Dome dubbed `New British cock-up' after chaotic week

 

One chilly night in December, Tony, Peter, Charlie and some of their friends marched off to a huge tent built on a mud flat next to the Thames.

They all had a jolly night singing Auld Lang Syne, sipping free champagne and mouthing the words of Beatles songs. They watched a spectacular, multicultural show which they agreed was worthy of the citizens of New Britain at the end of the millennium.

Once again, the citizens of New Britain were told, New Labour had won the day. It had brought to life the Millennium Dome, bathed in shimmering purple and blue and green lights that changed back to purple again.

It had brought the One Amazing Night of the press blurb to the altar of New Britain's new-found confidence and tried to pass it off as the centre-piece of millennium celebrations. And helped along by the media-sensitive organisers at the New Millennium Experience Company, it had even managed to hype the dome into promising something similar to the Great Exhibition of 1851.

To the credit of the organisers, the New Year's Eve show at the dome was highly entertaining. If it lacked focus in its attempt to appeal to a diverse audience, it made up for it with the sheer amount of effort and determination of the performers to put on a good show.

That was the good part. Now for the bad.

Even before Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Lord Falconer (the "Dome Secretary") took their seats on New Year's Eve, trouble was brewing. It wasn't the fact that the River of Flames fireworks on the Thames had been hyped out of all proportion to the actual event. It wasn't the sharp taste of the free champagne, and it wasn't the inconvenience of the interminable arguments about the Christian content of the dome.

Unforgiveable delays affecting "VIPs and ordinary people" (Lord Falconer's words) trying to reach the dome meant that for thousands of people and sponsors, the whole night got off to a bad start.

The millennium fiasco that was ticket allocation on a night that the organisers had more than two years to prepare for was typified by the experience of S.P. Hinduja, head of the richest Asian family in Britain, who donated £4 million sterling for the dome.

Stranded at Stratford tube station in east London, Hinduja's 27 guests were not able to pick up their tickets until 10 p.m. after a three-hour wait. When they finally arrived at the dome the zones were closed, and they missed their free champagne and food before the main celebration.

To add insult to injury, dome assistants assigned to guide the family back to their cars unexpectedly disappeared after midnight.

It is a curiously British affliction to complain on the one hand while revelling in the misfortune of others. But no one should have had a horrendous and yet completely avoidable bad experience at the dome on opening night.

If the organisers thought they could ride the storm of the first night, described by the Guardian as "a shambles", then trouble at the Big Top was just around the corner.

AS the New Year hangover wore off and paying visitors were admitted to the dome for the first time last Saturday, the Transport Secretary John Prescott's brand new Jubilee Line extension, which brought the public to the dome, was put to the test. It failed.

When Tube travellers are asked to leave the train and make alternative plans to reach the dome, or are forced to sit in a hot carriage without an explanation for the delay on a Tube line that cost £3 billion to build, it is a fiasco.

The seeds of discontent had bloomed by Monday. The Daily Telegraph savaged the Millennium Dome celebrations as "a very New British cock-up", and a Times commentator described the dome as "superficial" and "meaningless".

Paying visitors soon began to complain about the long queues to visit the dome's Body Zone. Two hours standing in a queue for a seven-minute stroll through the human body was not unusual and, as most people decided, not worth it.

The moral messages in the work zone were "unpleasantly threatening", Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian, while the Faith Zone was condemned for its "appalling sententious sayings and theology for morons". As an early supporter of the dome, Toynbee was sorry to say that after spending a day walking around it, it was, after all, "a lemon".

By Wednesday MPs had ordered an inquiry into the New Year's Eve chaos and the chief executive of the New Millennium Experience Company, Jenny Page, was told she risked losing part of her £200,000 performance-related bonus if her board of directors decided she was responsible for the "New British cock-up".

The final humiliation in the worst opening week in memory came yesterday when the Telegraph, Times and Independent reported that some of the dome's sponsors were "appalled" by the chaos of the first week.

Moreover, five sponsorship contracts worth £33 million had yet to be signed, threatening the dome's financial security just as it was revealed that poor ticket sales meant the organisers might not break even. They might even have to go cap-in-hand to the government to bail them out, a promise extracted from New Labour by the Tories before the 1997 election.

In a long week for the dome, the "positive" experience of the first-night ceremony promoted by the Prime Minister's official spokesman now seems hollow. Chaos, queues and a sceptical public have damaged the dome in Britain and, very likely, internationally.

As the Times described it this week: "New millennium, same old experience."