17 February 2016
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.