A large billboard of David Cameron sipping champagne overlooks a scene of desultory neglect.

By Richard Godwin
August 28, 2015
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

It is hard to imagine a scene more drenched in gloomy English summer vibes than the queue for Dismaland, on the rain-soaked seafront of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, England. The “bemusement park” is the latest stunt from Banksy, the Bristol graffiti artist turned countercultural commentator. An online trailer promised “the happiest place on earth,” a sarcastic Disneyland with contributions from artists including Damien Hirst and Jenny Dozier, concerts from Massive Attack and Pussy Riot, and lashings of subversive political comment.

“If you’re the kind of person who feels jaded by the over-corporate blandness that passes for family light entertainment, then this is the bespoke leisure opportunity that will connect with your core brand dynamic,” Banksy had promised. And he’s so popular—seemingly across all levels of society—that even a malfunctioning online ticket system and bucketing rain didn’t deter the ironic fun-seekers.

The line began to form about three hours before the gates opened. Stoic faces peeped out of anoraks, sipping from flasks of tea and cans of cider. A plate of chips lay sodden in the mud, untouched even by the seagulls. A man in a football shirt made a valiant attempt to roll a cigarette. “Lovely weather for it!” everyone said. As a concept, “dismal” taps into a rich seam of British culture. It also gives an event organizer a lot of room to manoeuver.

Still, you can’t fault the location. In its heyday, Weston-super-Mare had a certain working-class grandeur. It was a place where families from the nearby city of Bristol would escape for donkey rides and ice creams on the promenade. Now it’s a quintessentially drab English seaside town, complete with non-ironic attractions with names like “Paradise” and “Fantasy,” a population of blue-rinsed old ladies and a high street full of drug rehabilitation centers. It doesn’t even smell of the sea, since the beach gives onto an estuary. And it’s also—non-accidentally—a bit of a schlep from London medialand, making it something of a labor of love for Banksy, who grew up nearby. The tourist board hopes his celebrity will bring in around £7 million for the local economy, a sort of regeneration through Mickey-taking.

All the anticipation means that when you finally do make it inside—through a cartoon parody of airport security created by Bill Barminski—you can’t help but smile. The park is built around a dilapidated lido, weeds erupting from the concrete. A large billboard of David Cameron sipping champagne overlooks a scene of desultory neglect. A police water-cannon provides a fountain in a lake adorned by a static-distorted Little Mermaid. Hawaiian muzak pipes from the speakers. A Memorial Firepit pays tribute to the former local MP Jeffrey Archer, the bestselling author and convicted fraudster. Ashen-faced attendants in high-visibility tabards and Mickey Mouse ears urge you to play rigged games (“Topple the Anvil!”) or take a ride in a spinning caravan.

If these sideshows made me laugh, Banksy’s centerpieces made me a little depressed. Inside a Magic Kingdom-style castle, Cinderella’s coach has overturned, paparazzi bulbs strobing the scene. As a comment on modern celebrity, it feels behind the times (Princess Diana died 18 years ago!), a fact emphasized by all the visitors photographing each exhibit on their phones. Contemporary in a bad way is a parody of the old seaside boats game, with rowing boats full of migrants. In the light of the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, it’s crass - real tragedy used for a cheap gag. The presence of real-life migrant charities doesn’t quite compensate for it.

Dismaland works best when it draws on shared moments of celebration. The exhibit that had most people lingering was a tent full of protest banners from around the world. In the context of so much cynicism, the sincerity felt truly subversive. And the local attendants are hilarious, very much in on the joke. In the refreshment tent, a bartender attempted to drum up business by inventing a Weston-super-Mare Coffee. “It’s coffee mixed with Red Bull … you knows you loves it!” There's something about huddling for warmth as the rain sheets down that brings out the best in the English.