Talk about Newsnight


Memories of The Great White City

  • Newsnight
  • 7 May 08, 02:24 PM

Madeleine Holt, Culture Correspondent

whitecity2.jpgThe 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.

whitecity1.jpgThis 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.

whitecity3.jpgThe "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.

whitecity4.jpgThe 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Hello Madeleine. As fascinating as the history of the Great White City is, and sadly I can't add to what you've told us, isn't it sad and just bleedin' typical, that these big set-piece events are basically just one more expression of the top-down nature of Govt?
    Whether it's the Great Exhibition, the London Olympics or the Iraq War, the power elite decide, for reasons of their own that a great photo-opp and an expression of their brilliant leadership, would be timely at this point, and bob's your auntie's live-in lover, here comes another huge memorial that absolutely no-one wills, until they're brow beaten into it by the state.
    Nonetheless you illucidate the positive historical and cultural perspective which is still there to be enjoyed,
    Best from Grumpy jon.

  • Comment number 2.


    a great blog about The Great White City....

  • Comment number 3.

    OK the flip-flap has been well documented, also the swan boats so beloved by S. Poliakoff but I would suggest local historians might baulk at some of the postcard images you show as evidence of this magnificent Franco - entente festival (only from May to October?).
    White City was always a dream in the Clouds unfortunately !

  • Comment number 4.

    I enjoyed the Excellent BBC Newsnight documentary of the1908 history of White City ( broadcasted on Wed 14th May) .

    Any idea where i can get a DVD or video of the report ?

    In the watch section of the BBC site the White City 1908 report is not listed .

    Thanks, Christian .

  • Comment number 5.

    Glad that one can watch the Newsnight's Great White City film here.

    I still would like a copy of the broadcast on any format .

    Any idea ?

    Thanks, Christian .

  • Comment number 6.

    hi ,just as a matter of intrest i googled franco british medal , and i came to your comments , and thought it might interest you , that i am in australia and have found an old pickle or onion bottle with great label and on this label they seem to be very proud they had won the franco british silver exhibition medal in 1908...


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