Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 19/03/2000.
It was the one statistic they kept quoting all through the construction of the Millennium Dome. "You could fit the Albert Hall inside it 13 times over!"
But they didn't.
Even allowing for the kind of press backlash that normally makes me warm to this sort of thing out of sheer spite, I wasn't particularly desperate to cross London to see the Dome. Nobody seemed terribly sure what was going to be in it even fairly late in the day, and the price of £20 a head seemed a bit steep. Unless Spank's Nephews (or his Very Small Niece) could be persuaded to come down from the Frozen North and accompany me on a visit, I didn't hold out much hope of ever getting in there.
Happily, this was one occasion where my moderately responsible job in the computer industry paid dividends. I have reasonably close ties to one of the companies that supplied a lot of the computer infrastructure to the building, and as a result managed to blag an afternoon session in there at no cost to myself whatsoever. In retrospect, the entrance fee I paid seemed about right.
The cliches are all true: it's big. Bloody big. When you first approach the structure from outside it doesn't really hit you, possibly because you subconsciously expect it to be divided into a lot of rooms once you're inside. When you walk through the door and realise that to all intents and purposes it's one enormous room, the effect is staggering.
Unfortunately, it's the main problem with the Dome as an attraction. The only clues you're given on the way in are a small folded A4 leaflet summarising each Zone in a few lines, a ticket for the performances of special shows (of which more later), and some fairly arbitrary signage inside (which never seems to quite line up with the directions you're meant to be travelling in). For the first twenty minutes, at least, you're reduced to wandering around in circles trying to work out where the hell you start. It didn't help in this case that my visit coincided with the winter half-term school holidays - the first time since the beginning of the year that the Dome had been operating at anything like capacity - and the place was full of mewling rugrats who kept getting under my feet constantly.
The initial impression is that you can't get into anything, as there are queues a mile long. This isn't strictly true. Queue management is one of the few things they've got reasonably right here: every line has signposts on it telling you roughly how much longer you can expect to wait, and there are regularly updated video displays telling you what the average wait time is for each zone. Thus it's fairly easy to establish that you haven't a hope in hell of seeing the Body Zone unless you're prepared to spend most of the day in line for it: while the Faith Zone (an exhibition on the world's religions) is so utterly hated by visitors that you can walk right in without any waiting. (Sorry, I've got no idea what it's like inside.)
The other thing I didn't see is the Millennium Show, the acrobatic extravaganza that takes place in the huge central arena. I may have been quite keen to see it initially, but then I read the following synopsis in the leaflet. "In the beginning, the Sky people and Earth people play in a natural world. Skyboy from the air, and Sophia from the Earth, meet and fall in love. A storm shatters the harmony of their world. When his father dies, Earth boy Ion, Sophia's brother, asserts himself as the ruler of an industrial world. This new era of technology and greed leads to conflict between the Sky and Earth people and separates the lovers. The conflict destroys Ion and his world. In the aftermath, Skyboy searches for Sophia: they meet and fly together as one. Their union brings together the liberated Sky and Earth people to look forward with hope to an unknown future."
Now maybe I'm misreading something here, but this strikes me as complete and utter wank. Call it cynicism, call it a sense of wonder failure, whatever: no amount of complex acrobatics or Peter Gabriel music would get me within several hundred feet of a performance where the above paragraph supposedly describes the good bits. Thankfully, it's still possible to get several hundred feet away from the show and still remain inside the Dome.
So what did I actually see? After twenty minutes or so of wandering around trying to get my bearings, I started off in the Self Portrait zone. It's based around a series of interviews with assorted people, famous or otherwise, who were asked to select one person or thing that they felt best summed up the idea of being British. Some of them are obvious (someone had to nominate the Queen Mother), some of them are amusingly oblique (The Beano), some of them show genuine wit (one person offered up the concept of "bloodymindedness" as their choice, and then refused point blank to give a reason why). The person who chose Michael Barrymore's My Kind Of Music because of its Zen qualities needs putting away for their own good, however. These choices are documented inside a large spiral exhibition hall which opens out into a neat display of sculptures by Gerald Scarfe, which cover some of the less pleasant aspects of the British character with his typical viciousness. Sadly, it's the only exhibit with any sort of satirical edge to be found in the building.
