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Olympic Ceremonies team: An awkward gig

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Will Gompertz | 12:40 UK time, Friday, 19 March 2010

Rupert Goold makes flamboyant theatre. Last night's opening of the RSC's Romeo and Juliet at Stratford featured movie-like sound design, lighting cues as busy as a fireworks display and a stage that hissed and erupted.

Exciting and energetic; although some I spoke to felt it was a little much. Difficult, they thought, for the star-crossed lovers to properly emote while being goosed by a jet of steam from stage left. Still, the actors appeared to enjoy the experience and received warm, but not tumultuous, applause.

Mariah Gale as Juliet

One seasoned Stratford-goer said during the break, after the lively first half, that the show was "rather over-produced; reminds me of one of those so-called Saturday night television spectaculars." At which point a thought struck me.

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the Cultural Olympiad, reporting that a new boss with a new vision has been put in place, with a brief explanation as to why we have a Cultural Olympiad. I didn't mention the major events that do not come under the auspices of the Olympiad: the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the Paralympics.

These are the responsibility of the Ceremonies team at the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG).

It's an awkward gig. More than any other moment during the Olympics - save perhaps the 100m final - "the eyes of the world" is not a hackneyed phrase; it is the stark truth. Billions will be watching. Most will be thinking one thing: how does this compare to Beijing? Now, there are many arguments to be had about the political messages in Beijing's opening and closing ceremonies, but few could argue that they weren't spectacular - unlike the moment when the Chinese handed the baton to London.

Beijing 2008

Boris Johnson waved a flag, not completely convincingly, before presenting the world with some of the oldest cliches about London. A slow red bus; queues; bowler hats; lots of umbrellas. This was not the hip, modern or funky city that London has been presenting itself as over the last couple of decades. Leona Lewis might as well have told those watching that "the food's awful, too".

It was clear at that point that the Ceremonies team at London Olympics headquarters needs help working out how best spend its budget of around $50m (£33m). It is well placed to find some. The UK is a global hub for the arts, with many of the best conductors, choreographers, directors, dancers, technicians, artists and so on, either living here or regular visitors.

This summer, it is announcing the appointment of artistic directors for the four main ceremonies. A good idea might be a call to Rupert Goold or a theatre director of his ilk to see if they could be involved. The team needs someone who is a natural collaborator, who has a contemporary approach and who knows exactly what spectacular looks like. On the basis of last night, some RSC-style fireworks in this context might well not be a bad thing.


  • Comment number 1.

    There is an events company in West London that some years ago became part of an American group. They have been involved in many Olympic and other sporting events including the ceremonies.
    As usual with these things they will probably not get the contract for the 2012 Olympics as they have too much experience so will not be seen as cutting edge!!

  • Comment number 2.

    We know we simply cannot top Beijing for extravagance, so instead we should be aiming for a stripped down, 'less-is-more' elegance instead - a display that is muted yet beautiful.

    However, I fully expect us to try and do something spectacular and fall on our faces. I am still ashamed of the handover ceremony debacle.

  • Comment number 3.

    What will happen is a big committee will be formed with people on who have not a single idea of what to do.
    The program will just be, so dire.

    It is not too late for a plan to be made and as this country has some of the most imaginative and creative people in the world they, or even better, just one person appointed to have overall control.
    In the cases of big shows, films, presentations a committee to run things never works out.
    Sure a raft of directors doing a small part of the show, but one overall director.

    Too many interested parties are around all putting in an idea at the moment.

    Or just Boris Johnston walk into the middle, say its open, ask the the Queen to say hello and then have the athletes walk in.

    A simple and cheap show. What could go wrong?

  • Comment number 4.

    Ceremonies are designed for the audience they think is watching and whose approval they desire. To be in a position of authority one has usually aquired expereince and age. All this shades what is viewed as entertaining or an expression of culture at some point in time. This is why the very old complain as do the young. Confucius complained about the "new" music of his time. We attach too much importance to such events, they are but a moment in time and have very little substance beyond that moment. People do what they do and with everyone viewing with their own set of expectations the chance of pleasing them all is very small. Art never plays well in large arenas so it is best to entertain. With the many problems around the world fun should be the primary objective. There is a self-imposed stress in the arts community that has a tendency to spoil many good projects.

  • Comment number 5.

