How The Government's £120m "Festival Of Brexit" Went Rogue
By Stuart McGurk for The House magazine
Illustrations by Tracy Worrall
When Martin Green entered 10 Downing Street on the morning of 5 March last year, it was to brief Boris Johnson on a project the Prime Minister barely knew existed, but which was to cost the taxpayer some £120m, more than four times the £28m the government had earmarked for the upcoming celebrations to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
Green – a charismatic 6ft 6” thick-spectacled events impresario fuelled in equal parts by enthusiasm and nicotine – was presenting something rather more eclectic.
“Festival UK”, as it was then known, had first been announced by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, almost three years earlier in her October 2018 Conservative Party Conference speech. After highlighting Brexit’s many benefits, May had promised a year-long, post-Brexit festival that would put on show “the best of British creativity and innovation, culture and heritage”.
Yet in the public imagination, the event soon got another name – “The Festival of Brexit” – inspired by the words of leading Vote Leaver and chair of the Eurosceptic European Research Group Jacob-Rees Mogg. “Upon leaving,” he had once said, “we should drink lots of champagne”.
Three days after the speech, Green – head of ceremonies at the London 2012 Olympics and the man responsible for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – got a call from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
Would he be interested?
Green was cautious. “Can I ascertain it’s not a Brexit festival?” he asked. “You don’t want some kind of jingoistic jamboree?”
Oliver Dowden, culture secretary at the time, had worked closely with David Cameron on the Olympics 2012 opening ceremonies, and was all-too-aware how things could go wrong when politicians meddled too much.
And so he promised: no.
By the time Green ducked through the No 10 door more than two years later, the country didn’t seem ready for a jamboree of any kind, jingoistic or otherwise. England was at the tail-end of a third national lockdown. More than £300bn had been spent on Covid relief alone. While £120m might be a drop in the ocean, it was far from a good look. Even the name of the festival had proven controversial. It was now called “Unboxed: Creativity in the UK”.
Julian Knight, chair of the DCMS Select Committee which would hold an inquiry into the project, later said it sounded like a packaging company. It didn’t help they had taken half a year to name it, mainly because, until then, they didn’t know exactly what it was themselves.
Over lockdown, Green explained to Johnson, his staff had asked not for formal pitches, but for teams of artists to present themselves who hadn’t worked together before, thereby encouraging both creativity and the avoidance of any suspicion of pro-Brexit bias. Nearly 200 did and 30 were then given £100,000 each to simply come up with ideas. Ten were chosen, with most projects acting like pop-ups, taking place on different dates across the United Kingdom, more than a hundred mini-events in total.
Jingoistic they were not. Two weren’t even concerned with our planet. Tour de Moon, taking place in Southampton, Newcastle and Leicester, was an avant-garde theatre project that would see 18 to 25-year-olds interact with Day-Glo objects in abandoned nightspots to communicate with the moon and “create alternative futures”. Our Place in Space, taking place mostly in Northern Ireland, was a sculpture trail that allowed visitors to appreciate their insignificance in the solar system.
One event was set in the future (Galwad, in Wales, was a “multiplatform, multilingual story set in a possible world of 2052”). One was a group hallucination (Dreammachine, across the UK, flashed bright white lights in front of participants' closed eyes, allowing them to experience the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey without renting it). One was dedicated to people coming together to experience 20 of the UK’s most stunning natural beauty spots, yet was invitation-only, with only the subsequent videos available to all (Green Space Dark Skies). Two were plant-based (PoliNations, in Birmingham, was a month-long celebration of flora; Dandelion, in Glasgow and Inverness, was a music festival that encouraged the growing of vegetables).
One could be said to be uniquely British, in the sense it was about the weather (See Monster, in Weston-super-Mare, was a disused oil rig repurposed as an art installation). Yet only two explicitly grappled with history. About Us was a light projection show taking place on landmarks across the UK that celebrated “connections to everything around us, past, present and future”, though as it took the Big Bang as a starting point, was naturally light on detail. StoryTrails, also across the UK, used both virtual reality (VR) headsets and augmented-reality walks to tell 50 stories of local history, yet by design had no overriding theme.
Green, ambitiously, was setting a “stretch-target” of 66 million visitors.
