‘In the Dome we have a creation that, I believe, will truly be a beacon to the world.’
So said Tony Blair of the world’s most expensive shit tent. If a beacon is an ‘intentionally conspicuous device’ then he was on the money, but I don’t think that’s quite what he meant. If he meant it would show the world how to turn a fugly building into the world’s most popular venue, then he was prescient. But he didn’t mean that either. He just liked saying ‘beacon’. He said it eight times in his first Labour Party conference speech. I prefer ‘bacon’.
The Millennium Dome was a PR disaster. It looked cheap but was absurdly expensive. The fun-loving hucksters of John Major’s government wanted it to be a big fuck-off business pavilion so we could channel Prince’s millennial anthem, 1999, and: Party like we had better than expected Q4 Import/Export figures.
When Blair took over, it turned into a public-private partnership that served as a beacon for later PFI disasters. Few were excited by an exhibition that had Money, Work and Learning Zones. It sounded like a conference you only agreed to go on because Angie from Accounts said she was going (but, it turns out, had bunked off with Jack from the Better Looking Department). It was, after all, curated by a government. Who really wants to see inside the creative souls of people who deliver bad war and prohibit nice drugs?
Then there was the Millennium party, in which the Queen showed us, despite what people say, that she is not like us. She participated in Auld Lang Syne without crossing her arms, like a newcomer to our planet. We can only imagine the surprises Her Majesty’s Hokey Cokey could reveal.
A year later, The Dome lay empty. A huge, hideous, costly, conspicuous beacon to the world. It became a national gripe. That is, until AEG took it over, gutted it, turned it into a 20,000-seater music venue, invited the biggest stars on the globe to play and lined it with an A-Z of upmarket chain restaurants. Now, it’s full and thriving. And all it took was Beyoncé and burgers.
Can you survive a day at The O2 without going mad?
That was the challenge put to me by The Dulwich Raider. Of course, it’s possible. You’ll have no problem finding sustenance. It’s finding anything else that’s a test. There is a huge cinema with nuff screens, an exhibition of Elvis memorabilia and ten-pin bowling, before you go to see a megastar in the Arena or an ordinary star at the Indigo. You might even find the ‘superclub’, Building Six, open afterwards, if superclubbing is your thing.
What makes it hard to stay long is the inside/outside thing. It looks a bit like the outside with its palm tree-lined avenue, but there’s only a hint of daylight through the canopy and no fresh air to smoke in. There’s al fresco dining – but indoors. You can see why I’m confused.
It feels a little like the holodeck, the simulated reality facility on the Starship Enterprise. If I stay too long I fear I’m going to have to joylessly procreate with a girl from the Nissan Innovation Station to keep the species going, on our long trip to Bama Lama 5. It’s an unreal place where the scenery might simply run out, like in The Truman Show.
It’s not all processed junk on offer and God knows, The O2 is way better than going to Wembley Arena for food, access and probably everything else. There’s sushi at Wasabi and excellent steak at Gaucho. Although I’m familiar with the cuts, I always ask to see the meat board, so I can gaze on the raw meat for as long as it takes for the staff to become uncomfortable. And then a little bit longer.
Gaucho also has a snazzy bar, with cow hide sofas, chandeliers and black walls so you can forget you’re inside a giant shit tent and order some booze.
The King is living large at The O2 at the moment. There’s an exhibition of his knick knacks from Graceland on the first floor, which dedicated Elvis fans love, but those who had hoped to learn something new might struggle with. You can see his gold suit. You can see the keys to his house, which you might think look something like the keys to your own house. However, your keys are not on a plinth, lit by a reverential spotlight, like some kind of Yale Excalibur. No matter what you say about Presley, he knew how to find his keys.
You can get your picture taken with Elvis, thanks to not very advanced technology, which gives you that special bond with the King. You can even prove your love for him by paying a totally superfluous £2.75 ‘service charge’ on top of the £18 entry, for putting the box office staff through the hassle of handling your cash, like it was their job.
But if you really want to chum up to rock’n’roll royalty, head to the Brooklyn Bowl, where you can eat like the King.
The Elvis-inspired menu features the King Sandwich: Loaded with peanut butter and banana, grilled in sweet butter and served with fries. There are also toilets if you fancy expiring while eating it, though you will have to supply your own Percodan, Quaaludes and Demerol to truly emulate the great man.
The New York original in Williamsburg is more of a club, at which acts like Kanye West, M.I.A. and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have performed. The North Greenwich branch has rockaoke and white collar boxing, so you can entertain yourself by dishing out pain to your friends; or try the boxing. Having said that, it also has a brilliantly eclectic line up of acts, including Nazareth, Secret Affair, Talib Kweli and The Urban Voodoo Machine, though sadly not on the same night.
Outside the Inside of the Outside
So I could have spent all day in The O2, but fearing for my marbles, I chose to explore the outside. You can escape by Tube, river bus or cable car. You can even climb over the roof, if you like. You have to wear a climb suit, a harness and be accompanied by a guide, pointing at buildings. The only place you can take a picture is on the viewing platform and you’re not allowed any booze or smokes, rendering the entire panorama pointless. They offer climbs during the day, at twilight and at sunset, which is nice, but tickets start at 28 nicker for adults and children.
In the square outside The O2, there are more chains, plus a Meantime beer box bar and a Beirut street food joint, which makes it immediately more interesting. There are also the striking buildings of Ravensbourne, the digital media and design college, which students tell me constitute a fantastic facility. Curiously, I didn’t see any students in the The O2. Presumably, it’s just not cool enough. Or, they were still asleep.
Opening in June is The Jetty, a riverside arts venue, where last year Shunt put on the baffling Boy Who Climbed Out Of His Face. This year’s production is Heartbreak Hotel, continuing the Elvis theme; an ‘immersive theatre experience’ on the disused jetty. Thankfully there’s also a pop-up cocktail bar and street food, so you can immerse yourself as much as you want.
And yet, for all the billions sunk into the Greenwich Peninsula, its jewel remains the old boozer, The Pilot Inn, proving that you can’t improve on The Pub. It’s such a breath of fresh air after the try-hard madness of The Dome/The O2/Shit Tent/Global Brand food mall. It’s always been a nice pub, it’s had a sweet refit and added fine guest beer to its reputation for good food. It even had the surprisingly comforting sight of students. At last, I was loving the Peninsula.
AEG could rightly point to their enormous success in turning round a disaster. They clearly possess business balls beyond the reach of HM’s Government. Their rewards come in pounds, though; they’re not after love – mine or anybody else’s. Colour me kooky, but I preferred the much-derided beacon to bonkersness; the hit-and-miss day out at the Dome, which combined eccentricity with naffness, successful exhibits with rank failures, which unlike the chain restaurant parade, will never be repeated.
Update June 2016:
The King has been replaced by The Greatest. An exhibition celebrating the late Muhammed Ali is now on.
The Jetty Bar now looks closed down and forlorn. Everything else is as shiny as usual.