    The handover was superb! Amid all the opera and Eastern art, the moment when Robert Plant started thrashing out ‘whole lotta love’ was tremendous, it was less music and more a seismic event that reverberated round the stadium. The message was clear – London might not have a thousand dancers synchronised together but has a whole lotta love, a culture that has produced possibly the most instantly recognisable opening riff in history and, with David Beckham kicking that football into the crowd – the most famous sports people on the planet. We rock. Simple as that.

  • Comment number 6.

    I would just love to know - in what possible century and under what possible circumstances would it ever have been seen as a "great idea", as a way of promoting 2012 in London, by having the Mayor wave a flag, a red bus entering stage left and numpties wearing bowler hats and carrying umbrellas?

    You can imagine the idiotic event planners sitting around the table trying to come up with an idea when some moron has a light-bulb moment and says, "Hey, why don't we state the blinking obvious by using our own assumptions and intepretation of how Johhnny Foreigner sees London?"

    Cue the most nauseating and cringe-making display of perpetuated sterotypes, it will ever be anyone's misfortune to see - or pay for. You could have staked your house before-hand on this kind of rubbish being trotted out. I suppose we can be thankful that Bobbies with stupid helmets, red telephone boxes, the Pearly King and Queen and King Arthur didn't make an appearance.

    Oh stupid me, I've really let the cat out of the bag now - these are the top secret plans for the opening ceremony......Good grief

  • Comment number 7.

    "how best spend its budget of around $50m (£33m)"....

    Free food and shelter for the poor of London for the period of the Olympics!

    The Olympics are a disgusting orgy of the overfed rich watching each other making fools of themselves and the more so at the opening and closing ceremonies which are nothing to do with sport or the 'Olympic ideal' at all. The 1948 Olympics should be taken as an example and the competitors should stay with London families in their spare rooms. You can't have art when so many have no food or shelter!!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    I, as a Brit, was left cringing by the handover in Beijing but...
    I run an English language academy in Spain and talked about this with a lot of students who thought it was a fairly good representation of what they "think" London is like. They didn't find it at all embarassing and found it odd that I did! So , Turvey, I guess that the World sees England differently from how we see ourselves and maybe, just maybe, the English should stop beating themselves up about our patriotism / culture / heritage or whatever.
    I do , however, hope that we can produce a Games to remember (and one which will make the opening ceremony quickly fade in the memory). I just don't understand what all the fuss is about - it's a sport showcase.

  • Comment number 9.


    The hand over from city mayor to IOC president to city mayor is a long standing part of the ceremony and along with things like the olympic hymn, the flame are 'required' by the IOC. I think part of the 'problem' was that Boris didn't practice the waving of the flag as he was asked to do - thats why he made a mess of it.

    What is needed in terms of the 2012 ceremonies is one strong figure who is left to get on with it without too much interference. As can be seen from e.g. Vancouver which included all the IOS 'must haves' but in a way that included the athletes whi actually got to see the show !

    What we don't need are endless lists of things that we 'must' have because 'someone' thinks they represent the country.

  • Comment number 10.

    For many centuries, this place has been a crossing point in the world thanks to trade, migration, conquest and many other things. Some of the people that have come here have passed through, others have stayed. We have been a multicultural society for longer than we realise yet we seem to have such difficulty embracing the diversity of culture which that has brought our way.

    From a purely musical perspective, I was not surprised at the choices made with regards the handover in China. It was contemporary and mainstream, and probably what we can expect to accompany the events in 2012. Unfortunately, the way in which popular taste in music is manipulated by the recording industry means that our perception of what music is gets split into pop and classical with nothing in between. We assume that our take on pop is better than everyone else's because we have a long list of internationally known artists, but, as our performances in the Eurovision Song Contest have demonstrated repeatedly over the last decade, it just is not travelling well. What we send to the contest is based on what the voters in this country like rather than what the rest of Europe will like, and that is why we repeatedly fail.

    Instead of trying to be what everyone expects us to be or simply do something that we believe to be current and popular, why not take the diverse elements and influences which make up our culture, both homegrown and "imported" (for want of a better word), to produce something which connects and resonates with people from outside the country rather than just us? It does not have to be big, or spectacular, it just has to work.

    Unfortunately, my natural cynicism tends to cut in as I suspect that we are going to see nothing of the sort. There will not be a Welsh choir, colliery brass band, morris dancer, or ceilidh band to be seen representing traditional elements of our own culture let alone influences from anyone else's. It will just be the usual popularist rubbish. Go ahead, put Leona Lewis on again; I'll be somewhere else listening to Bellowhead.