Staff at the DCMS, a source said, were dismayed. They knew the festival would hardly be waving pro-Brexit banners – Green had been taken with the “creativity” part of May’s one-liner – but believed they had been clear the project should be rooted in British creativity. What they’d got, they felt, was “a festival of creativity almost devoid of place. It was really contrary to the original vision”.
It didn’t help, the same source said, that ideas had been presented to them that needed sign-off two or three days later, each a fait accompli.
Johnson had a question. How did one engage with it? Did one need a pass to get in? It was reiterated that the events were taking place in many venues across the UK. And no, for those that needed to be booked, they had to be booked separately.
“In some ways, he hit the nail on the head,” says a source. “How does all this fit together? Because it’s not easy from the outside to understand how it does.” As a 2022 DCMS Select Committee report would later put it: “There is no one in government with clear ownership for 2022’s programme of events, and few meaningful links between the events themselves.”
Conservative MPs, meanwhile, simply complained the official title wasn’t actually "The Festival of Brexit" (“A great opportunity missed,” said Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet).
By the time the festival launched, on 1 March this year, things had not got better, but far, far worse. A few days earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had rolled his tanks over the border into Ukraine. Energy prices were about to go through the roof. A cost-of-living crisis was on the way. Inflation was set to soar. A festival celebrating Brexit felt like a man overboard celebrating freedom.
The only upside, as one minister put it to me: hardly anyone even knew it was happening.
Yet, as I travelled the country this summer, attending various Unboxed events and speaking to the various organisers, it was clear Johnson wouldn’t turn out to be entirely correct. Some did have something in common. They weren’t just ignoring the associations of Brexit and Tory government money. They were protesting it.
The first thing Tour de Moon’s organiser, French artist Nelly Ben Hayoun, wrote on a PDF titled “Our Mission” when laying out her priority for the project, was simply the words: “To redistribute wealth”.
“When we knew we won the grant,” she tells me in her office, a repurposed Tube carriage in Shoreditch, “the key point for me was how can I make sure I redistribute the wealth I’ve got so that it gets into the hands of the people that should be supported?”
Unboxed may have been conceived pre-Covid, but by the time the money came through, it became clear to Ben Hayoun that it was nightlife workers, mostly 18 to 25, who were being left behind by the government.
“Clearly in the UK, the focus wasn’t on nightlife workers or youth, no funding was put into that, because a nightclub doesn’t fit the bill of a cultural institution.”
She saw herself, essentially, as the nightlife Robin Hood: taking from the rich, giving to the dance floor. Ben Hayoun looked through the places in the UK that had received the least Covid relief in order to decide upon venues. She had more than £1m to spend in bursaries alone, specifically targeting 18 to 25-year-old night-time workers, but admits she blew right past this.
“Initially we stated 850 bursaries, but we did 1,500, so we went overboard. It was beautiful, but also a nervous breakdown for Unboxed. ”Weren’t they upset? “I have no fear, so I’m really violent in my interaction with people, especially on where their money should go. I was questioned every single day! It's been nerve-racking for them, I'm sure. I took them to the breaking point in every single meeting!”
(An Unboxed spokesperson said it was “a positive that Tour de Moon’s programme was able to offer a greater number of opportunities for more young creatives than initially planned”).
Unboxed staff did, Ben Hayoun says, make a stab at questioning Tour de Moon’s more out-there elements – Moon Music, for instance, was 57 tracks of static – but were comfortable with the notion it wouldn’t be for everyone: “If you want to be everyone’s cup of tea, you may as well be a mug.”
In June, I travelled to Southampton for Tour de Moon’s third leg, and I can confirm: it was not for everyone. The vibe was more scrappy student production than fully-fledged festival.
I arrived too late for Moon Games, an inflatable moon-themed obstacle course at Solent Sports Complex that was for both children and adults – depending on the slot you booked – but was just in time to ask an assistant how it had gone.
“Something went wrong with the advertising,” she said, “so the kids and adults were here at the same time. The kids were just smashing the adults over their heads with moons”. (They had planned for it to be wheelchair-friendly, but had come across some issues. “We made the first ever accessible inflatable playground!” Ben Hayoun later told me. “But in practice we found that it wasn’t that stable… there were a lot of learning curves”).
