Archive for the ‘history’ Category
Started the day with the best documentary I’ve seen so far – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the revolution. I was introduced to its talented, measured director Stanley Nelson as I entered Showroom 3 cinema. I told him about some footage we found in the attic of Solus, my first job, of James Baldwin with two Panthers in London (with Huw Wheldon for BBC’s Monitor shot by Jack Hazan).
It’s a masterful historical doc, the story told perfectly in a clear, disciplined and balanced way. Huey Newton’s story is plain tragic. The women protagonists are powerful and impressive. The stand-out character is Fred Hampton, a captivating orator assassinated by the Chicago pigs.
The story couldn’t be more resonant than now with the chain of events unravelling recently like this:
I chatted after with Stanley and Dick Fontaine (of the National Film & TV School) about the trustworthiness of police testimony then and now, and the power of the US authorities through the last 50 years.
Middle of the day was Roast Beef’s curious The Russian Woodpecker – an oblique route in to capturing the looming resurgence of the Cold War. It takes an artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, to know which way the wind blows in Russia/Ukraine and to become as much an over-the-horizon radar as the mysterious Duga early-warning system he discovers in the shadow of Chernobyl. Conspiracy theory, Cold War paranoia, arty kookiness and Soviet spookiness make a heady brew. Fedor and director Chad Garcia attended the screening in Sheffield’s library.
Rounded off the day at a session on Long Lost Family chaired in his usual ebullient way by ITV’s Simon Dickson (a former colleague at Channel 4) and featuring Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell. It is quite the most emotional show on TV and beautifully made (bar the music). The high production values and excellent direction mark it out from its roots in a Dutch format and a US version. Captures exactly the strengths of UK factual TV. Constructing the format on the official social worker process of adoption reunion was clever thinking. Davina and Nicky are both total pros with real heart. I’ve just watched the latest episode and there was not a dry eye in the hotel room.
There are good victories and there are bad victories. Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the day my fellow citizens danced in the fountains of Trafalgar Square to celebrate the fall of Hitler and the Nazis and the triumph of Democracy.
Yesterday was also the day I woke up from not much sleep, having listened most of the night to the results of the General Election as they came in, to the prospect of a majority Tory government and 5 more years of a very different austerity to what faced the victorious nation in the aftermath of the war. Instead of bold visions of the future like the National Health Service this is a prospect of the NHS being sold off to rapacious corporations who actually don’t perform any better than the incumbents and cream off cash for shareholders at the expense of the service-users. The last 18 months has seen not only an obvious deterioration of the NHS, in particular A&E, but also a blossoming unfairness. We’re not all it it together and never have been. The Conservatives aren’t capable of doing One Nation, it’s not in their nature.
Last week Richard Rogers, the architect of 124 Horseferry Road, Channel 4’s HQ just round the corner from the Houses of Parliament, came in to his building to talk to us, the staff of C4, about his work and life and the building we work in. He was interviewed by Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman in our cinema and among the most interesting revelations was that he hadn’t intentionally created the Channel 4 penis. It’s long been an urban myth that when you look down on the two revolving doors and the see-through entrance canopy it was deliberately designed to look like a todger.
Rogers was genuinely surprised at the revelation so the urban myth was officially put to bed. At the amusement no doubt of the lowly member of Richard Rogers’ draughting team who probably snuck it in.
Rogers also spoke about how, when he comes home to his self-designed Georgian conversion in Chelsea, most of the buildings he walks by at night have next to no lights on since they are not homes but investments of the rich and foreign, they are laundered cash and expressions of no faith in their own nations. They are emblems of the last 5 years of Tory-driven government, empty, an insult to the sufferers of the nationwide housing crisis, dark, undermining of this great city, my native London. For the first time in my life it is deteriorating before my eyes – as I discussed here in Blitzed Again.
So I woke up from the kind of sleep you’d get in an Underground tunnel at night with German bombs falling above, shell-shocked by the unexpected result of a majority Tory government in the face of weeks of polls and punditry to the contrary. Not only that but the excellent Labour candidate in my constituency (and I’m not a Labour supporter) also failed to get elected in spite of a truly exemplary campaign – well organised, committed, personal and with heart. Sarah Sackman is a talented local candidate, young and with energy, not cynical but engaged and hopeful. Instead we got 5 more years of a tired party hack who can’t even be relied on to protect the Grade 2 listed library at the cultural heart of our community. After writing this I’m off on a march to call for the saving of easyCouncil Barnet’s library service – another aspect of public life the last Cameron regime failed hopelessly to safeguard right across the country.
