Max Nicholson

Max's role in the Festival of Britain, by Sir Paul Wright

One of the adjectives which occurs to me about Max is ingenious. He was very ingenious in the ways he found to work round obstacles in order to get things done. He would never take no for an answer.

He had a very distinctive way of talking which makes it easy to recall him. He was one of the most unusual people I have ever known. Civil servants in the 40's and 50's tended not to have a very wide range of interests. Max was an exception.

I first came across Max in connection with the build up to the Festival of Britain in 1951 The concept had been backed by Herbert Morrison, who was Lord President of the Council. Max was the Permanent Secretary in his department. As such he attended all the main meetings of the Executive Committee of the Festival, which was, in effect, a small government department set up purely for this purpose.

You couldn't call Max an eccentric. He was a very gifted man - you can't manage an enterprise on the scale of the Fesitval of Britain unless you have very considerable managerial talents.

The Festival was extraordinarily fortunate in its people. Gerald Barry was the Director General, and, though very different from Max, they worked together very well. and Hugh Casson, Huw Wheldon and other members of the team were brilliant architects. But it was also lucky in its civl servants,: apart from Max, there was George Campbell from the Treasury, who delighted in finding ways round his own regulations, and Bernad Sendall, who had been a secretary to Churchill during the war and was the financial controller of the Festival.

This was a team of very strong and very talented individuals. Such a team takes a lot of riding.

I was in charge of the public relations, and I remember my first job was to get the Post Ofifice to agree to give us the telephone number SAVoy 1951.

The South Bank site after the war was very run down almost derelict, and most of the buildings had to be pulled down. One of these was the Red Lion brewery. King George VI took a great interest in the Festival, and sent us a message that the Red Lion itself which stood at the top of the brewery must be saved since many Londoners had regarded. it as their mascot during the War and thought that, so long as the Red Lion was still there, London would survive. So it was carefully preserved an is now at the south end of Waterloo Bridge.

The whole Festival project had to be done to a very tight timescale, which was not helped at all by the very bad winter of 1950-51. But the results turned out well, and seemed to lift the spirits of the nation as had been hoped.

It had its political difficulties too, notably when the Conservative opposition started using it as a stick to beat the Government. It was fortunate to have the whole-hearted backing of so senior a figure as Herbert Morrison. Max certainly helped to stiffen his resolve at the worst times.

At one stage, there was serious concern about the mounting cost, and the possibility of having it in an existing building was seriously examined. The Natural History Museum in South Kensington was a serious contender. Sir Gerald Barry called it "the haunt of the brontosaurus". Herbert Morrison's reaction was "It can't be done" - he thought that you either did it right or not at all.

Some time later, in 1977, I was the Secretary General of the organising body for the London celebrations for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. It was run through a whole series of committees, and Max was asked to chair the Environment committee. That was how the Silver Jubilee Walkway came about, and it has, of course, been one of the most lasting and well-known of the Silver Jubilee legacy.