A glorious sunset of peach and gold splashed across the palest of blue skies provided the suitably romantic-dramatic backcloth to the opening of the Thames Festival Night Carnival on Sunday 9 September. With a blast of horns and a chill gust of wind sweeping the crowds lining Blackfriars Bridge, a vast figure of Lady Godiva set London’s ‘other carnival’ in motion.
If you’re one of those who fear that carnival creativity has been lost amid the massed T-shirts and identikit bead bikinis of Notting Hill, then a couple of hours at the Night Carnival should restore your spirits. The inventiveness displayed by groups such as ArtStart, Kinetika, Shademakers and Mandinga is not restricted to the costumes, though there is no shortage of startling sights to keep the eyes goggling. Unlike the repetitive the bump ’n grind action down the Grove, the best of the Thames Festival groups really play their mas – even if they probably don’t call it that.
Mandinga’s men waltzing with zebras were cleverly conceived, amusing but also slightly disturbing, in the way that man and beast were so closely entwined (aren’t there laws against that sort of thing?). The sinister-looking guys in black trenchcoats from Morenada Intocables certainly looked as if they knew where the bodies were buried. And, if it was a funeral you wanted, ArtStart could oblige: a group of Victorian undertakers measured up your reporter for his final resting place, before striding off into the gloom with the words “You’ll be needing us before long, sir...”
The Night Carnival thrives on this juxtaposition of the pretty and the gritty, with feathered-and-glittered samba dancers followed by eccentric visions of nightmares past and future. The audience on the bridge clearly thrilled to the ‘dark’ mas as much as the light, leaping in back in mock terror as Emergency Exit’s giant articulated bird snapped at them. It was playful, clever, visually exciting and even thought-provoking, and it kept you guessing – you never quite knew what was going to happen next or what would emerge from the bowels of Upper Ground.
Great interaction between masqueraders and audience made sure that everyone was involved and probably helps explain why several people said that the Night Carnival is so much more fun, and far friendlier, than Notting Hill. It’s also more representative, with as many men on the streets in costume as women.
The Mayor’s event may not have the populist roots that Notting Hill Carnival boasts, but it is the latter that all too often feels like a mere municipal procession – one that has lost its way amid the barriers and the bickering. The Night Carnival is essentially arts-led, so groups can be as wacky as they like both visually and musically. By contrast, traditional mas bands have to provide the costumes and music their paying customers want – and that mostly means bikinis, beads and bass.
The night finished with a gasp-inducing, eardrum-ringing fireworks display. The last straggling sparkles made the point: you can only appreciate the pretty glitter when you see it against darkness.