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Duration 09:31

Festival in London

Unlike the Global theme of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Festival in 1951 was specifically focussed on British achievments.

Labour politician Herbert Morrison saw the Festival as a means of giving the British people a symbolic pat on the back for their post war achievements and sacrifices. Gerald Barry, the Festival’s director general, claimed that the Festival would prove a ‘tonic to the nation’, however, not everyone was convinced.

Sir Thomas Beecham described it as ‘a monumental piece of imbecility’. Others claimed that the site on London’s South Bank would be a death trap because of overcrowding. It has been alleged that the Festival’s switchboard girl answered the telephone with, ‘Festering Britain here!’

Despite the high-profile criticism and economic gloom, due to the mass rearmament programme of the Korean War (1950-53). The Festival was actually a far more popular success than prophesised. In the five months that it was held (May – September 1951), around 8.5 million people visited the South Bank site.


Commentary: This is the Festival.

Something Britain devised, halfway through this century, As a milestone between past and future, To enrich and enliven the present. A diverse place, of serious fun, and light-hearted solemnity; Reclaimed from the bomb-wrack, and the decay of years; Here, in the heart of London.

It is open house on the South Bank. To those from home, and to those who come from other lands. How to show the essence of Britain? Here, beneath the Dome of Discovery, vast as a city square, appears the story of the great researches. Of man’s probing into mysteries, of his revelations of the hidden worlds, his mastery of unknown things, his harnessing of secret forces. This is the world of the pioneers, of Darwin, who opened new doors of thought, of Newton, of atomic research, of Captain Cook. Of nuclear physics, and great works of humanity. Florence Nightingale, Alexander Fleming. And so, to the world of today. To the things we make. Machines, Radar and jet propulsion. Speed and ingenuity. The skills that made the British workman famous.

These are things our Festival shows in the making. This is the solid centre of the Festival; Design and craftmanship and quality that go to make the fame of Britain’s goods. Well, we get all sorts. All types. All opinions.

That’s us. Or some of us. For we’re more than that… We are the Lion and the Unicorn.

The Lion is our strength; the Unicorn our imagination.

We smile at our follies and our most profound beliefs;

Such as tradition.

Such as peace.

Such as justice.

Such as, it must be faced, a belief in the equal value Of the nobler matters of patriotism… And in the White Knight of Lewis Carroll and in the works of Mr. Lear. The long nosed lady and Alice… beside it all runs the Thames. Upstream to Battersea, linking the big show with its brighter half. So we gave welcome to our guests, and delight to ourselves. Sharing our pleasure in the things we know so well, and preserve so consistently.

Lights and laughter; all the merriment

Of a people who build with gladness on an old inheritance.

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