Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Not The Laud Of The Rings

Over the weekend I caught the Olympic Opening Ceremony again on iPlayer. I also watched the BBC’s Live Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony Countdown, which I hadn’t bothered with on the night because, as what now seems to be the de rigueur preamble to televised ceremonies, I expected most pre-ceremony business to involve some complete clueless twerp from The One Show (or something of that ilk) loitering outside the stadium with a microphone, asking the arriving athletes who designed their outfits for the evening whilst being as informed of the upcoming event as the berks who attempted to preside over the recently broadcast Jubilee celebration.

As it was it didn’t take long for me to start moving the slider forward in five and then ten–minute intervals to get through the expected waffle. During the actual broadcast I’d been happily watching the Proms on BBC4, and revelling in The West–Eastern Divan Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Symphony 8 when I got the message: ‘They’re just about to perform Nimrod in the stadium...’ So scrabbling for the remote, I flipped channels only to hear a very low key version of the ninth of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, made even less audible by the unwelcome blather from the BBC’s doughy–faced Welsh–wanker, Huw Edwards, a bewildering snatch of The Shipping Forecast, and the distraction of The Wurzels loitering in the background. 

The only surprise from the audible mêlée was the presence of Elgar, which had come from a previous discussion about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert back in early June, where HMQ had to grimace through a rambling selection of piss poor pop acts, no doubt wondering what she had done to deserve an almost incoherent Robbie Williams, Grace Jones with a hula hoop, and finally melty–faced Macca, who has somehow managed to convince most of the population that he is a national institution, much like inbreeding amongst the landed gentry and a weevil guaranteed in every ship’s biscuit. Where, I’d wondered, simply for the sake of tradition if nothing else, was Elgar, Vaughan Williams or Blake/Parry, aren’t they let out of the Royal Albert Hall to play anymore?

At some point I must have muttered that it was doubtful they’d be allowed near the Olympic Opening Ceremony either. Wasn’t it around that time that the bizarre design for the floor of the Olympic stadium on the night had been unveiled to the public? If the atrocity as we waved goodbye to Bejing, with the Transformer Routemaster bus, Beckham booting a football into an aghast audience, and the decidedly odd dance troupe fannying around was a Mitsubishi A6M7 Zero, armed with the atrocious 2012 logo and the bizarre penis mascots as ammunition, then this bizarre Teletubby–Hobbiton concoction was obviously the aircraft carrier flight deck it was scheduled to crash headfirst into. Tradition, which now seemed to be an ugly word that made people twitch and look away, didn’t seem familiar to either of the two. It would be fair to say that expectations weren’t high.

To cut to the chase, I found Friday night’s ceremony utterly jaw-dropping. That would be jaw–droppingly good and jaw–droppingly bad in almost equal measure. I didn’t expect the brilliant precision of China, and at some point I would have liked to see Boris in a cagoule being catapulted into the stadium saying, “Hello clouds, hello sky”, but I suppose you can’t have everything. Maybe it was on the table but dropped due to time constraints, because almost all of what we eventually saw certainly put the ‘Generally Bonkers’ into GB. Watching it again, it still felt – as it first had on Friday – that in the planning stage there was a decision made that the acts, if you want to call them that, had to be as far “out of the box” as possible as well as being well over to “left field”. If some ideas appeared to have been floated and voted in after one too many bottles of Prosecco, one or two had to be the result of a further ingestion of Class A’s.

I really loved most of the first half hour in the stadium, when the bucolic idyll filled with the hey nonny, nonnying pastel–dressed ladies, smiling croppers and the children maypoling while villagers having a bit of a kick about on the green were swiftly eradicated by the arrival of the “dark, satanic” Industrial Revolution, which led to the river of molten steel and the forging of the central fifth ring. And then having James Bond escort HMQ to the stadium was so bonkers it was brilliant. If they had finished it right there and started bringing in the athletes before the arrival of the well–travelled Olympic flame, then everyone in the stadium could have got off early, bought themselves an official Olympic Big Mac on the way out and strolled away into the night with a spring in their step and a smile on their face, rather than have to race to catch the last westbound Central Line train home. Meanwhile everyone at home could have settled down to a late film or retired for the night.