More typical of the sort of thing to be found is the Living Island zone, a seaside arcade scene with an ecological theme. "Laugh at the kitsch and think about hidden messages", says the leaflet. Hidden my arse. The games and scenes have such hugely obvious eco-messages plastered all over them that it systematically drains any sort of fun out of them. Typical of the approach is the bouncy castle affair in the middle of the beach: on closer inspection it turns out to be a Bouncy Greenhouse, and bouncing on it is forbidden due to the risk of dangerous gases being released and damaging the ozone layer. The people responsible probably see this as a witty method of stressing the dangers of CO2 emissions: I just saw a lot of kids looking pissed off because they weren't allowed to bounce on it.
Most of the zones tend to have that sort of effect. The Home Planet is a moderately entertaining dark ride presented as a space journey to "the most amazing planet in the known universe", but your heart sinks as it descends into the fairground equivalent of We Are The World. The Learning Zone's fake school corridor is mightily impressive - and it's fun to feel the authentic shudder of dread when you hear the school bell go - but it leads you into a massively embarrassing film which takes the symbol of "great oaks growing from little acorns" and smashes you over the head with it for ten minutes. And the Mind Zone may have all manner of subtle audio installations and reflections on the nature of perception, but by this stage you're so used to the idea of being swept through everything at high speed that none of it registers.
The other problem is the hugely pervasive air of sponsorship. Virtually every zone is brought to you in association with a major company, who do their best to promote themselves at every possible opportunity. The Journey Zone is probably the worst offender, which is a shame as it's probably the most interesting exhibit in the place. Effectively, it's a tall thin transport museum, with several stories worth of old vehicles, a detailed history of major achievements, and some fascinating designs and prototypes for possible transports of the future. Only trouble is, the Journey Zone is sponsored by Ford, and their branding is all over it like a bad rash. Even the abstract videos on the nature of travel are shot like Ford commercials, and you find yourself waiting for the inevitable car-driving-across-mountain-pass sequence and the logo shot. If the rest of the visitors are like me, they mentally switch off as soon as it becomes apparent they're being sold to, so all this effort to educate and entertain us is effectively worthless.
But in the end it was a comparatively minor problem that sealed the Dome's fate for me. Outside the Dome are a number of other buildings - most of them souvenir tat shops, granted, but there's also the Skyscape theatre, home of a specially shot Blackadder film, Back And Forth. On the way in to the Dome you're generally given a timed ticket which allows you admission to a particular screening of the film: except when I got there, I was given an open ticket, which I was told would be valid for any screening of the film up to the last performance at 5.35pm. As I wandered round the Dome getting more and more disillusioned with it, I consoled myself with the possibility of Rowan Atkinson and Ben Elton restoring my faith in human nature at the end of the day. So when I got to the Skyscape, only to find they'd made a mistake and the last performance had already happened at 4pm, my personal rating for the day dropped from Mediocre to All Staff Involved Must Be Incinerated In Big Ovens Right Now. That's the effect a single failure in customer service can have, unfortunately, and I'm sure I'm not the only one: I saw at least half a dozen other people turned away with the same excuse, and no attempt whatsoever at compensation for a crass error.
Depending on who you read, the Dome is now either struggling to survive or on the threshold of becoming a wild success: either way, everyone seems to have their own set of ideas on how to improve it. Here's mine. It's so bloody obvious that the Dome's enormous size was decided long before anyone had any ideas on what to put in it. As a result, there's so much stuff in it that it doesn't have any real focus at all, and it's ludicrously expensive to maintain. (I understand that to just break even, the Dome needs 24,000 visitors a day, but its maximum capacity is 27,000 - not much room for manoeuvre there.) Nobody seems to know who it's for. Adults are patronised to high heaven, while there's nothing here that would interest any kids that I know - with the exception of the Timekeepers Of The Millennium area, which works thanks to its adoption of the classic child management technique of bombarding them with foam balls until they giggle. The knee-jerk reaction to the Dome's problems will be to cram more inside it: my advice is to bite the bullet and actually clear some of the clutter out, giving what's left some sort of coherent focus. At the moment, it's a huge mixture of pretentiousness and commercialism, but with some serious pruning there's the potential for something special. Oh, and have the staff responsible for handing out Blackadder tickets incinerated in big ovens right now.
