail and thoroughness with which footage has been sourced, as well as the retrospective insights from key designers.
One highlight is James Gowan, in his studio today, drawing us the original design for the Skylon — a horizontal cigar-shaped balloon, filled with helium. “It would have been ridiculously expensive,” he says, with typical Scottish prudence. “And it would have needed to be a big beefy thing to get the lift,” a far cry from the slender vertical design he then came up with.
Of particular interest, and often overlooked in Festival of Britain retrospectives, is the focus on the pioneering Lansbury Estate — the “living architecture exhibition” of modern council houses in Poplar, “a laboratory for a new way of living.” Low-rise housing blocks built around squares, with shops, schools, a market and church, it was a revolutionary pedestrianised model - although one that would not be rolled out, ditched instead for higher density developments.
Betty Scott moved here from the slums of north London and could barely believe her luck. “The flat had a smashing bathroom and basin - and a toilet all on its own,” as well as the novelty of hot water on tap. “Imagine putting your whole body in a bath for the first time!”
It is a poignant time for such a documentary to come out, as our own era’s mega-event, the 2012 Olympics, grinds into action with all eyes on what its legacy will be. Let us hope that the lessons from 1951, of optimism, opportunity and radical reinvention, might be repeated in the Lower Lea Valley.