But even in those thirty–odd minutes the sequences ably highlighted the flaws repeated throughout the rest of the show, and I suspect the shoulders that the blame has to be squarely laid upon are those of the Artistic Director, Danny Boyle. I don’t care that he pretty much illustrated which box he ticks when he goes into the voting booth. Obviously some people immediately got in a right tizzy about the NHS getting bigged up, but if you aren’t happy to see the welfare state being celebrated at just about every opportunity then frankly you’re an utter bastard, in which case you should stop reading now and go fuck yourself! So ignoring his political leanings, I think it was his profession that let him down if it’s fair to say that a film director concentrates on the individual scenes whereas a theatre director might think about how the performance on stage connects to the live audience it's presented to.

The Bejing ceremony, as I recall, just had a natural flow to the proceedings, and from any seat in the Birds Nest stadium I would guess you could see (if not fully understand) what was going on at all times. For the audience in Stratford, when so many different things were happening at the same time, I wondered if they knew what the hell they were supposed to looking at next amongst the hubbub of activity unless they glanced up at the large monitors ringing the inner lip of the roof for guidance. And for that to have to happen during a live event, isn’t that a tiny bit of a failure? Further more, focusing on the monitors was obviously a basic requirement for the numerous VT inserts that sprang up during the evening’s performance as well, which begs the question: Since when did what is essentially theatre in the round require so many flat screen TVs to make it work?

Then we come to the content of the show, which could be written off as too many ideas, all over the place, that didn’t really gel. Unless it’s a little island territory like, for example, the Federated States of Micronesia, most countries have a rich and varied history, although saying that the FSoM might host the event some time in the future and really put on a show that surprises everyone. With a running time hopefully shorter than the average Academy Awards telecast it’s all about what gets left out as much as what gets put in. How do they decide that? They say all ideas start with a blank sheet of paper. I’d have thought that when it comes to devising an Olympic ceremony a white napkin would be preferable. That way you’d also have a handy blindfold when facing the firing squad afterwards if it goes spectacularly tits up. If Friday night’s phantasmagoria didn’t deserve a bullet then a knee–capping wouldn’t go amiss.

How do you exemplify nationalism to a multi–national audience and keep everyone happy? As a sign of British progress, without too much ballyhoo I wouldn’t have minded some recognition of the Royal Navy – circa the 17th and early 18th centuries – when it instigated a massive surge forward in this country’s economics, industry and even agriculture, and because we are, after all, an island nation. But I suppose it would be bad form to remind everyone that Britannia once ruled the waves and there were times when, to secure vital trade routes, our ships blew holes in the hulls of ship belonging to countries that weren’t on our Christmas card list at the time. So instead we got the Industrial Revolution, which worked a charm because it’s obviously fine to ravage your own countryside in the name of progress rather than doing the same to some other nation.

To add to the British achievements a shout out to Alan Turing might have been nice, but that would have brought up Bletchley Park and that would have been awkward however much they tried to jolly it up. Even if the announcer barked “MK3!”, I doubt they could have got the German Ambassador in the audience to play along and wearily reply, “You haff sunk my U-boat!” Meanwhile the British Empire would probably only ever have made an appearance if some blousy tart dressed up as Britannia was grilled by Paxman; naming a country that hadn’t come under British control before repeatedly demanding, “Did you threaten to rule them?” Even playing nice, which of course was the done thing to do – after all, the Chinese drummers never once took a timeout to clip a Tibetan monk around the lughole – the trick was to predominantly stick to cultural references and through them slip anything under the wire anything that could have been contentious. Whether that worked was another matter.

Sir Winston Churchill, voted the Greatest Briton a decade ago, made an appearance in the mad and mostly successful James Bond VT but only in the sense that his statue in Parliament Square was transformed into some frankly disturbing, gurning, liquid–liquorice character. Really, we could have done without that because it looked like the sort of bollocks Russell T Davies dreamt up when he was making an absolute hash of Doctor Who and distracted from the fact that it was HMQ (who looked like she was trying desperately not to giggle when she got up from her writing desk) and James–fucking–Bond! Whereas Winnie’s turn was brief and only in passing, the flummery that surrounded the tribute to the NHS seemed more problematic.

