In a letter to the Times in September 1945, writer and designer John Gloag, suggested a centenary celebration of the Great Exhibition of 1851, to boost trade and show off Britain’s inventiveness.The Attlee government was enthusiastic about the idea and Herbert Morrison was handed responsibility for organising the Festival of Britain to add to his already packed portfolio. The appointment of Morrison – the minister responsible for government communications – suggests that the Cabinet saw the idea as a PR opportunity from the outset. ‘We ought to do something jolly,’ Morison said, ‘ . . . we need to give Britain a lift.’
This jaunty line concealed some deeper issues. The austerity measures affecting the whole country meant that any expenditure on exhibitions must be justified – hence the emphasis on trade as well as national morale. But despite the original plans for an international showcase, when Morrison reported to Parliament in December 1947 he announced that the Festival would be focused on Britain alone.
Ostensibly, the shift of emphasis would save scarce manpower and materials, especially for the Commonwealth countries who would not now participate. But it would also suit Morrison and Attlee from a PR point of view because making the Festival a domestic affair would inevitably make it into a showcase for Labour Government achievements from 1945 to 1951. It would, in effect, be a gigantic PR event for British Socialism.
MPs of all parties – especially Tories – raised objections to the project: it would use up materials already in short supply. It would divert skilled labour from important permanent building projects. It was too focused on London alone. But despite objections, the plans received cross-party support and a Festival department was set up. It was granted an initial budget of £12 million, later cut to £11 million because of financial stringency.
Many locations were considered for the Festival, but in the end the deciding factor was the declared intention by the Labour-controlled London County Council – Herbert Morrison’s old power base – to build a theatre for the people on the South Bank, next to Hungerford Bridge – the building we know today as the Royal Festival Hall. The Festival Council wholeheartedly backed the south bank site, and the long process of planning and design competitions was begun. But before this creative process came to fruition four years later, the political climate had changed out of all recognition. And as the 1940s drew to a close a new factor began to colour much of the Government’s thinking.
Opposition from the newspapers, especially the Beaverbrook press – the Daily and Sunday Express and the Evening Standard – became intense in the run-up to the opening of the Festival in May 1951 – just as they had screamed their opposition to the first Post-war Olympic Games in London in 1948. And – just as before – the criticism turned to admiration and approval once the show had been opened by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and the public began to flock to the South Bank in glorious May weather.
At least part of this success was due to the intensive PR campaigns waged on behalf of the festival. Two million advertising leaflets were printed in eight languages, and the exhibition was advertised in newspapers in 34 countries round the world. Four double-decker London buses were sent around Europe, showing the film Family Portrait made by Humphrey Jennings (one of the Socialist founders of Mass Observation, now of the Crown Film Unit). In the United States, the whole of the Festival’s $100,000 advertising budget was spent on a four-page full-colour ad in Life magazine, with its 5.2 million circulation.
But, effective though the PR campaigns were, it was the quality of the exhibition itself that won approval from the millions who visited the South Bank, and thanks for this were due to a large extent to the former members of the wartime Ministry of Information who were responsible for the Festival.
Most prominent was the executive committee’s deputy director, and Festival Controller Bernard Sendall. From 1941 to 1945, Sendall was Private Secretary to Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information. After the war, when Morrison turned the Ministry of Information into the Central Office of Information, Sendall played a key part in the transition and was then appointed the Central Office’s first Controller between 1946 and 1949. Sendall was ‘An Englishman to the roots of the blue-black beard that lay beneath his swarthy cheeks, a loyalist to his masters and to their cause whatever it or they might be and, in general, dedicated to sustaining the traditional values of old England.’
A second key MOI alumnus was Cecil Cooke. Cooke had been Director of Exhibitions for the Ministry Of Information and he fulfilled the same role for the Festival. Ian Cox, also formerly with the MOI, was Director of science and technology for the Festival and author of the guide to the exhibition.
Other Festival luminaries included Sir Kenneth Clarke, who had been the chairman of the MOI’s War Artists Advisory Committee. The MOI’s Exhibitions branch was headed by Milner Grey and Misha Black, now heading the Festival’s designs team. Former MOI designers included F.H.K. Henrion, Peter Ray, James Holland, Bronel Katz, and Richard Levin. Architects included Peter Moro and Frederick Gibberd. All of these worked on the Festival of Britain.
Leading designer for MOI and the Festival Misha Black wrote in 1950 that propaganda exhibitions were a form in which Britain could claim superiority. Acknowledging that ‘propaganda’ carried pejorative associations, especially as used by the Nazis, Black said that,
‘If this smacks of charlatanism, it is because propaganda is usually only apparent when used as a force for mischief or evil, but the technique can be varied to work for reasonable ends, and is no less required to persuade people of the importance of town planning than it is to exploit latent racist rivalries.’