At Moon Experiences I got to see Ben Hayoun's bursaries in action. A shuttered nightclub had been repurposed as a live arts space, with audience members led around in small groups between mini-monologues and microplays, each lasting a few minutes. The brief seemed to be… well, anything, so long as the word “moon” was used. The first was a monologue that began with a medley of One Direction and Rihanna songs and managed to be equally confusing on subjects ranging from racism (solution: moon dust) to impossible beauty standards (solution: “Our new moon-ray hair removal!” – wait, wasn’t that just reinforcing… never mind). One involved a horse with planets in its stomach which appeared to be on fire (“His gaze spans time and pierces dimensions!”). Each ended in baffled silence, at which point someone behind us would remind us to clap.
“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said one of a small group in their early 20s. They did not mean it in a good way and bailed after 20 minutes to get a KFC. No one in my larger group had heard of Unboxed. All had happened upon it by chance. Apart from Tour de Moon signs outside the individual venues, you’d never know an arts festival was taking place.
If most of Tour de Moon almost revelled in a type of youthful, freewheeling anti-professionalism, it was at Moon Live, a live talks forum I attended that evening in the backroom of a sticky-floored nightclub, where the vision most clearly clashed with reality. The talks were based around nightlife. On stage, a man in a wheelchair spoke about how difficult it had been to return to his great passion, clubbing, after suffering a life-changing fall. Bouncers often refused him entry. When he was allowed in, clubbers would dart towards the seemingly-empty space on the dance floor, spilling beer all over him. He gave a rousing speech about what needed to change. People needed to think about others, he said, not just the able-bodied.
It was the most moving thing I’d watched all day, a feeling only partly spoiled by the DJ who then took to the decks and immediately shouted: “Come on, everyone needs to stand up from their chairs for this next tune!”
If Tour de Moon could be said to be ignoring the Brexit tag for the greater good, others, it turned out, were taking concrete steps to ensure it would never even be mentioned.
Later in June I travelled to Glasgow to attend Dandelion, a three-day music festival at Kelvingrove Park that combined tutorials on growing vegetables with world music.
It was huge in scope – along with another festival in Aberdeen taking place in September, they were working with 450 schools, organising giveaways in 12 towns and cities across Scotland, while 12 “unexpected gardens” would also be created – but less so in size. As soon I arrived I almost instantly found myself exiting.
Wait – was that it? I counted my steps back to the entrance: 150 paces, end-to-end. Still, it packed a lot in: two main stages, a talks tent, a row of potting sheds with activities and demonstrations. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain and everyone I spoke to – students, shopworkers, teachers, artists, one dog-walker – were appalled at the very idea they were attending something once known as The Festival of Brexit. “You’re joking?” was the most printable response.
It was for this reason, says Donald Shaw – an award-winning folk musician who served as Dandelion’s music director – that the festival’s entire top team insisted it would be part of their contracts that Brexit not be mentioned.
“It was a red-line in our contracts with Unboxed,” Shaw tells me as we sat on the grass drinking beer from plastic beakers while the Scottish summer toyed with rain. “When the festival was announced we said that if literally one MP stood up and said, ‘This is the festival of Brexit’, we were all going to pull out. The Scottish government made that clear to the UK government.”
(A spokesperson for Unboxed said, “There are absolutely no references to Brexit in our Full Commissioning Agreements with the 10 projects”, but declined to provide further details.)
When it came to the festival itself, even the music was selected with an anti-Brexit message in mind.
“It was outward-looking,” says Shaw. “We were looking to commission European musicians, it was a full European project. We went the other way. Even to the point where some Tory MPs were apparently unhappy with us. They were like, wait a minute, where’s the bunting? That meant we’d succeeded.”
You could see it as a grim kind of irony that a music festival encouraging people to grow their own veg – one conceived prior to a global pandemic, a European war, and a subsequent cost-of-living crisis – would suddenly feel more like a vital public service. Yet as Dandelion’s executive producer Jenny Niven puts it to me, they were never going to do a straight celebration. What, after all, would they be celebrating?
“Like, if someone offers you an £8m budget, you better do something fucking ethical with it,” she says as we walk the festival site. “The festival of Brexit concert! The dirty money association of it!” Along with the various growing initiatives, Niven pointed out, there was also a stall giving tutorials on vegetable soup. “There's ways that we can help to teach people to make basic, healthy, nutritious food from simple ingredients that alleviates food poverty.”
