Memories of The Great White City
- 7 May 08, 02:24 PM
Madeleine Holt, Culture Correspondent
The year is 1908 and everyone is talking about "going to the 'Franco".
"The what?" you might ask. Well, it was nothing to do with Spain for a start. In fact, it was all about good relations between France and Britain: the Franco-British Exhibition.
It took place on the exact spot where I am writing this now - at BBC Television Centre in White City in West London. It amounted to a vast fantasy land of white plaster palaces, waterways and trade pavilions. The whole effect was so striking that visitors nicknamed the landscape the Great White City. The buildings are no more, but the name has stuck.
This massive Edwardian "expo" was first suggested by the French to celebrate the 1904 Entente Cordiale. Exhibitions had been in vogue since the Great Exhibition of 1851 - so why not stage something to show off the industrial and cultural achievements of both Britain and France?
The creative vision came from an astonishing Hungarian émigré, Imre Kiralfy. A former showman, he'd already masterminded shows at Earls Court and Olympia as well as Chicago and Paris.
The "Franco" surpassed all Kiralfy had done before. He constructed some of the most ornate buildings Britain has ever seen. 140 acres of marshy farmland were acquired and within 18 months a team of up to 12,000 workers had built 20 extraordinary palaces (complete with a central lagoon where you could take a trip on a swan boat), 120 exhibition buildings, an entire Irish village, and a scenic railway. Then there was the "Flip Flap" - a mind-altering joy ride that was so high you could see as far as Windsor Castle. It became the source of many a popular song.
The exhibition ran from May 14th 1908 until October 31st. Royalty came, the French president, a Russian Grand Duchess and incredible eight and a half million people - many of them working class families who could just afford the underground fare and the shilling entrance fee. People would talk for years about their trip to "the Franco".
You can watch Newsnight's Great White City film here.