words William Wiles
What used to be the future is now a branch of the nostalgia industry. “We used to have one of those!” gush excited adult visitors to the Reinventing the Home section of the Science Museum’s Dan Dare exhibition, captivated by the Goblin Teasmaids and Pye televisions on display. These visitors are, mostly, parents, taking their kids for a half-term jaunt around South Kensington. They grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a bit too late for Dare, who had his golden age in the 1950s. Television and nuclear weaponry aren’t high-tech any more, they’re just tech.
Which raises a problem with the language being used here. Just what does the Science Museum mean by “High-Tech Britain”? It’s not simply new tech, which of course has been around forever. The longbow and the printing press were cutting edge in their time. On the basis of this exhibition, it appears to mean the birth of a Britain that was aware that technological progress was intrinsic to national economic survival. We couldn’t just make the same old things, we had to innovate all the time. Innovation was no longer a side-product of industry, it had to lead industry. It’s really “Dan Dare and the Birth of the Idea of the Creative Economy”.
Most of it is, anyway. The exhibition is a mixed-up sort of enterprise, reminiscent of an “alien” creature from a Dan Dare strip that is really an amalgam of various Earth animals. There’s a little display of some Dan Dare artwork and associated memorabilia, and then two main exhibits: “Reinventing the Home”, covering Teasmaids, televisions and the like from 1946 to roughly the 1970s, and “Building a New Britain”, which looks at nuclear energy, jet engines, penicillin and so on. At the end is a look at our energy future, which is brightly lit, noisy, bewildering, overrun by very young people, covered in touchscreens and sponsored by giant corporations. That could be an entirely accurate view of the world in a decade or two.
Back to the old future. The opening display on Dan Dare himself, the square-jawed hero of Space Fleet, is a real treat. Freed from the grimy, pointillist approximations of the four-colour printing process, Dare artist Frank Hampson’s cartoon panels glow, even after all these years. They were beautifully hand-painted, and the flawless skin tones bring new vivid meaning to the expression “clean-cut characters”. These figures have the otherworldly perfection of the staring, passive saints that inhabit the pages of illuminated manuscripts. Like those saints they seem to stare out of another age. But there is only one case of these drawings and paintings, sadly, and there’s not a lot of Dare in the rest of the exhibition. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the exhibition is no good. It’s a very accomplished and entertaining whistlestop tour through a pivotal period of British industrial design. There’s very little depth, but you have the rest of the Science Museum for that. It’s more about the spirit of the times. It’s an attempt to convey the sense of promise that science gave the 1950s.
Which leaves you wondering, as you stumble into that thicket of touchscreens, what happened? There’s a bit of muttering at the end about how Britain is still an important manufacturing nation, and we lead the world in “conceptualisation, design and branding”. But it’s self-evident that we have forfeited our lead as an exporting power. Where did that promise go?
There’s a generation gap at work here. The title “Dan Dare and the Birth of High-Tech Britain” suggests some causality, when in fact the two phenomena simply happened at the same time. The boys who were being inspired by Dan Dare did not turn into the pipe-smoking scientists who designed the first jet engines, built the early atomic plants and focused grimly on the “life or death” export drive. That was their parents, who had been brought up on HG Wells and Professor Challenger. But then, science fiction often says more about the present than it does about the future. The Dan Dare generation hit its prime in the coughing afterburn of that white-heat technological moment – the 1970s and 1980s. As Jonathan Glancey wrote recently, the former Dare readers who went on to become architects did follow through the vision of the strip, building what they had seen. But otherwise, the Dare generation voted for Thatcher (a science student in the 1940s), assaulted the post-war consensus head on and built a society based on toxic individualism. Science was mostly left to the tender neglect of the private sector, with the exception of heavily subsidised defence contracting and fabulously expensive white elephants like Trident and Sellafield THORP.
Trident, rather than a thriving British electronics industry producing Ekco mobile phones, Marconi Playstations and PyePods, is the real legacy of the Dare generation, a bloated, useless monster, rooted in the fantasy that Britain is still a world power. We could have used our brains to produce Braun, but instead we ended up with antisocial welfare cases like BAE Systems and BNFL. Grant Morrison’s 1990 satire of Dan Dare, in which an aged and bitter Dare sees his legacy betrayed by a Thatcher-analogue prime minister called Gloria Munday, was spot on.
But time passes, and the Dare generation is now mostly retired. There’s refreshed interest in the late 1940s and the 1950s, as demonstrated by the unexpected success of David Kynaston’s book Austerity Britain. This Dan Dare exhibition is just an appetiser for the V&A’s mammoth Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970, coming in September. If the BP-sponsored Energy Future that is on show at the end of this exhibition doesn’t pan out and the touchscreens go dark, the lessons of the Austerity years will come in handy. It may have been rationed and grim, but they set about building a modernist utopia anyway. We should bear that in mind.
Dan Dare and the Birth of Hi-Tech Britain, Science Museum, London SW7, until 25 October
images Jennie Hills