As it approaches its quarter-century, we look back on the eventful history of the O2/Millennium Dome.
It was built to celebrate the Millennium. Millions visited, but not as many as hoped. It was a flop; a semi-literal white elephant. It was almost demolished, or moved to Swindon. Reborn as the O2, it has since become one of the most successful entertainment venues on the planet. Along the way, it's seen James Bond action sequences and a real-life diamond heist. It has served as a homeless shelter, an Olympic venue and as a training centre for Covid-19 medical staff.
We've dug into the news archives to piece together the very eventful history of the North Greenwich landmark. The structure has changed name several times over its quarter century. For the purposes of this article, we'll call it simply 'the Dome', except when directly talking about name changes.
Build up to the Millennium
1996 (19 June): Although the Dome is often painted as a New Labour vanity project, its origins lie with John Major's Tory administration. The Millennium commission was set up in 1994 to identify the best ways to celebrate the year 2000 and, on 19 June 1996, it selected Greenwich Peninsula (over Birmingham's existing NEC) as the focus of those celebrations. But what to build there...?
1996 (31 Oct): The Millennium Dome, designed by Richard Rogers, is finally unveiled. Its architecture includes a number of coded features, playing into the themes of the Millennium and the Greenwich meridian (which passes through the site). Its 12 yellow uprights represent the months of the year, or the hours on a clock face. The diameter of 365 metres is in agreement with the days of most years. The apex sits 52 metres from ground level, like a vertical week. The cost: 350 million, which is 15 million short of a temporally significant number, and £439 million shy of the eventual cost. Fun fact: When first pitched, the Dome would have included a circular walkway around the roof — a feature that never came to pass, although the Up At The O2 (see 2012) got close.
1997 (June): Against the odds, construction begins on the Millennium Dome. Funding issues and the change of Government in May had put the project in jeopardy. Peter Mandelson is put in charge, and is immediately dubbed 'the Dome Secretary'.
1998: Blue Peter presenters Katy Hill and Richard Bacon bury a time capsule beneath the Dome site. Unfortunately, it would be accidentally excavated in 2017, some 30 years before it was supposed to be retrieved.
1999: Personal note: I was living just south of Greenwich Peninsula during this final year of preparation, and my biggest recollection is that the whole area stank of vomity woodchips. I would love somebody else to confirm this weird memory.
1999 (May): North Greenwich station on the Jubilee line extension opens, putting the Dome within easy reach of non-locals.
1999 (June): The structure of the Dome is finally complete, just six months before the big party.
1999 (Aug): The Dome first appears in the opening credits of Eastenders, which is to say it's now officially on the map.
1999 (Nov): The Pierce Brosnan James Bond flick "The World is Not Enough" is released. It is bookended by memorable scenes. The coda features the most forced pun in the franchise's history, when the post-coital Commander observes "I thought Christmas only comes once a year" to bedmate Dr Christmas Jones. The opening is much better. Following a thrilling if geographically hilarious boat chase through the Docklands, our hero plummets from an exploding hot air balloon onto the canopy of the Dome — one of those awkward situations I think we can all identify with.
The Millennium Dome
1999 (31 Dec): The Dome's big moment finally arrives, as the Queen and a tent-full of invited dignitaries assemble to see in the change in year, century and millennium*. In keeping with the various fiascos that plagued its genesis, many people are kept waiting outside due to a ticketing problem.
2000 (1 Jan): The year-long Millennium Experience opens to the general public. Ticket holders got to explore 14 themed zones, all heavily sponsored (including a "Mind" zone, propped up by multinational arms company BAE Systems, and "Learning" sponsored by Tesco). The Experience also included an acrobatic show, with music by Peter Gabriel.
2000 (7 Nov): Gabriel is most famous for his hit single Sledgehammer. The Dome sees actual sledgehammers later in the year, when a gang of robbers smash through the outer wall of the Dome in a JCB and begin pummelling the protective glass around an exhibition of diamonds. The audacious raid, which would have seen them escape by waiting speedboat, was foiled by police who had the gang under surveillance. The incident seems destined to become a major movie one day, perhaps with music by Peter Gabriel.
