South London Memories: The dome, a white elephant turned roaring success

The Millennium Dome, opened on December 31, 1999, was intended to celebrate the arrival of a new age. It turned into a white elephant – although the venue which took it over in 2007 is now one of the most popular in the world. It weighs less than 20kg a square metre, but it swallowed vast amounts of taxpayers’ money.  TOBY PORTER recalls the hype and the controversy, 20 years after it was drawing the crowds – or not.

The contents of the Millennium Dome were flogged off at auction in February 2001. A 6ft plastic hamster went for £3,700. It is now in a warehouse near the town of Sandwich, together with a collection of military vehicles.

The outer shell of the most visual section, the body zone, was too big to be sold in one piece. It was dumped in a Greenwich hole as landfill.

But the legacy was not all rubbish – the land has been transformed. In 1998, Greenwich had one of the highest levels of unemployment in the country.

More affordable housing was built in Greenwich between 2012 and 2016 than in any other London borough. And a Chinese company, Knight Dragon, has planning permission for 15,000 homes on the peninsula. Parking is still a nightmare, though.

There was optimism beforehand, of a sort. Daily Telegraph columnist Boris Johnson – what happened to him? – said he would eat his hat if it wasn’t a triumph.

Then opening night happened, December 31, 1999. Thousands of VIPs, including newspaper editors, had to queue for hours in the cold for security checks at Stratford Tube station.

Johnson changed his tune. “You could blow it up,” he said. “There must be some form of public humiliation. I’d like to see all those responsible for the contents of the dome eating humble pie.”

Creative director Stephen Bayley, founding director of the Design Museum, said in his book Labour Camp: “Every sensible opportunity to make sense of the dome’s extravagant uselessness has been ignored. It is a pseudo-event.”

The land had been derelict – and contaminated by toxic sludge from East Greenwich Gas Works that operated from 1889-1985.

John Major’s Conservative government dreamed it up to be like the 1951 Festival of Britain.

By December 1996, ministers had been unable to raise private capital, so decided to support it with taxpayers’ cash.

One critic said the speed needed was like “trying to rush your pregnancy into three months”.

Labour was elected in a landslide under Tony Blair and, days later, in June 1997, he agreed to support it, expanding the size, scope and funding. Building began.

Creative director Stephen Bayley quit the project six months later after rows with Peter Mandelson, the minister in charge of the project – his grandfather Herbert Morrison had headed the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton replaced Mandelson – and ended up going to the attraction 57 times. The structure of Dome was completed in June 1999, but in the final months, author JG Ballard wrote in the New Statesman that the building resembled “a sinister abattoir disguised as a circus tent”.

The Faith Zone began as a pyramid which was deemed too “pagan” – the Christian consultants felt the section should reflect the fact the date being celebrated was a landmark since the birth of Jesus.

The Environment Zone was next to the Transport Zone, sponsored by Ford.

Politics played a massive part in the controversy. Blair claimed the Dome would be “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. But by the time of the 2001 Conservative Party manifesto it was slammed as “banal, anonymous and rootless”, and lacking “a sense of Britain’s history or culture”.

As well as the delays for the great and not-so-good at Stratford on December 31, at 10pm, the police received a call that there was an explosive device in the Blackwall Tunnel, which runs under the Dome.

Visitor numbers were less than expected in the opening days – the 12million target was far too high. Chief executive Jennie Page was sacked in February.

In November 2000 thieves broke into the diamond exhibit during opening hours using a JCB digger, but were foiled by waiting police. They were trying to steal the Millennium Star, a large gemstone that the diamond company De Beers had contributed to the money zone.

JCB ran an advert featuring a picture of one of their diggers with the tagline “the only thing that worked to plan”. Four men were jailed for the attempted robbery.

Also in November 2000, Michael Heseltine, the Dome’s original political supporter, said: “I have seen the inside story, and of course, with hindsight, all of us would do it differently.”

In the same month, four daredevil jokers with a taste for heights tried to climb the Dome, and had to be rescued when they got into trouble.
The exhibition was open to the public until December 31, 2000, after being visited by 6.5 million people.

But it was the most popular tourist attraction that year – second was the London Eye, third was Alton Towers – which had been first in 1999.
Charlton Athletic at one point considered a possible move there, but instead chose to redevelop The Valley.

Fisher Athletic were interested – but were considered too small to be feasible.

Many of the fixtures and fittings were also bought by Paul Scally, chairman of Gillingham FC, for the club’s stadium.

The Dome opened again in December 2003 for the Winter Wonderland 2003 experience – a funfair, ice rink, and other attractions, with a laser and firework display on New Year’s Eve.

Crisis used it as a shelter for the homeless over Christmas 2004, AEG turned it into an indoor arena, a music club, a cinema, an exhibition space and bars and restaurants, at a cost of £600 million, and it was finally renamed The O2 on May 31, 2005, in a £6 million-per-year deal with telecommunications company O2 plc.

The venue opened to the public on June 24, 2007, with a concert by rock band Bon Jovi.

It has been the most popular music venue in the world every year since.

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