Raising the Titanic

Company Name: Welfare State International
Location: Limehouse, London
Year: 1983

In August 1983 Welfare State International ‘raised’ the Titanic. On the Limehouse dock, the encampment of sixty white Army bell tents and caravans housed a professional team of performers, makers, technicians, engineers, designers, stage and publicity managers, cooks and community co-ordinators. Alongside the residents of Limehouse, the A’ Team, a multimedia community arts organisation and volunteers from the Chisenhale Dance Studio, the company created a political, allegorical and mythical spectacular.

Andy Plant, Tim Hunkin, Les Sharpe and Baz Kershaw (author of Engineers of the Imagination, who also has a degree in Engineering) designed and constructed a seventy foot open framework that simulated the stern of the ship which hung from a mobile crane. The highly technical show, included water-borne pyrotechnics, a half-ton ice berg procession and cargo containers, moved by forklift trucks, piled high to build the dolls-house set. Other variety-show type spectacles were performed, food and social dancing  also featured.

From The Guardian,  5th August 1983:

‘A month ago they set up their gypsy-style encampment at the Regent’s Canal Dock to involve nearly 100 Limehouse residents in raising the Titanic. ‘I more or less said it as a joke to start with,’ recalls Welfare State’s director, John Fox. ‘Then the more I started thinking about it, the more it seemed a good idea. And when I researched it, I realised it was a very good idea.’ It’s the first twentieth century myth: 1,600 people died on a ship die to an accumulation of arrogance, incompetence and common human failure. It becomes a tragically perfect symbol for the way Thatcher’s Britain and most of Europe is going at the moment. … When you talk about returning to Victorian Britain it’s even more relevant here because the class structure on the Titanic was very similar to the class structure in Limehouse where you’ve got David Owen and all, in very expensive houses, right next to appalling conditions where people live in filth and squalor. So you’ve got yet again the poor and the destitute not getting into the lifeboat. …

The Raising of the Titanic won’t be a gloomy show. It has more the spirit of a giant mummers play. Some of the Limehouse locals have been brushing up on their dancing and busking, while others are helping build lifeboat stalls for a night market, huge lanterns and translucent birds that will float on the water, puppets, peepshows and percussion instruments and of course the 100ft replica of the ship itself.’

Raising the Titanic was filmed and screened on Channel 4 in May 1985.

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