South Bank celebrations to mark 60th anniversary of Festival of Britain

Martin Cullingford20th Jan 2011
The 1951 Festival of Britain (photo: Austin Brackenbury)The 1951 Festival of Britain (photo: Austin Brackenbury)

Sixty years ago London’s South Bank hosted the Festival of Britain, an event which gave birth to the cultural complex which today includes the Royal Festival Hall and its smaller sister auditoriums, plus the Hayward Gallery and the neighbouring National Theatre and British Film Institute.

In 1951 the country was beginning to overcome the devastation caused by war – on a personal level of course, but architectural, social and economic as well – and looking ahead with optimism and aspiration to a period of prosperity.

The ways in which this was embodied in design, fashion, arts and technology will be explored as part of events from April 22 to September 5. Visitors are promised “pop-up structures, fairground rides, lighting, outdoor dancing, and eating and drinking al fresco”. The site will include four thematic area: People of Britain (featuring people’s memories of the original festival), Sea and Ships (looking at seaside life today, in collaboration with Southend-on-Sea, further down the Thames estuary), Land of Britain (bringing the countryside to London) and Power and Production (examining our relationship with the natural world).

Classical music contributions will include a “Massive Messiah” in which choirs from around the country join together to sing Handel’s ever-popular chorus, while concerts by South Bank residents the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta will also come under the event’s umbrella. Pianist Lang Lang will also lead a project culminating in a mass performance of 100 pianists in the RFH, while a nationwide four day event called "Light Fantastic" will celebrate the music and cultural context of British light music.

Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly talk about the aims and legacy of the original 1951 Festival of Britain

High profile events in other genres include: designers Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway host a Vintage Weekend and a temporary museum in the Royal Festival Hall featuring memorabilia and personal histories; Ray Davies of The Kinks will curate a Festival of Britain-inspired Meltdown festival; chef Heston Blumenthal will lead a “Take Tea and Sherry” event; and artist Tracey Emin will curate an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called "Love Is What You Want". 

At the launch event, Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre, said: “We’re not trying to do a new Festival of Britain, we’re trying to pay homage in a grateful and playful way to those ideas, and to take those ideas into the future.”

On a side note, the press conference included a query about the iconic Skylon structure which dominated the original Festival’s skyline, and whether it will be returning. Kelly said that it won’t be reinstated, but added that while its whereabouts is unknown, it is now thought it may have been thrown into the River Lee, and that discussions had taken place about divers hunting for it as part of a forthcoming archaeological weekend. Watch this space…

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