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Boiled Cabbage and The King

The Festival of Britain

By Rudolph Kass

Every hundred years, it appears, the British have a festival. One century ago they set up the Crystal Palace and opened it with a mighty singing of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. Crammed with inventions and works of art, the Crystal Palace managed to impress the contemporary world, and eventually inspire a traditional lecture at Harvard, Professor Owen's on the oddities of mid-Victorian taste. This year the British have an exhibition going again but it's unlikely that there'll be much fun making at its expense.

What might amuse coming generations is the collection of the country's enthusiastic, proud, and respectful response to the 1951 Festival of Britain. It is the subject of street corner talk, dinner table conversation, cocktail party repartee, and even political debate. The Conservatives have few compliments to pay the Festival because the Labor Government is behind the show. Lord Beaverbrook's newspapers snipe at the project whenever they can and already mourn for the several million pounds the exhibition is expected to lose. During the first week, the papers complained that the prices of food in the festival restaurants were prohibitively high for the working man. When the prices were lowered a bit the story rated bigger headlines and better position than the "great debate" about Pacific policy in the United States.

But to the British, the Festival is a sign that their country is not flat on its back. It is supposed to be a national autobiography to remind Englishmen of all the good things they have done in science, arts, letters, industry, and commerce, and what good things they are likely to do in the future.

"The 1951 Festival of Britain" is several things. This month in London it refers to the South Bank exhibition of British achievement. Officially, it refers, as well, to other exhibits in London, special exhibits in Glasgow and Cardiff, and a busy summer schedule of music, drama, and other artistic sprees. It even includes a festival ship which will carry the Festival to the seaside unable to do much on their own.

The center of all the hoopla, though will remain the South Bank exhibition. If it is nothing else, the Bank is a nicely designed job. It is dominated by a huge metal structure, called the Skyline, which looks like a cross between a V-2 rocket and a symmetrical cigar. When floodlighted at night, the Skyline looks as if it is floating in air without any means of support. This impresses blackout trained Londoners a good deal and when they show a visitor around the city at night they almost inevitably ride by the Bank and point it out.

The rest of the Festival houses are modern, pastel colored, and eye-catchingly shaped. Of the twenty or so buildings, however, only the Royal Festival Concert Hall will be permanent. Supposedly, the Hall is as acoustically perfect as any building, intended to seat 3,300 spectators, a symphony orchestra of 100, and a choir of 250, can be. The Hall wears a double skin; inside the first wall there is another, the aim being to keep the building's concert hall completely free of outside noise. The double wall will even make it possible to tune the concert hall.

Next to the Royal Festival Hall, the most impressive is the Dome of Discovery; it looks like a huge bowl of soup with a plate over it. The Dome sort of catalogs the important contributions that Britishers have made in the study of the physical world, the land, the polar region, the living world, the sea, the sky, and outer space. Like many of the South Bank's exhibits the Dome contains, lighted up behind glass, much that is ordinary and well-known, little that is ordinary and well-known, little that is spectacular or even unusual. Several of the exhibits in the Dome were not yet finished. Something like an unexplained series of monkey heads, for instance, would still be unlabeled and all the observers could do was to play guessing games about the designer's intent.

To the American mind, or at least those minds which the British Overseas Airways Corporation flew over (the flight inaugurated a new direct Boston to London flight), much of the South Bank exhibitions seemed slightly on the ordinary side. Exhibits about seas and ships, transport, and sports reminded us of English cooking: even when adequate basic materials were available, the result was unimaginative and unstimulating.

Foreign visitors are likely to enjoy themselves most in the series of buildings that describe the British Islands. The first such building traces British geological progress since the time when dinosaurs and kindred species were slinking around. Here devices like motion pictures, changing dioramas, and sound effects are brought into play and here the South Bank exhibition looks less like some endless museum.

Closer to the Thames there is a cleverly laid-out building which tries to prove that Britishers are as mixed racially as the native New Yorker is supposed to be Right next to it is another building called the Lion and the Unicorn, a sort of museum of above average interest containing things "very English" in the fields of literature, politics, language, and customs.

If the Festival-goer has hours to kill, he can take a joy ride on the Thames or lounge around one of the thirteen festival restaurants. He may even wander through House and Gardens or a New Schools Pavilion.

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