The festival also aimed to be fully sustainable, with the site even running on hydrogenated vegetable oil, though the price of this had gone through the roof. This laudable aim would have been slightly undone had initial plans gone ahead to hire a helicopter to transport Green, who was attending Dandelion’s opening night before returning to Birmingham to attend Commonwealth Games choir rehearsals.
Thankfully, someone pointed out that choppering the head-honcho of Unboxed in and out of a grow-your-own festival running on vegetable oil was probably a bad idea. (An Unboxed spokesperson suggested it had only been spoken about in jest: “This is clearly not to be taken seriously.”)
In some ways, Dandelion was a victim of its own success – in the sense it was an actual success. When the Dandelion press office drafted a release highlighting the 44,000 who had attended over the weekend, sources said senior figures at Unboxed demanded they remove the numbers. It would, they told Event Scotland, make all the other events look bad. Dandelion’s executive director was said to be furious. But they were too late: the release had already gone out.
(A spokesperson for Unboxed denied this account, saying they were “delighted’ with Dandelion’s success).
Yet it raised an obvious question: were the other events really such disasters?
When contacted by The House, the DCMS released figures for four Unboxed events: 120,000 people watched the About Us lightshows, 60,000 walked the trails of Our Place in Space, and 14,000 had psychedelic trips via Dreammachine on top of the 44,000 who attended Dandelion.
In total, 238,000 so far; just shy of a quarter of a million, a figure some way short of Green’s 66 million. (A spokesperson for Unboxed said they were “pleased with how the public are engaging”).
I was interested in the figures for StoryTrails, which dealt in local history using VR and augmented-reality storytelling, though despite having taking place in 12 venues over July and August (it ends in September), no information was available.
The project seemed laudable – renowned historian David Olusoga was the creative lead – but risky. The VR element was to be stationed in libraries across the UK, and so relied on local librarians overseeing cutting-edge VR headsets that had never been used, as StoryTrails creator James Bennett told me, for “public audience-facing experiences”.
To get a sense of how easy it was to use, I visited StoryTrails’ headquarters, at Royal Holloway’s cavernous StoryFutures institute, to try it for myself.
Notably, the two VR experiences they suggested I try were Kindred, a story about a trans parent adopting a gender-questioning toddler, and Promenade, which told the tale of an artist’s Cyprian parents: how they had come to Britain for a better life, and which explored themes of migration and assimilation.
If the latter was clearly the anthesis of Brexit, the former was virtually culture-war goading. Like most Unboxed creatives, Bennett wanted to make clear they were not associated with Brexit.
“Yes, anything but that,” he says. “It was always obvious in our project that we were going to be super-diverse.”
Both were impressive – particularly Promenade, which transported the viewer inside the artists’ artwork. Yet the experience was far from smooth. Even with two experts to set it up and guide me, it took 10 minutes – the total amount of time users would be allocated for the experience – to get it working. For a long while, the VR refused to detect the movement of my arm, with just a motionless white hand looming eerily in front of my face. It eventually worked after it was turned off then on again.
Yet if StoryTrails could be said to be ambitious but ahead of its time, another, Green Space Dark Skies, managed to be ambitious but behind it.
In mid-June, I attended a water-based event on the Norfolk Broads. The idea for all Green Space Dark Skies events – there would be 20 in total – was to invite select groups that wouldn’t normally have access to areas of natural beauty, and film them, at night, holding lamps that changed colour. The priority was the resulting videos, meaning anyone with wi-fi could also experience nature – and possibly lamps – as never before.
The plan was for the guests – a smattering of people invited from local charities – to be stationed on two large, anchored pleasure boats, known as wherries, on Barton Broad, while various kayaks, canoes and small sailing vessels made a figure-eight around us. They also carried lamps, in see-through backpacks, while we were to move ours in synchronised formation. A motorboat with a camera-crew darted around while a drone buzzed overhead.
I struggled to see how this would make must-click content. Not least as the cost for this event alone was well into six figures. The charity attendees on my boat were mostly women from Feathers Futures, a Yarmouth walk-in for disadvantaged women and victims of abuse. Its founder, an endlessly likeable woman called Jo Critch, told me the group received only a small amount of funding through the National Lottery. One of the attendees she’d picked up earlier hadn’t eaten that day: “People are really struggling," Critch said.
