Dome monger v doom mongers
Ben Evans, the man planning the world's biggest new year's eve party, talked to James Heartfield
When New Labour decided to shake up the Millennium Dome, one disgruntled 'creative' complained of the appearance of a load of 'scruffy mockneys' taking over the project. The original scruffy mockney is Ben Evans, the 35-year old with the world's most pressing deadline: 1 January 2000.
You could not call Evans a 'suit', more like black t-shirt and jeans. But that is part of what is attractive about the small team planning the events and content of the controversial Millennium Dome. 'What's interesting about this team is that there is nobody over 40', he says, 'we're all in our 20s and 30s'.
Just as well. 'Another VE-Day celebration was what worried us', he says, recounting that the army officer in charge of that campaign was seriously considered for the millennium project. 'It was dreadful, like Dad's Army - just the sort of thing that reinforces the view that Britain is a backward-looking country.'
'It is a very unique project to be involved in, a national project to shape national perspective and generate a degree of confidence in the country', says Evans. 'I like the ambitious nature of it, and I like the democratic nature of it.' Like many of the Blair team, Evans worked with David Puttnam's Enigma Productions, originally a film company that Puttnam redirected towards policy development. It was at Enigma that Evans and others developed the idea that Britain had to shake off its backward-looking image. According to Evans, Puttnam recruited a group of people who were prepared to 'think big'.
Of course it is the ambitious nature of the project that underlies a lot of the criticism of the Dome. The very grandness of the thing is out of keeping with our more introverted times. 'You get beaten up over it - socially as well as in the press - a lot of my friends have had a go at me about it. Everyone wants to tell you their view on it and everyone thinks their view is the right one.'
How does Evans account for the press criticisms of the Dome? 'Knocking-copy goes further than positive copy. Most of the articles written for something to write about.' And what about 'Dome minister' Peter Mandelson? 'He's a man with a reputation and with his own particular relationship with the press. They want to write about him and they want to criticise him. A certain amount of the criticisms of the Dome have come just because of his involvement in it.'
Evans does not indulge in any second pleading about the criticisms of the Dome, because 'we've got to turn that around'. He is confident that many doubts will fall away, pointing out that the television schedules already plan a major millennial focus and that the BBC has already sold rights that represent an audience in excess of a billion viewers worldwide. Those outside the UK, observes Evans, have more of a sense of the significance of the location of the meridian line running through Greenwich. In fact, he says, it was NBC's offer to buy the rights to it that first alerted Peter Palumbo at the Arts Council to the importance of the event.
Here's hoping that Evans is right, but I cannot help thinking that he underestimates the resistance to the idea of the Dome. It is not so much the thing itself as the symbolism of the millennium that aggravates the disquiet about the Dome. The Dome is just a mirror reflecting a wider social pessimism. If Mandelson is a target of such sentiment, it is largely because his own reputation as the 'prince of darkness' sums up the sentiment that any ambition to get things done - especially on the grand scale - is suspect.
Ben Evans is understandably perplexed by the view that the Dome is an exorbitant waste of money that should be redirected to the poor: 'If you could drop it within the ocean of health spending it would disappear. The amount of money we are spending is tiny compared to a new hospital. Of the total budget of £790 million the public money - actually lottery money - is only £390 million, the rest is all raised income.'
As he says, probably 'everyone could have a bottle of champagne' for the same amount of money 'but what would that mean?'. The argument that the money should be spent instead on social problems is not really a rational proposal. It is more an expression of the parsimonious feeling that people should not be having fun while the poor are still with us. Arguments for social redistribution may seem to be democratically inspired, but as an example of public expenditure the Dome is more clearly aimed at the mass of the populace than most.
In response to the charge that the Dome has been over-secretive, Evans protests reasonably enough that 'you don't open all your presents before Christmas'. But the overriding sentiment that we are all being hoodwinked is not really based on a rational calculation. It is a feeling that arises out of the yawning chasm between the mass of people and the politicians today.
The greatest problem for the Dome is that a feeling of being out of touch tempts the organisers to try to connect with people by talking down to them. That was summed up by the proposed 'Euan test' - that the exhibits should be appealing to Tony Blair's nine-year old son Euan. 'We're not allowed to say that now', says Evans. But the uncomfortable compromise between worthy education project and theme park sums up the difficulties of organising public celebration at the millennium.
Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999