But you know me, I don't like to whinge too much. And if the Dome's proved one thing, it's shown just how brilliant the British Airways London Eye is. At one stage it seemed like it would be the other way round. Certainly on New Year's Eve 1999, it looked like the Dome had beaten its closest rival: it opened on Millennium Eve as scheduled, while the Eye had to postpone its launch for eight weeks while they continued to tweak the safety mechanisms. A couple of months later, things look very different: hardly a Sunday goes by without at least one celebrity profile in the papers being accompanied with a shot of them riding the Eye, something that you don't see happening to the Dome very often. Without anyone really noticing, it's become the hippest tourist attraction in London.
The idea is so simple it's brilliant: a huge observation wheel slap bang in the centre of London. Tourists must be astounded when they come to our city and realise that up until now, there hasn't been a high vantage point from which you can survey the whole place. The large corporate buildings, such as Telecom Tower and Canary Wharf, have had their observation decks closed to the public for as long as I can remember. There's a rather good tethered balloon ride in Vauxhall, South London, which offers fine views of the city: but Vauxhall doesn't really have the same attraction as Central London, unless the idea of a tube station semi-irrigated with dosser piss appeals to you. But now, for around seven quid, you can go to a spot just across the Thames from the Houses Of Parliament and see what it looks like from 135 metres up.
Apart from the size, the first thing that surprises you is just how slowly it moves. I wasn't expecting it to be roaring round like a fairground wheel, obviously, but even from a short distance away (say, that nice wine bar underneath Waterloo arches) it looks virtually static. Once you get up close, the movement's obvious, but still quite slow: one complete revolution every thirty minutes. The wheel doesn't stop, so it has to be slow enough to allow twenty people to leave and enter a pod at the bottom before it gets above ground level.
Once you're up there, it's a fantastically smooth ride. There's a welcoming bench in the centre of the pod for people who find they can't take the height, but most riders head straight for the glass walls and start gawping. And the views are as good as you'd expect. If there was one flaw on the day I went, it was that a recent rainstorm had soaked all the windows on one side, making it a bit tricky to take pictures from inside: but because the pods are glass all the way round, there's always a dry window on the other side to offer you an unimpeded view. The location is great: you can see all along the Thames for miles in both directions, and an attendant's on hand to point out all the major London landmarks to you if you ask. (See if you can catch your attendant smirking when they explain that the Dome's hidden behind lots of other buildings.)
It'd take some sort of major overhaul (and, of course, an organised burning of ticket allocation staff) to get me back inside the Dome again: but the Eye is another matter entirely. As soon as you're off it, you start thinking about how the view would change if you rode it again at different times of the year or day. (Sadly, it's reserved for corporate functions at night time, but I'd imagine that once it starts getting dark in the late afternoons, the early evening rides could be something else again.) And after the commercial overload of the Dome, it's nice to see that British Airways don't overdo their branding on the Eye: no tacky souvenir stand, no looped videos of BA commercials, just a uniformed attendant to give it the vague feel of a plane ride. I suppose they're worried that if people associate the Eye with air travel, eventually some couple is going to get cocky and attempt to become the first members of the 135 Metre High Club. It's a possibility that I'll have to give some serious thought. Being a monkey, and all.
The Millennium Experience [hijacked link] is the official site of the Dome, which is nearly as crammed as the physical building itself. Information, news, attendance figures, online booking, it's all here.
Dome Tickets [dead link] is a handy one-stop shop for buying Dome tickets and arranging transport there. Curiously, at the time of writing they were only taking bookings up to March 31st. Do they know something we don't?
The Journey Zone [dead link] is a suitably whizzy web extension to the Dome exhibit, but again has a few too many usages of the F word for my liking.
The London Eye has an official site, but it's designed so that people with low resolution monitors can't access most of it, which is pants. If you're working with a screen size over 800x600, there's information on its construction and a webcam [dead link] to be found: but no online booking, curiously. [2008 update: webcam no, online booking yes.]
London Net is a touristy London webzine with dedicated pages on the Dome and the Eye. The London Eye page can even offer you an Eye screensaver, providing you're the sort of person who gets the words "screensaver" and "wallpaper" mixed up on a regular basis.
Time Out is of course the magazine that real Londoners turn to when they want this sort of information. Their web site, however, is really just an extended plug for their worldwide city travel guides, which means that London gets the same sketchy treatment as every other major city on the planet. Still, you'll find some useful Dome [dead link] and Eye [dead link] coverage here too.
Computer Associates deserve a mention, as they're indirectly responsible for me being at the Dome in the first place. The London Eye visit, on the other hand, was entirely Christine's doing. Thanks to them both.