Starting with directions from The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, it was easy to see how they joined the dots from Peter Pan to J.M. Barrie leaving the rights to Great Ormond Street Hospital, to nursing, to the National Health Service. But shoe–horning it into a celebration of children’s literature let the whole thing run amuck. What was the idea here, that reading gives you nightmares? Or maybe I was still puzzled that with Mike Oldfield playing from Tubular Bells as the children lay in their beds, not one of the kiddies was impelled to rotate their head and spew bile green vomit everywhere. As Lord Voldemort inflated and the Child Catcher and his army of ninjas crashed the party it felt like the brains trust had got into an “and then... and then...” game of one–upmanship that ran riot until they decided a squadron of Mary Poppins should all float in to save the day and packed it in, never to return and refine the idea. And was two children having to share one hospital bed a specific dig or something else altogether?

Still, if that middle section was baggy at the seams, the final main set–piece was where it all came apart. Watching the pre-show – or at least the last fifteen minutes or so after skipping the blather – I’d happened across some plaid shirt–wearing band occupying the slopes of the Teletubby Glastonbury Tor. As always with all these sorts of earnest young tykes, the singer was enthusiastically spouting, “Who’d have thought that after all, something as simple as rock and roll will save us all” with the usual spectacularly naïve of performers not long in the music business. Yet watching the Opening Ceremony again I wondered if this wasn’t the key to the evening ahead.

Going back to the opening VT that began at the source of the Thames then sped forward down the river into the heart of London, I expected to have heard, “Sweet Thames run softly, till I end my song,” from Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion – later appropriated to an altogether different effect in The Waste Land by T.S Eliot – as well as seen some reference to the work of J.M.W. Turner. But apart from the fleeting, and crude, animation of Ratty and Mole on the water, both the Ceremony’s introduction and the night ahead was really just about the music. (In which case the omission of Spenser’s reference showed up not just the limitations of the theme but also the lack of any real effort).

So apparently – when it comes to British culture – theatre, musical theatre, art, poetry, literature, and film, whether comedic or dramatic, personal or profound, comes much lower on the list than pop music. Of there was the early nod to Shakespeare by having Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel quoting Prospero from The Tempest before going off to have his photograph taken, but only because “The isle is full of noises” was key to the night’s manifesto and if any branches of the arts got a look in they were simply relegated to adjunct status.

As the final section laboured its way through an extended Stars on 45 of British hit singles until it ended on a celebration of Sir Tim Berners–Lee – rightly lauded for the invention of the World Wide Web. If everything before had been about hiding something of worth within an existing tableau, this awkward shift from the sometime irreverent to the utterly irrelevant simply buried it under a mountain of shit. Whose idea was it that the best way to illustrate his technological revolution was to spend over a quarter of a hour segueing through Now That's What I Call British Popular Music volumes 1–5 on the back of phone–obsessed young urban youths being reunited with their mobile? That was the best they could come up with? So there you go Tim, all that work and it comes down to the kids of today downloading a bunch of tunes and their fucking apps! I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d curled up under the desk and stuck a gun in his mouth.

Even then it didn’t really make sense because I have a basic mobile that I can send texts on that doesn’t require internet connectivity. Or did I miss something? Because again the sequence required on–screen messaging graphics that worked well in something like Sherlock when you’re at home on the sofa looking at the television but most have been a bastard to make sense of on the distant monitors in the stadium itself. No wonder the audience – when they weren’t busy taking photos with their own fucking mobiles – tended to look bemused at what was going on.

And again the sequence required the vital VT, or at least clips projected onto that funny inflatable house, to illustrate this “romance” between the careless girl and the predatory boy, most of which left me confounded. Why, to illustrate the budding relationship, did we see snatches from Kes and Gregory’s Girl? Hasn’t anyone seen the ends of those films? The kestrel gets killed and Gregory ends up with a different girl to the one he chases. Then when the pair in the stadium finally get together we’re treated to clips from Hollywood movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Wall-E. Surely for Britain – in the continuing token attempt to celebrate British films – it should have been one of the final shots from Brief Encounter, the heartbreak of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton parting at the bus stop in The Remains of the Day, and James Donald walking on the sandbar muttering, “Madness!... Madness!”?! Or maybe I’m taking that last bit too personally.

