65 YEARS AFTER THE 1951 FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN- Still a Tonic to the Nation?Interview

As a further investigation into her History and Theory studies with the support of HTS tutor and AA Archivist Edward Bottoms, current AA 4th year Nabila Mahdi (Diploma 8) interviewed Mary Banham, co-editor of A Tonic to the Nation, to ask how prevalent the ideas of the Festival of Britain remain today.

17 February 2016
Bloomsbury, London

 

For this short interview, ninety-three-years-young Mary Banham welcomed me to her home for a cup of coffee (which she has been advised not to drink by her doctor but still insists I have a cup so she would have an excuse to have one too). Mrs. Banham lives just a few minutes away from the AA. In fact, her apartment is located at an equal distance between the two architectural institutions that she and her late husband Reyner Banham have most influenced; the Bartlett and the AA.

 

I called to discuss an event which occurred 65 years ago, an event beyond my generation of the millennials – the 1951 Festival of Britain.

 

Picture grey, coupon-bearing, bread-rationed Britons in 1951, often described as a bored, tired population. The new mouthpiece that was the Festival had come to a close. The extravagant summer party concoction of the Labour Party was dubbed by its director Gerald Barry as A Tonic to the Nation, a necessary pick-me-up to uplift Britain back on her feet after WWII.

 

Twenty years after the festival, an important book borrowed that same expression as its title; Tonic. Mary Banham being one of its editors is key to opening a portal to the past that I am so impartial to. As a spectator who has never belonged to this country, nor has any lingering ancestral nostalgia to the war it purged through, it was difficult for me to skim mountains of colourful Festival remnants without the tinted specs of cynicism. Which is why I needed her guidance to answer the vital question; Was the 1951 Festival of Britain really a Tonic?

 

NM: I am sure you get this question a lot, but what are your lingering memories of the festival?

 

MB: I was really young, fairly young in my 20s, during the festival, and our generation didn’t really approve of it, didn’t really approve of the style. We were glad they were doing modern, but it wasn’t modern enough for us. Only the ones with the steel and glass, the pavilions with steel and glass we could approve of. We are the generation that’s always so interested in what was happening next! It was wonderful because it didn’t matter what profession you came from, you were prepared to enter into doing something for the festival, and it was very unselfish from that point of view.

The book- A Tonic to the Nation. Published by Thames & Hudson Ltd (1976)

65 YEARS AFTER THE 1951 FESTIVAL OF BRITAIN- Still a Tonic to the Nation?

NM: Do you agree that the festival was a significant mark to Britain’s forward-looking paradigm?

 

MB: Well, that’s true to a certain extent it was a bit half-hearted. It wasn’t so much that Britain was looking forward,it was that the small body of persons ‘Architects’ in England who had always been interested in what was happening next, who suddenly had the opportunity to do something about it, and Hugh Casson of course was responsible for the Southbank and he had always been interested in with what’s happening next rather than what had happened. He picked people to do the pavilions who he had approved of for that reason, so you’re right.

 

NM: This book A Tonic to the Nation that you edited in collaboration with Bevis Hillier is a very important artefact about the Festival, and was published twenty years after the festival. If you were to write it today, would there be anything you would revise about it?

 

MB: No, not really. Because it was its not what it could have been but the book was published instead of a catalogue. Writing the book let me get both sides of the question in, for people who were doing it and people who disapprove of it. You wouldn’t believe how popular the festival remnants were, if you were there you would know that there were a lot of people who stole the furniture.

 

NM: Gerald Barry coined the expression A Tonic to the Nation, do you agree with this expression to describe the festival?

 

MB: Yes, he put his finger on it. He was a very good newspaper man; he ran one of our biggest newspapers. He got the definition right! The war was over; it was going to take a while for the country to recover obviously. But that is the definition, that is a very good definition!

 

NM: In one of the essays in the book, Adrian Forty actually called it a Narcotic instead of the popular expression of Tonic because of all the austerity and rationing that still existed during the festival’s extravagant conception. He mentions the devaluation of the pound sterling and the shortage of construction materials such as steel and glass. What do you make of these facts in terms of the conception of the festival?

 

MB: It’s one of the best essays, he’s very good – he was my husband’s number two at the Bartlett. This was an event that happened soon after World War II, it was made into something that we did actually need, that was the feeling. The architects were quite pleased about it. When it happened it was seen as something that was cheerful and jolly, uplifting and colourful, people appreciated it! But there were still plenty of people who didn’t appreciate it at all!

NM: In 2011 there was a celebration for the 60th anniversary of the festival, were you involved with that?

 

MB: No, no, I should have been but they didn’t bother. And when I found out they didn’t bother I was relieved! Because I knew it would be presented again inevitably after a long time. And the people who had not been around when it happened are bound to have strange views on the subject (of the festival). Well, if they don’t consult me I’d be quite grateful. In fact, when you rang me up and said you wanted to talk about the festival I said to my son, ‘Not again!’ (laughter).

 

NM: Do you think there are still repercussions of the festival that are still being felt today?

 

MB: No, I think it’s all over now. It did go on for a long time, because even in the book there are people who say “I met my wife in the so-and-so pavilion, and this has led to me being an architect.” But a lot of teenage boys at that time decided they would be architects because they liked the look of it. It was really a great opportunity for everyone, even the people who designed the Skylon were still students!

Personal-photos-from-the-ongoing-festival-exhibition-at-the-south-bank.

Photos from the ongoing festival exhibition at the south bank. Photos by Nabila Mahdi

NM: Do you think we should celebrate another anniversary for the festival? Say in another 40 years to commemorate its 100th year anniversary?

 

MB: Oh god no! Let it die. It did well at the time, most people approved of it except certain political parties, and we’ve celebrated it twice now. That’s enough. We should look forward; we are the generation that is always so interested in what is happening next! We have studied the past, but celebrate it again? That’s enough.

 

For more information:

Edward Bottoms HTS Course- Brave New World Revisited

AA Archives

Nabila Mahdi Project’s Review 2014