  • Comment number 11.

    John from Hendon

    Wind your neck in mate.

    There is plenty of things in the world flitting away vastly greater sums of money.

    Lets all just be upstanding citizens and stop having fun at all times so that homeless people can have a meal.

    You have to live mate, shall we send all our Gross National Profit to Africa as well?

  • Comment number 12.

    British people are pathetic sometimes,

    If you are embarrassed then stay at home watching Corrie and continue in your miserable existence.

    Otherwise concentrate on something more important to you that might actually affect you.

    The rest of us will enjoy the Olympics as we are not too scared to have some fun without getting politics or uppity and moral about wasting money blah blah blah

  • Comment number 13.

    There are some world class acts that, although seen many times before, such as The Queen's Colour Squadron, that could be incorporated, but I'm guessing the military theme wouldn't be suitable, but although the British have been responsible for the Sound & Lighting for many of the past Olympics around the world, I honestly don't think there's anything the British can do to even come close to a spectacular opening ceremony, but I hope I'm proved wrong...

  • Comment number 14.

    Firstly, we got awarded the Olympics back in 2005 and yet people are still coming on these message boards to moan/complain about the Games. Don´t you realise that your moaning does nothing!!! If I were you I would put my energy into something more productive.

    Regarding the Beijing games, we cannot compete against what they did and neither should we. Whilst the 2008 games opened with a spectacular show it was very rigid with no show of true emotion, contrast this with Vancouver! Here there were less people in the ceremony but more heart and that is what the ceremony is about.
    It should not be about who can throw the most money and people at it, it should be thought out and focus on what people want to see...FUN & ENJOYMENT!!!

    Can the UK can do a good a job as Vancouver and Beijing? Of course it can (look at the Manchester 2002 CWG ceremonies) and this is beacuse it has some of the best and most varied entertainment groups in the world ranging from the performing arts to showcase groups from opera to pop. The UK has a vast stable of experience to draw upon and I believe, as in Vancouver, it will set a new legacy for opening ceremonies. Less money, less people but more soul.

    I myself can´t wait for the games to start and it is about time the country got behind them so we can show the world what the UK has to offer, not just a society of moaners!

  • Comment number 15.

    Just concentrate on making the ceremony spectacular, NOT cutting edge.

    The last time 'cutting edge' happened, we ended up with the London 2012 logo.

  • Comment number 16.

    #11. flyinghurdler2 wrote:

    "John from Hendon - Wind your neck in mate." (I've no idea what the expression means but from the subsequent text I infer that the writer has no regard for the rest of the World, full of real people who will never be able to afford a few thousand pounds for a seat at the opening 'ceremony'!!!)

    Sorry but the opening 'ceremony' is just a waste of money. It is nothing to do with sport, or enjoyment. It simply provides a free TV show. Your argument implies that sports relief should not have happened either - please try to be less selfish.

  • Comment number 17.

    Rutherford once said about science research: 'we don't have money, so we must use our brains'.

    The same should be applied to planning the opening ceremony.

    You're not going for 500 world prima donnas due to the budget. But up and coming superstars may be prepared to perform as a strategic brand awareness gig for free. And some older superstars might do it for free because it's London, it's home and it's an honour.

    But if London does what it does in Beijing, it should hold it's head in shame.

    This country has masses of amazing talent. It just needs a good ringmaster to organise it.

  • Comment number 18.

    Opening ceremonies are meant to be a bit rubbish aren't they? Trust the Chinese to blow the whole thing out the water by putting on a spectacular, if rather over-stagemanaged, show. Remember Euro 96 when the Red Arrows flew overhead, a lame-looking George slayed a tired-looking dragon and Mick Hucknall appeared in a frankly ludicrous ill-fitting green suit to sing another dirge?

    I mean, it can't get much worse than that...can it?

  • Comment number 19.

    Just have the Queen say "let the games begin!"

  • Comment number 20.

    Pomp and Circumstance is what we need, that's how the rest of the world sees us, Trafalgar, Tea, Supermarine Spitfires, Lancaster Bombers, Dixon of Dock Green helmets.

    Just have Gene Hunt light the flame with a fag, and spend the rest of the budget on fireworks. Perfection. China can't be beat, but, mabye, Australia?


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