How to tell the Story of London

The Story of London festival was introduced by Boris Johnson last year and immediately came under a lot of fire. Here’s something from Boris Watch plus stern words from Diamond Geezer.  

The festival is not a bad idea. It’s intended to cover the history of London in a way that includes all boroughs, all ages, all races and all genders – a riposte to Ken Livingstone’s habit of staging festivals for different minority groups at a Balkanised Trafalgar Square.

But it doesn’t work.

Part of the problem is publicity, and this is of the mayor’s own doing. In 2009, there was little or no attempt to promote the nascent festival by the city’s tourist office because their funding had just been slashed by Boris and they pretty much refused to help. 

The organisers then had to take their minute budget to Time Out, where I ended up knocking up a few pages to pull out of the middle of the mag that due to a hilarious production error did not actually pull out. It was nothing like the sort of lavish inserts the company can produce when given some cash and time. 

The other problem is that London already has loads of festivals – Open House, Meltdown, the London Film Festival, London Design Festival, the City of London Festival and dozens more – while institutions such as the Bishopsgate Institute regularly put on fantastic cultural events. And that’s before we even bring in the other museums, universities, galleries and scientific institutions.

 The Story of London simply does not have a distinct identity to compete with these established players.

With barely a niche to be found in London’s crowded cultural calender, Story of London has taken to hijacking and rebranding existing events, which doesn’t impress anybody. And they are so busy doing this they forget to organise any showpiece events that would help to give the festival a character of its own. Plus, they don’t have any money.

The result is a bit of a mess.

So what could they do? Fortunately for them, I was able to scribble a few suggestions on the back of a press release in between playing Secret of Monkey Island on my phone and wondering why I’ve rarely heard of a single person who appears in the Standard’s Londoner’s Diary.

  • Be honest – don’t hijack events that have nothing to do with you as it just looks cheap. And if you insist on this policy, it means that desperate organisers of terrible events will attempt to smuggle their substandard fare into your festival and you’ll have no way of keeping them out.
  • Bespoke – ensure that anything carrying the Story of London banner is new and brilliant and has genuinely been arranged specifically for the festival. That makes it fresh and makes it exciting and should ensure that you can keep an eye on the quality control.
  • Be focused – find a theme and stick to it. Make it broad and make sure that every borough has at least one institution participating. Narrow the time frame so it all takes place on a single weekend. Keep it tight at first and let it grow organically. At the moment it is a big blancmange of a festival when it should be as tight and pretty as an avocado stone.
  • Be clever – one of the best festivals the mayor currently has at his disposable is the Thames Festival, so hook the whole thing round that. A wee bit of rebranding – and yes, this is hijacking, but it’s hijacking with a point – and you have a ready-made spectacular way to close the weekend with the annual fireworks display.
  • Be imaginative – the guys from the Londonist website are already involved in one small event, but why not ask them to think up something big and crazy? These – and other – bloggers live and breath London in a way few paid professionals can compete with, so talk to them. They may not be interested, they may have terrible ideas, they may have no ideas, but they may just come up with a couple of events that curators and pros can turn into something special. Because at the moment, as Ian Visits says, the Story of London is just ‘a way for a lot of venues who are already planning to do something to get involved in a joint media campaign’.

And that’s as far as I got. LeChuck was causing all sorts of problems and I had to Google Laura Weinstock. But hey, it’s a start.

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4 responses to “How to tell the Story of London

  1. If you are looking to explore London’s history and culture whilst making new friends, then check out the London Cultureseekers Group – http://www.cultureseekers.org.

    We explore London’s fantastic history and culture through it’s museums, art galleries, historical buildings, guided walks, the theatre and day’s out of London.

    We have been running over 4 years, are a very friendly group and have over 2800 members.

  2. Wonderful post, Pete. And thanks for the shout-out about Londonist and other sites. We’re actually involved in a couple of SoL events (pub quiz, and the MoL’s Big Draw), but both would have probably happened anyway. And you betcha we could come up with a Shard shed-load of good ideas if asked. Maybe next year.

  3. I emailed the Mayor’s office to offer London Historians assistance in any small way. Answer came there none.

  4. Your point about The Story of London’s lack of distinct identity is a good one and you’ve thought of some great constructive ideas. A key one is to select only new and relevant elements to brand, because you’re right, it does create a feeling of bore and unoriginality when there’s the same thing everywhere. With so many festivals – whether London-based or not – carving a niche in any way is difficult, let alone getting it heard about! We’ve written a post about some genuinely great London events that don’t ‘hijack and rebrand’ others (http://www.executiveoffices.co.uk/london-hotspots/city-of-london/london-cultural-events-autumnwinter-2010). I hope it’s of interest!

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