Either way, by the time the Arctic Monkeys started their hooting and hollering it just felt like the whole enterprise had started well, stoked by the initial wheels of industry, but then immediately fizzled and died on its arse. Years ago during an extended stay in New York, one morning after a particularly wild night before I’d stumbled into the grocery store that stood across from the apartment on Lexington Ave and 70th Street. Perilously hung over and badly dehydrated, I found myself staring at the row of chiller cabinets stocked with all manner of different juices and sodas. “Too much choice, huh?!” observed one of the locals as he saw me standing there, paralysed by the sheer abundance of products on offer and unable to decide what I wanted. That’s how the Opening Ceremony felt: too much to choose from and not enough proper thought put into what flavours go together.

All that was left, once the players of the games had eventually trotted in and been politely kettled in the central staging area, was the lighting of the cauldron – and Thomas Heatherwick’s designed proved to be the absolute masterpiece of the night. Even then, the handover from the old to the new leaving us with the Young Olympians and the Cauldron of Fire, I had a feeling that good ideas like that had been senselessly marred by the cloying desire for the group of two letters hanging over the evening’s event to be not GB or UK but definitely PC. With the deaf drummer banging on her pots and pans, the choir of deaf and signing children warbling the national anthem in their jammies, the on–the–nose multiculturalism, and the need – right at the start – to interrupt the recital of Jerusalem with a burst of Danny Boy from the Causeway Coast and whatever the hell was being sung from Edinburgh Castle and a preternaturally sunny Welsh beach, there were times when the ceremony was so politically correct that it was stifling.

Still, basking in the reflective glow of the two hundred-odd lit petals once they had risen up and were pointing skyward there would have been a good chance to have let it all go if only they had held on such a satisfying image. But then some complete knob had decided we needed to finish the night with melty–faced Macca and another burst of bloody Hey Jude, which we really don’t ever need to hear again, which is fortunate in that he doesn’t seem able to sing it anymore. Although judging from the quick exits the athletes were making maybe he had simply been brought in to help clear the stadium.

If so it seemed to do the trick with some stands clearing as everyone got the fuck out of there, while those lingering in their seats were holding on in the hope that The Stig would jetpack in and drop that giant bell on the Scouse bell-end's head. Now that would be worth a medal in anyone’s book! 


At 2:41 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Glad to see I'm not the only one who puzzled over the performance/video clip balance of the ceremony. The Bond skit was the highlight but I wondered whose bright idea it had been to have HRH then pick her way carefully down half a dozen steps in public view. The Olympic Park budget didn't run to a pair of sliding doors on the appropriate level? That would have been a proper way to cap the sequence.

I'm genuinely pleased to note the euphoria felt by so many over the games when the omens were so not good. And it's great to see so many hardworking and focused kids have their dedication rewarded. Not enough to erase the life-lesson of my schooldays, though, which was that school sports didn't exist to promote health or exercise amongst me and my less graceful kind, but to reinforce the thick kids' sense of natural superiority.

At 9:36 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

When it came to Rowan Atkinson repeatedly hitting the synth key while Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Chariots of Fire theme must have been nice for the people seated nearby, but across the stadium they must have been straining to see what was going on unless they referred to the video screens, especially the final CU of Rattle's annoyed expression.

I found the Atkinson/'Bean' dream sequence a bit weak. Since Billy Crystal first hosted the Oscars, placing a character into existing filmed footage has become tiring. And strange it was about cheating, especially since we had the reps of the athletes, coaches and judges take the pledge to play fair. Maybe instead of jumping in a rickety old taxi cab he should have got behind the wheel of his Maclaren F1, while it was on fire, and run them down. At least that would have been a shout out to the car's Scottish designer, Gordon Murray.

With six hours of audio that I was supposed to transcribe this weekend, I made the mistake of turning on BBC1 yesterday to watch the Olympic coverage for the first time while eating breakfast and didn't switch channels or turn off the television until gone midnight. It was quite incredible to watch.

Can't say that the sports periods in my schooldays put a smile on my face and a spring in my step when I look back on them. Most of the tutors were practising sadists. After two years of either running away from the ball or getting crushed into the mud playing rugby at the prep school, I was finally taught how to play rugby at the next school, aged eleven. Can't remember which move it was exactly but the teacher picked me to help demonstrate it and, having bulked up a bit from a few years living/working on our farm, I barreled into him and sent the chap flying. After that it all went a bit downhill...

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