Arts feature

Dome truths

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

6 May 2017

9:00 AM

It was 50 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play. The result was a popular masterpiece. Thirty years later, a less accomplished, tone-deaf group of individuals collaborated on the Millennium Dome, and the result was an expensive, sniggerable calamity. For a while, I was one of them.

Of course, it was not really a ‘Dome’ at all, since a dome is a sophisticated self-supporting masonry structure and this was just a big, stupid, hemispherical fabric tent. But ‘Millennium Tent’ did not have rhetorical resonance sufficient to burnish the already very bright and shiny egos of its perpetrators during the Blair Dawn.

In any organisation, lots of stuff goes wrong a lot of the time, as Murphy’s Law states. But here was an organisation where — remarkably — everything went wrong all of the time. The problems began with that signature tent by Richard Rogers.

So far from being an intelligent response to a carefully considered client need, its design pre-existed anybody having a clue what to put in it. And, conceptually, it was out-of-date even before it was erected on a toxic bog in Greenwich: tensile structures were the stuff of Archigram dreams when Rogers was a student.

I took the call one Friday afternoon in 1997 when lounging in my Chelsea office, looking at the river and toying with an espresso. It was Bill Muirhead, one of the founders of the original Saatchi & Saatchi, who had, with an adman’s impressive guile, manoeuvred himself into being an unpaid adviser to the millennium project.

‘You know about that design stuff,’ he breezily said. I was as surprised as anybody by the offer, but it came with lots of money as well as generous assurances about autonomy. Later I told my wife and she gave me a you-must-be-mad look, so I promptly accepted. I was recruited as creative director.

I realise now, and there is symbolism here, that New Labour did not really want a creative director for the Dome — only to be able to say that it had a creative director. An elaborate press release was issued, trumpeting the acquisition of a ‘design guru’ to give point and style to the directionless project.

That made page three of the Times and, on reading it, the Today programme called me at home early in the morning. I spoke live with Tiggerish enthusiasm about the opportunities and immediately had my first experience of New Labour’s demented controlling obsessions. The Millennium Dome’s press officer, a University of John Prescott alumnus and author of the release, began berating me. ‘You can’t say that!’ he shrieked. I quietly replied that I had spoken only in the most optimistic and positive terms. He rejoined as if explaining genome sequencing to a person with a two-digit IQ: ‘You still can’t say anything without asking me.’ I thought, ‘Fuck that for a game of soldiers.’

People forget now that the Millennium Dome was a Heseltine project that Blair inherited. Whether or not to take it on was considered a test of New Labour’s resolve and Peter Mandelson was the Chosen One to demonstrate such resolution. One day he came in to address a nervous staff team, his pager pinging like a Geiger counter. ‘I believe in art, design and excellence,’ he cooed assuringly and left a long dramatic pause before adding: ‘However, I am a politician.’

I piped up: ‘So there are times you don’t believe in art, design and excellence then?’ They say it took minutes for the chill to leave the room.

On my arrival, there were draft plans on how to fill the Tent made by a slightly scuzzy agency specialising in motor-show stands. ‘The incredible lightness of content,’ I told anyone who would listen. I asked for a moratorium to consult leading thinkers in Europe and the United States on what to do. There was money to spend on such things, but I was told: ‘No foreigners.’

I suggested giving a hundred artists and designers £1 million each with the brief: ‘Astonish us.’ That would have been easily affordable and extremely interesting. David Hockney advised us to keep the tent empty and enjoy its sublime space. That would have been nice. I said let’s borrow the greatest hundred works of art from all over the world. Let’s commission a whole new town of breathtaking originality. They said: ‘Peter wouldn’t like it.’

Mandy decided to call it the New Millennium Experience Company Limited, although I explained that all those redundant amplifications did not fit the window of the standard DL envelope still used for communications. A man whose professional experience was restricted to procuring torpedoes for the Royal Navy appeared from nowhere to manage the advertising. When a fluffy toy mascot was proposed, I resigned. But they would not let me. Brilliant graphics were required, so I commissioned them from a brilliant designer and the board approved them with great enthusiasm, but when a Mandy-style focus group was convened post hoc and did not understand, they were canned after a six-figure spend.

I struggled with making sense of contents that I thought patronising rubbish, while Mandy went on a Disneyland photo-shoot to consult with the Source. Perhaps inspired by Mickey Mouse, Mandy’s people now invented a game called ‘Surfball’, which would animate the Tent interior through the agency of sport. Peter Mandelson himself presented this fiction to a Commons select committee on 2 December 1997, describing it as the sport of the 21st century. Yet it was not sport, but spin. It only ever existed as a memo. It was a cynical lie that Mandy later detoxed by explaining that, like the 1997 Labour manifesto, it was for ‘illustrative’ purposes alone.

I tried to make prominent advisers — including Terence Conran, Alan Yentob and Christopher Frayling — aware of the terrible, contaminating, politicised muddle, but in those days they were afraid to offend the man they all called Tony and kept very shtum. After six months, my final departure made broadsheet headlines and television news flashes. After I resumed my own business life, people whispered: ‘We’ve been told not to work with you.’

Mandy thought that spending a billion guaranteed something impressive. It did not. I explained that a billion pounds of horseshit would be impressive too, but not in a good way. Cost and value were ruinously confused, but we can now see the Millennium Tent for what it really was: a true symbol of the fatuousness, vapidity, incompetence and dishonesty that later characterised the Blair government. The Tent only worked when ‘foreigners’ built something else inside it, creating the O2 Arena.

Still, I can dine out on my anecdotes for ever. As Susan Sontag said in her ‘Notes on “Camp”’: ‘Bad to the point of being laughable, but not to the point of being enjoyable.’

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