It’s the 60th Anniversary of the Festival of Britain this year, an event which still manages to generate interest, especially in the design field, where it has come to symbolise a period when art and design was seen as an integral part of almost everything in the drive to regenerate the British economy after the war. The lessons of the time are long forgotten by today’s politicians of course, or at best paid lip service to (they’d rather see a company with a world-wide reputation like The Designer’s Republic go to the wall than offer any practical help). And while the 1951 Festival of Britain produced a fair share of tacky cash-in memorabilia, a lot of what was produced and displayed there remains of immense charm and quality (we have two Ernest Race chairs in our office which get an airing whenever there’s enough sun to sit outside for our lunch!).
One of the few artifacts to have survived the short-sighted decision to bulldoze most of the site at the end of the event was the beautiful Royal Festival Hall, one of those buildings I’ve always fancied spending some time in but have so far not got around to. It was commisssioned by the London County Council, designed by Sir Robert H. Matthews and Leslie Martin (with E. Williams and Peter Moro), and opened in 1951 in time for the festival. The merits of this building (and the subsequent alterations to what is a Grade 1 listed edifice) are more ably (and passionately) discussed elsewhere and instead I’m looking at instnces of the building being used on records.
It was comparatively recently that I realised the Festival Hall kept turning up on record sleeves. After digging out a couple I owned, I thought it would be fun to see how well – or badly – album covers had treated the RFH. And although a lot of musicians have had live albums recorded there, comparatively few used images of the building on the cover.
The best cover by far is for the Bach at the Royal Festival Hall album. Released in 1960, it features a very modern painting of the hall on the cover – all blurred brush strokes and sharp lines – which I assume was commissioned by HMV but sadly remains unsigned and uncredited. The recording makes much of the Festival Hall organ and the back cover has a history of the instrument. Contrast this with the miserable effort on the front of the Golden Guinea Family Classics cover, which dates from about the same time but looks like it was badly traced off a postcard. The album was a cheapo offering to mark the second anniversary of the label, a label which was very budget at the best of times but nevertheless often managed to be much better packaged than this example. Even so we must assume the building was still important for the label to feel it might help sales in some way.
Humphrey Littleton’s Jazz at the Royal Festival Hall is typcial of many such recordings, with a photographic image of the trumpeter overlaid on a tinted-back almost deco painted image of the building’s facade. It’s a 10″ release, and I’m sure there is an older drawn version of the album about too. They tend to fetch quite a bit these days so I’ve had to make do with a cover shot grabbed off the web.
The Kachaturian album is another budget label release, this time from our old favourite Pickwick’s Hallmark label (see also Top Of The Pops!). They went with a bland postcard-style image of the building, complete with a vintage 1967 rush-hour of two cars in the drop-off zone. Of all the sleeves it best shows off the original building though. Curiously there is nothing on the sleeve to say the recording was actually made at the Festival Hall, or indeed when it was done, so again it might just have been a case of hyping up a recording by association.
Mary O’Hara At The Royal Festival Hall puts the emphasis on Mary, posed on a nearby bridge, with the Festival Hall blurring into the background. Ten years on from the Hallmark cover and the trees have begun to obscure the facade. The shot was by David Steen and it’s a curiously dull cover for a normally hip Chrysalis label release, with the colour balance all out and cheap lettering.
Nosing around the web trying to find that older Lyttleton cover I did turn up two more 10″ jazz covers, which have the side of the building on the cover, and a strange modernist sculpture to reinforce the Modern Jazz aspect of the music on one – and a twirly bit of wrought iron for the Traditional Jazz of the other! Both were recorded in October 1954 and released the following year by Decca in one of their typical hand-drawn matt card sleeves of the time.
Lastly then, what of the groovy Festival Of Britain label at the top of the page? This is a six inch acetate single, with the HMV logo, the year 1951 and a sketch view of the Festival Hall, Skylon and other festival buildings on the smart label design (which curiously does not feature the official Festival logo). It has regular grooves on one side, and just a large run off groove on the flip (which has the same label, but I think you could only record onto one side). There are two spindle holes, the off-centre one kept the disc locked while it was being cut. I’ve not yet played it, so don’t know what message might be on there. Perhaps I’ve read Brighton Rock once too often… It turns out that HMV also issued a souvenir 78 rpm double record set called Sound Picture of Great Britain, using the same label design, albeit in red not green (see the poor image I found on a vinyl sale site). This LP has a collection of memorable sound bites, sporting commentaries, music clips and extracts from the King’s speech at the opening of the festival, all narrated by David Lloyd James. It’s possible that HMV showed this on a stand at the festival, alongside their consumer goods such as irons and radio (which were all marketed under the HMV name) and offered visitors the ‘record a message’ acetate service there.