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Glitches under the big top

Visitors give Britain's ambitious Millennium Dome mixed reviews.

By Alexander MacLeod / January 5, 2000



The British have a phrase to describe how they rise above life's challenges. They call it "muddling through."

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On the banks of London's River Thames, the national capacity for making the best of things when they don't pan out quite as planned is being tested under the Millennium Dome.

Built to symbolize Prime Minister Tony Blair's get-up-and-go vision of Britain's future in the 21st century, it is the focus of a fierce debate. Organizers promised that it would answer three questions about the British: Who are we? What do we do? Where do we live?

But much of the debate is around a fourth question: Why can't we make things work the way we want them to?

Mr. Blair, whose government lavished 750 million ($1.2 billion) on the vast bubble and its 14 entertainment "zones," has called the venture "a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity."

British and overseas visitors, who since Dec. 31 have been exploring the cavernous Dome at the rate of 20,000 a day, have a more restrained view.

Elizabeth McPhail laid out $86 for a family entry ticket, plus train fares to and from Birmingham in central England. She says she and her children were "distinctly underwhelmed" by the exhibits and "only moderately impressed" by the stage entertainment. "My son Edward liked the trapeze artists," she says, but daughter Anne was "frightened by Home Planet," an exhibit that tries to replicate earthquakes and volcanoes.

London electrician Frank Ashton says he was "bowled over" by the Dome's sheer size, but "extremely angry" at having to stand in line for more than an hour to spend 10 minutes in one exhibit. He was not alone in his frustration.

On New Year's Eve the Dome - and several other London events meant to mark the year 2000 - got off to the kind of start that ensured the word "fiasco" in headlines. For organizers and visitors, muddling through became a full-time job.

Forty-eight hours before it was to begin rotating, a 400-foot high ferris wheel fell foul of inspectors. They refused to give it a safety certificate, so the biggest wheel in the world couldn't carry passengers.

A fireworks display that was supposed to turn the Thames into "a river of fire" just before midnight failed to ignite.

Organizers forgot to send out VIP tickets, forcing thousands, including a man from India who had donated $1.6 million to the project, to stand in line in the rain.

But it has to be said that once inside, there is plenty to be impressed by.

The Body Zone invites visitors to climb inside a replica of a human frame and watch a huge plastic heart beating.

The Journey Zone chronicles transport from early times to the era of supersonic jets, and offers a vision of taxis that will run on rails.

The Money Zone invites visitors to "spend" vast sums and watch on a computer the inflationary effects of their extravagance on the economy.

More disappointing is the Faith Zone, which is supposed to represent religious worship in Britain. Mary O'Brien, a visitor from New York, says the exhibit is "too static" and calls arrangements for writing prayers on pieces of paper and dropping them in a box "trite."

Much professional criticism of the Dome has been hammering away at what a writer in the Times newspaper condemned as the "populist ethic" that appears to have dominated the planning.

Political analyst Hugo Young says the problem lies in Tony Blair's determination to give Britain a "trendy" image.

After attending the opening, Blair said the mood of optimism was so good that "you just want to bottle it and keep it." Young, however, complains about the prime minister's "overheated vacuity" in conceiving the Dome and pushing it through to a conclusion.

Certainly there are many things absent from the Dome that a visitor from abroad might expect, but that don't fit with Blair's idea of what Britain should be.

There are knockabout comedians, but no Shakespeare; plenty of rock and rap, but no sign of Britain's numerous symphony orchestras or classical performers.

There is also what the organizers claim is the biggest McDonald's in the world, but, as a disgruntled visitor complained as he shuffled off for home, "not a single sausage roll in sight."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society