First Sight of the O2

The Millennium Dome, SE10

A couple of days ago a delivery guy I don’t know spent ten minutes on my doorstep telling me how he’d got a new job at the O2 and how fantastic it all was. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone so excited about getting a job anywhere. He raved and raved about how he’d felt special and talked about a training day they’d had where they’d all been told how they were ‘the first’… I was delighted to listen to him – and delighted for him – to see such joy at getting a job is something in itself.

Love it or hate it – we’ve all been fascinated to see what Anschutz Entertainment Group would do with London’s biggest white elephant.

So, finally last night , a local preview for local people, an enjoyably chaotic evening of poking around half-finished streets and buildings – and, frankly, marvelling that they could fit an arena of quite such a size into a Dome that doesn’t look that big from the outside…

My first thought about the entire evening is not to do with the Dome itself. It is that the buses are not going to be able to cope. Now admittedly this was probably the biggest concentration of Greenwich residents that will ever grace the Dome at one time – but the buses were stupidly packed. Perhaps Anschutz would like to chip-in on some extra services…

We wandered, slack-jawed, round the massive foyer like a bunch of country yokels who’d come up to the big city for the first time. It’s not finished, of course. There are some bits that have a sort of art deco feel to them, complete with waving palms and imitation blossom-covered trees, but elsewhere the rough edges show a little. Outside restaurants, ferns are still wrapped in plastic;from their signs, wires still loop down.

There are shiny deco-esque doors, like the entrance to some 1920s department store, and towering geometrically-shaped frontages – especially the entrance to what will be the cinema, with its largest-screen-in-Europe – I can see a Hollywood-style premiere or two up those steps, especially in winter when the weather in Leicester Square is not always akin to that of LA.

But there are great monolithic walls that are still covered in pipes and heating ducts, iron frames and wires, which makes the whole thing look a bit like something out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. For a moment, I wondered whether it was intentional – gritty industrial art, next to the slick retro deco stuff, but I don’t think it’s that deep. This is corporate and American – irony does not come into it.

Most of the restaurants aren’t open yet, and very little of the Bond Street-length Entertainment Avenue was open (don’t look at the pavements, eh…) but we are promised that much more will be finished on Sunday when the Greenwich and Docklands Festival reaches the Dome.

We savoured the moment, doing a lap around the outside of the arena before going in, which gave us a chance to see just how much there is still to do. There are still acres of land to be turned into ways to spend our cash, but all around the outside of the arena there are already plenty of food stands – everything from pizza to Chinese food and a carvery. I was surprised that the exterior is quite gritty – made of breezeblock with halogen lighting, as opposed to the slickness of the street below, but I guess that by the time they’ve got 20,000 people all piling in efficiency is what they’re after, not beauty.

No opportunity to view those notorious corporate boxes – I guess we’ll all have to suck up to Greenwich Council if we want to get in one of them

The arena is VAST. The stage is almost dwarfed by the sheer size of it, and the kiddies from local primary schools who were singing on it were also suitably tiny. There’s not much else to say about it. The sound seemed good, and a LCD display that was whizzing around announced that every single seat had been specially engineered for the best possible aural experience. I find that a little hard to believe, but hey – I suppose anything’s possible. If you’re at the back you might want to bring some opera glasses, and a woolly might not go amiss either, the air-con is quite fierce.

But perhaps what struck me most about the whole O2 experience was the almost evangelical welcome from the new staff. This wasn’t at “have a nice day” levels – this was a passion that, after a while started to feel slightly scary. In an almost Stepford Staff moment, ordinary workers were raving about the place, smiling, helping, grinning. They didn’t just explain what was going to go on in their little area, but they told us about everything that was going to happen everywhere in the building. A couple of them, like my delivery man, mentioned their “training day.” What the hell went on there? Some kind of hysterical Billy Graham-style mass revival? Strange injections of a peculiar purple fluid administered by men in white coats? The full brain-wash? Whoever took that training day knew what they were doing.

Whatever it is, it is actually quite touching to see people – from security staff to ushers – genuinely excited about working for a new project. It added a little frisson to my experience too.

I think it can work – and, after the initial curiosity, I don’t think that it will have an adverse effect on Greenwich herself. She is a different animal, appealing to different people. The Picturehouse, for example, with its quirky programming, will have nothing to fear from the giant cinema once everyone’s been once.

Though at the kind of prices they’re going to be charging I can’t see myself a regular attendee, at the new-look Dome, I’ll be there on Sunday to see what other marvels are unveiled…

Kiddies onstage in the arena

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