I asked an Unboxed publicist how they planned to get a film like this watched by an audience who, by design, wouldn’t normally watch a film like this. After mentioning partnerships with the National Trust and the National Parks – which would surely be promoting to the converted – she pointed out the benefit of Unboxed’s diverse line-up. They could promote on all their channels to different audiences. It was a good idea. Yet none of these, I noted later, boasted more than 2,000 Twitter followers – and none, at the time of writing, had posted a single Tweet regarding other Unboxed projects.
I later spoke to the video’s director, Jason Mbala, of creative agency CC-Lab. How would he get people to watch it? The plan, he said, had been to give the video a narrative: to follow an attendee from The Nancy Oldfield Trust, a Norfolk charity that offers disabled and socially disadvantaged people access to the water, from their home to the lake and back again. It didn’t happen. “There was a lot of focus on the event side of things,” he says. “I don’t want to say the film was an afterthought, but… the focus was placed on the experience.”
I check online: a month after it was posted, the resulting video has been viewed just over 1,000 times.
(A spokesperson for Unboxed said the focus was now “on driving people to watch the BBC Countryfile Special in October”).
When I met
Martin Green earlier this summer, in the garden of a private member’s club in Soho, central London, he was in good spirits. Unboxed wasn’t yet half-done, and he was still dividing his time between it and the Commonwealth Games.
His enthusiasm was infectious, and I could see why, as one DCMS source put it to me, “He’s very good at handling ministers and civil servants. And I think in some ways, probably too good.”
He admits Unboxed was defined as much by what it couldn’t be as what it could. But in many ways, he adds, it was freeing. History and pageantry, he told me, was being covered elsewhere.
“That was the basic argument we made. Look, you’ve got the Jubilee. Great. You’ve got the Commonwealth Games. So you’ve got pageantry, history, massive events, sporting elite. You know, everything’s covered. So we don’t need to do any of that.”
The Brexit tag did affect it in one way though – the unique method it was funded, with only newly-formed teams of artists allowed to apply. This formula was intended to avoid the impression of political bias.
“We knew we were dealing with something that had become controversial. So we had to take steps to demonstrate those fears were unfounded. So we started with being very transparent.”
But yes, he says, it didn’t help that they took a while to properly name it. In that vacuum, the Brexit tag stuck. “And it hasn’t left us. And we all must learn from this. Rule one of major events: don’t politicise them. And unfortunately a few chose to politicise it from the beginning.”
Does he agree with Knight, the chair of the select committee who said it sounds like a packaging company? “Unfortunately, it appears the role of select committees is just to bash the department they’re selecting. We said to them, in two weeks, we will gladly take you through every project in detail. And they did not take us up on that offer, which I think shows where their interest actually was.”
Regardless, he says, Nadine Dorries – the Culture Secretary – is a fan. Just yesterday, he told me, he took her to experience Dreammachine
in Woolwich. “She absolutely loved it.”
I mentioned on my visit that I skipped the option at the end to draw the particular patterns of colours and lights I saw under my eyelids with the crayons they provided. Did Dorries? “Oh yes, she sat down and drew a picture which got scanned in… she had a great time.”
Later, I visited DCMS, and spoke to the arts minister, Lord Parkinson. Given the current climate, what would be his one-sentence pitch for the festival now? “It's about bringing people together,” he told me. “Whether that's post-Brexit, thinking about what unites us, or post-pandemic, getting people back out of their houses, or indeed cost-of-living, where it’s giving people something joyful and inspiring…” Unboxed: Creativity in the UK
, aka "Festival UK", aka "The Festival of Brexit", still has more than two months to run. On 6 November, the £120m nine-month UK-wide festival few knew had begun will be at an end. A closing night party is to be confirmed "in due course," a spokesperson said.
Yet, whatever form it takes, I can’t help feel, in the current environment, it won’t be as fitting as the finale of Tour de Moon
, which took place on 16 June in East London, on Lower Clapton Road, a street known as “Britain’s Murder Mile”.
On her laptop, Nelly Ben Hayoun shows me footage of one of the finale’s musical acts, as perfect, in my mind, an artistic response to our current times as one could imagine. It is four people, in front of four microphones, simply screaming at the top of their lungs.
“ARGGGGHHGHHHHHHHHHH!” comes the sound from her MacBook Air as it begins to vibrate. “ARGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!” it continues.
“Isn’t that great?” she says. PoliNations opens 2 September, See Monster on 9 September and Galwad on 26 September. See unboxed2022.uk for details
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