2000 (31 December): The year-long Millennium Experience closes at the Dome. It attracted about 6.5 million visitors through the year — about half the anticipated number — and was widely deemed a financial failure.
2001: Now lying empty, it is reported that the Dome is costing taxpayers £1 million per month to maintain. There are calls to demolish the costly, currently useless structure. One proposal (which only came to light in 2022) is to move the Dome to Swindon, where it would serve as a research centre and visitor attraction for the Science Museum. Meanwhile, the contents of the Millennium Experience are sold off by auction.
2001 (Dec): The Dome and surrounding land is bought by Meridian Delta who begin the long process of converting it into the entertainment venue we know today. They acquire the Dome on a 999 year lease.
2002: Meridian sub-leases the Dome to American entertainment company AEG. They would eventually turn the Dome into a very successful venue, with 15% of profits going to the UK Government... but that's a few years away yet.
2003 (Dec): The Dome briefly reopens for a Winter Wonderland festival (unconnected with the now-annual festival of the same name in Hyde Park).
2004 (Dec): The building became a homeless shelter in its final role before conversion to the O2. Over the Christmas period, around 1,200 people (and dogs) spent evenings under the canopy thanks to housing charity Crisis.
2005 (May): The Millennium Dome is dead. Long live the O2. The name change happens on 31 May 2005, with telecoms firm O2 paying £6 million a year for the naming rights. Meanwhile, work is well under way to transform the building and its surrounding area, but it will take many years to fully pupate.
2007 (24 June): Bon Jovi open the O2 to the public with a sell-out concert. "Good evening London, England," said Jon, "Welcome to your brand new house. This is called the O2 - and the way I'm judging the crowd out here, who the hell needs Wembley Stadium?". Lines like that clearly buttered up the management. Bon Jovi would be back three years later for a 12-night residency, including a rooftop gig.
2007 (Aug): Showing the breadth of events that the new venue could handle, this year also saw Bill Clinton take to the stage in the venue's smaller event space, indigo at the O2.
2007: We used Google satellite view to see exactly how large the Dome is. The image below shows famous landmarks from above, all at the same scale. These are the Dome (top left), Wembley (under construction, top right), Westminster Abbey and St Paul's (bottom left), the Oval, Albert Hall and Gherkin (bottom right). To paraphrase the Beatles, now we know how many Albert Halls it takes to fill the O2 dome.
2009 (Jul): The venue was all set to host its biggest ever event — a 50-show residency by Michael Jackson called "This Is It". Sadly, the singer died before he could begin the residency. The show would have been advertised with the world's largest ever poster, which would have been draped over the dome. We stumbled across it in a west-London warehouse in 2013 (photo of it rolled up).
2012 (Jun): A blue walkway over the top of the Dome is revealed, the most radical external change to the building's structure since it opened. Styled as "Up at the O2", the walkway serves as a new visitor experience. Thoroughly enjoyable, "Now, let's see them open one of these over St Paul's," was our summary.
2012 (Jul): The O2 changes its official name to the North Greenwich Arena, so as not to come into conflict with strict Olympics rules about naming rights. The venue hosts artistic gymnastics and basketball in the 2012 Olympics and wheelchair basketball at the Paralympics.
2018: A premium shopping arcade known as Icon Outlet opens within the Dome.
2020: The coronavirus pandemic closes the O2 along with all other public venues. As nearby ExCeL is converted into a Covid-19 field hospital, the O2 plays its part as a training centre for medical staff. The venue would remain closed until 2021.
2022 (Feb): You know when you go camping and it's really hard to set the thing up because the wind keeps blowing and the rain keeps lashing? Well, that, but on 100-times bigger scale, as Storm Eunice rips into the side of the dome. Six of the vast white panels are torn from the structure. Incredibly, the venue was open again just one week later, though repairs took a while longer.
2027: O2's current agreement for naming rights over the structure is due to run out.
2060: AEG's sub-lease to run the Dome as an entertainment venue expires. If we start saving now, perhaps we can put in a bid?
3000: Meridian Delta's lease on the Dome and surrounding land is due to expire. We can only wonder what the Millennium celebrations of that year will look like, but we wish our holo-cyber-alien successors a jolly good time.
All images, Matt Brown.
*Pedant's note: Yes, we know.