London 2012: Danny Boyle thrills audiences with inventive Olympics opening ceremony


Powered by article titled “London 2012: Danny Boyle thrills audiences with inventive Olympics opening ceremony” was written by Tracy McVeigh and Owen Gibson, for The Observer on Saturday 28th July 2012 16.35 UTC

He says of himself: “I’m just a story teller.” But this weekend Danny Boyle found himself a national hero. His Olympic opening ceremony was themed “for everyone” and, a few extremists aside, it was.

The BBC said on Saturday the ceremony had been watched by 27 million people in the UK. Boyle had produced almost exactly what he first envisaged in the summer of 2011, when he showed his storyboards. He delivered everything, scene for scene.

Until the last minute there were doubts about whether it would hang together. One insider described it as a “high wire act” and said it could have gone either way. Creative tensions erupted over camera positions. Dreadful weather dogged rehearsals. Olympics chief Sebastian Coe recalled seeing volunteers wringing out their hoodies and the heavy rain made it difficult to do the ambitious scene changes.

Thousands of plastic ponchos were procured to keep costumes and volunteers dry. The poncho manufacturer was only one of the 737 suppliers, 96% of whom were British, who supplied more than 2,000 props and 57,000 garments. It was a logistical nightmare.

That the event’s musical director, Rick Smith, of the group Underworld, was suffering from exhaustion is perhaps testament to what organisers were pouring into the spectacular.

On the night a few balloons did not pop, Paul McCartney got caught out by a bit of reverb and the show overran despite a BMX routine being pulled to shorten it. But £27m and 284 rehearsals by 7,500 people who each put in 150 hours each paid off.

For many it was the energy of Boyle, and the relationships he forged with everyone from Coe to the volunteers, that carried the day.

Betsy Lau-Robinson, 59, a senior nurse at London’s University College Hospital was among 800 heath professionals who took part. “Danny reached out to us, we got an email asking NHS volunteers to audition. When we first started, most of us had two left feet. By the end of it, my children said they had no idea I could dance like that.”

For Thomas Heatherwick, designer of the cauldron, codenamed “Betty”, the secrecy was intense. Testing had to be done at 3am when volunteers had gone and no helicopters were flying. The stipulation that were to be no moving parts disappeared in favour of a cauldron with 204 moving petals. “We’re normally designing buildings,” Heatherwick said. “It is like the biggest gadget that anyone can make in a shed but this shed is the most sophisticated shed in Harrogate. It was like the Bond gadget workshop.

“When we were thinking about the cauldron, we were aware they had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics had happened. We felt we shouldn’t try to be bigger.

“The idea is that, at the end of the Games, this cauldron will dismantle itself and come back to the ground. Each of those elements will be taken back by each of the nations and put in their national Olympics cabinets. Everyone has got a piece.”

Boyle’s team were able to throw out theatrical ideas unencumbered by practicalities, said Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer on the project. “Some were easy, sending rings into space is just cameras on balloons and the cycling doves are straightforward. But the chimneys? Yes, I still don’t know how they pulled that one off. The Queen was easy.” He said Coe was sent to ask to use Buckingham Palace, and had expected to be using a double. But the Queen said she was happy to deliver the immortal line “Good evening, Mr Bond” herself, and brought along her corgis to the filming, directed by Boyle, at the palace in March and April this year.

Boyle praised her as a “good actor” and said she had got on “tickety-boo” with Bond actor Daniel Craig.

Miss Marple actress Julia McKenzie took her place climbing into the helicopter, while the two parachutists who leaped over the stadium were stuntmen, Gary Connery and Mark Sutton.

But getting access to the Queen and palace was a picnic compared to getting permission to fly and film the helicopter along the Thames and through Tower Bridge.

Cottrell Boyce said gathering permission – for everything from snippets of poetry and plays to music – was the real headache.

“That doesn’t cost a lot of money, most poets and artists were quite cool about letting us use their work, but it costs a lot of time and effort. Every single track and every single quotation needed to be cleared. I thought Mary Poppins would be the end of us, I thought no way they’ll get permission to use Mary Poppins!”

Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights campaigners Liberty, found herself invited to carry the Olympic flag during the ceremony, alongside her friend Doreen Lawrence, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen. “Someone in Danny’s team called up out of the blue and it was one of these times when you think one of your chums is playing a trick on you,” she said. “But when I finally realised it wasn’t a practical joke it was obviously a massive honour for me and for Liberty as an organisation.

“It was a surprise because of course its our job to be a critical friend of all big institutions, and we had voiced our fears over what heightened security might mean, and about stop and search around the Olympics.”

Sworn to secrecy, she told only her immediate family. “Even my 10-year-old kept the secret! It was an interesting lesson, though, on discipline: so many people could have leaked details of the ceremony but didn’t, because they carried that feeling of being involved with something.”

Secrecy was such that Jordan Duckitt, 18, one of the young people who lit the cauldron, said he went alone to the ceremony: “Some of the other seven had their mums and dads there but I had no one as my parents had jetted off on holiday and I couldn’t tell anyone about it. I just kept it to myself, as I didn’t want it leaked out anywhere. It went so quick, the noise from the crowd went straight through you. You could feel the emotion in the stadium and I couldn’t sleep after because of the adrenaline.”

The fact that almost 10,000 people kept the secret didn’t surprise Cottrell Boyce. “Those volunteers redefined the nation for me,” he said. “We’re told people need to be paid great sums to get results, but those who are motivated by money cock up. Because they’re crap. People who are motivated by things like love, family, friendship and humanity are the ones who have something to offer.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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