1. The lost billboard
To celebrate the British Library’s upcoming ‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion‘ exhibition we picked ten London locations that feature in the long history of often unsuccessful attempts to control our thoughts. Appropriate then that the first location has gone missing, forgotten in the mists of time. All we know is that somewhere in London this smiling workman with a ladder (see above) has just pasted up the very first poster of the Conservatives’ 1987 ‘AIDS don’t die of ignorance’ campaign created by London agency TBWA. He should look happy – the put-on-a-condom campaign saved thousands of lives.
2. Senate House, University of London
Opened in 1937, the University of London’s Senate House immediately became a modernist icon, attacked by future ‘Brideshead’ author Evelyn Waugh as an insult to the ‘autumn sky’. Home to the Ministry of Information propaganda operations during Word War II – the department responsible for such famous slogans as ‘Walls have ears’, ‘Loose talk costs lives’ – along with Ducane Court in Balham, Senate House was believed to be the prospective HQ of a Nazi occupation and was later used as Winston Smith’s block of flats in the 1984 film version of George Orwell’s propaganda nightmare ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’.
3. Trafalgar Square
This spacious pigeon corral and contemporary art space was actually designed as a giant two fingers to fancy French ideas of political freedom and a government warning to London’s radical working classes. Completed in 1845 at the height of Chartist agitation for the popular vote, the square and its dominating centerpiece Nelson’s column commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 when Napoleon Bonaparte’s plans to introduce republican government and beer served by the litres to the capital were effectively ended.
4. Edith Cavell statue, St Martins Place
Edith Cavell was a World War One British nurse who helped Allied servicemen escape from German-occupied Belgium. A wiser occupying power would have sent Cavell home after a telling off but the Germans put her before a firing squad. Her last words were ‘Patriotism is not enough’, which handily was just the right length to fit on this 1920 monument designed to illustrate ‘Hun’ beastliness as the UK set about asset-stripping the German economy.
5. 2012 Olympic site
This still astounding collection of buildings was home to an astonishingly successful Olympic games that was meant to tell the world that the UK was a multi-ethnic, forward thinking and exciting modern country that, despite all other evidence, was on the cusp of a greatness. And it worked. A supreme example of how to get propaganda right.
6. The O2
Which leads naturally to a supreme example of how to get propaganda wrong. First conceived by the Tories as a simple celebration of British ingenuity and the third millennium, incoming PM Tony Blair decided it should be a ‘triumph of confidence over cynicism’ with added elements like a body zone for awestruck Londoners to walk around. Sadly contractors failed to correctly install the entry gates and pictures of opening night chaos strongly suggested a triumph for cynicism to a watching world.
7. St Paul’s
Built in the 1670s to celebrate, in part, the restoration of the monarchy St Paul’s has been the establishment’s favoured site for PR-event funerals and weddings ever since. This made it an obvious target for Occupy protesters – including the four females clad entirely in white that chained themselves to the pulpit 2012. But the cathedral’s greatest propaganda success came during the Blitz in 1940 when images of Sir Christopher Wren’s smoke and flame threatened dome were shown across still neutral America as a symbol of British resistance to Nazi tyranny.
8. Royal Festival Hall
Post-war, with Nazi tyranny finally defeated, it was time for a Festival of Britain to encourage national rebuilding with a celebration of British achievements in science, technology, industry and the arts. The Royal Festival Hall, restored to former greatness in 2007, was at the heart of a propaganda stunt that attracted over ten million visitors in 1951. Now new plans to redevelop the area see tyranny thwarted once more with the eviction of the hated south bank skateboarders.
9. Bush House
Orwell – again! – was inspired to create both ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’s Ministry of Truth canteen and the terrifying Room 101 when working at for the BBC at Bush House in the 1940s. Home to the World Service throughout the cold war, the Aldwych block went on to achieve many anti-Soviet propaganda triumphs including successfully broadcasting details of the Chelsea Flower show into the USSR’s tyrannical political prison camps in 1948 and a 1988 radio phone-in to Russia featuring PM Margaret Thatcher that proved so popular it blew the fuses at Covent Garden telephone exchange.
10. BT tower
Opened by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1965, the then Post Office tower was meant to symbolize the UK’S commitment to a new age of innovation and technology. Sadly the distinctive tower’s image was fatally dented; not by the IRA bomb that closed the top-floor revolving restaurant in 1971 but by an episode of BBC television’s The Goodies in the same year which showed the building being attacked by a giant kitten.
‘Propaganda: Power and Persuasion’ is at the British Library from May 17 to Sept 17. For info, see bl.uk.