I actually voted for Sarah but it was the result of a vote-swop facilitated by Swap My Vote www.swapmyvote.uk through which I had my Liberal vote cast in the West Country where a slim LibDem majority was being defended. In return I voted for Labour on behalf of a total stranger who I met through the site and exchanged a few messages through Facebook to get a sense of his bona fides. His vote, which would have had no impact where he lives, got to contribute to a very tight Conservative-Labour race here. It was an uplifting contact through new technology and for me was the only silver lining of the horrendousness of this drawn-out election. Apart from the unelection of the horrendous George Galloway of course (if only Scotland would take that son of theirs back). It represents the upside of the internet age in that this clever application of web technology means that if we don’t get given Electoral Reform (4M UKIP votes gave them 1 seat, 1M Green votes gave them 1 seat, while 1.4M SNP votes yielded 56 seats) we the people can take it for ourselves. Those numbers should leave a lot of frustrated and disempowered and angry people in their wake. I have never voted tactically before in the whole of my adult life but I just couldn’t face 5 more years of being all in it together with the complacent, hypocritical, greedy and out of touch.
Swap My Vote was set up in typical internet start-up MVP style by a Channel 4 colleague, Tom de Grunwald, and a PhD scientist, James Allen. It is a ray of light in the looming darkness.
So I got up with effort and went off to work. I felt the need to talk to people so on my way in to the Richard Rogers penis-less edifice (will this lot of Tories sell off this bit of the family silver?) I went to a meeting at the media cliché that is the Groucho Club in Dean Street, Soho where I had the privilege of watching Nick Clegg’s dignified and masterful resignation speech, truly historic, with the historian Simon Schama. I recently saw him deliver his own masterful speech at Names Not Numbers in Aldeburgh where he spoke without notes for over an hour in a fluent and inspirational way which was the quintessence of what a university lecturer/professor should be. We also watched Ed Miliband’s resignation speech, an interesting contrast, not because it was poor or unfelt, but because it lacked the same insight and historical scope.
From there I walked towards the office in the company of a Cambridge mathematician I had also befriended at Names Not Numbers. We picked over the ashes together. We took our leave at the new 4th plinth, Gift Horse, a sculptural statement by German-American artist Hans Haacke about austerity in contrast to City excess.
I walked across the square to look again at the fountain captured in the VE Day photo which opens this, enjoying the joining across seven decades through photography:
The VE Day 70 display boards, courtesy of the Mayor of London who re-entered the House of Commons yesterday as a potential rival to Cameron, Dougal to Cameron’s Ermintrude, afforded an opportunity to link then and now:
I then headed straight down Whitehall an hour ahead of the wreath-laying commemoration for this special VE Day at the Cenotaph. I didn’t have the heart to glimpse over at 10 Downing Street.
There are bad victories and there are good victories. I did my best to drown the bad in the good, like empty cans in a fountain.
Yesterday Christies in New York sold the manuscript and notes for Don McLean’s 1971 mega-hit ‘American Pie’ for $1.2M. It’s a view back from the perspective of 1971 over the 60s and 50s to an age of innocence represented by Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. The lyrics have a reputation for being impenetrable and rich in sub-text, though it is easy to spot Dylan, The Stones, The Beatles, The Byrds, Janis Joplin et al as he takes us through from his 12 year old self mourning the loss of Buddy Holly and co. in a tragic plane crash in 1959 through to a jaded, nostalgic 24 year old surveying the wreckage of the Hippy era. When asked what it means McLean’s favourite answer is: “It means I never have to work again.”
I went back this evening to check whether the song is as irritating as I remember. It is. The description of “bubblegum Dylan” is not far off (I think the phrase is Alexis Petridis’s). But the song’s sale and the fact it is trying to capture the meaning of a particular point in music history makes it a good springboard for a project that’s been brewing up in me for quite some time.
Over a couple of years I kept noticing that a number of classic records were recorded in 1971. After a while it seemed more than just coincidence. And as the 1971 records gathered I noticed that in many ways they seemed to represent the essence of the 60s/Hippy era even though they were a couple of years late numerically. How come the 60s seemed to climax in 1971? What was special about that year?
I went back to look and picked out 10 records that seem crucial to that year, and then one track on each that gets to the heart of the record. I’m planning to do a post about each of them in the wake of this intro. So first up will be ‘Natural Woman’ by Carole King from ‘Tapestry’…
Screenwriter Colin Welland famously proclaimed “The British are coming!” when he picked up the original screenplay Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1981. Then the drought followed. Then Film4 (the movie-making bit of Channel 4) helped correct that with prestigious Oscars for The Last King of Scotland [Best Actor], Slumdog Millionaire [Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and 5 others] and last year 12 Years a Slave [Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and 6 nominations] and for the first time a black hand clutching that Best Picture statuette. Which brings us neatly to Selma, the powerful new movie about Martin Luther King and the break-through protests he led at Selma, Alabama which ultimately secured the vote for African-Americans. So an American icon (the only modern American with a public holiday named after them – this coming month you can join in on the 19th [January]) and a very American subject yet the 4 lead roles are filled by Brits.
I went to a BAFTA viewing last week attended by the film’s main lead, David Oyelowo. I didn’t know anything about him, not having been a Spooks fan – that’s a UK drama on BBC about spies (= spooks) for any American cousins reading this, I’m pointing that out because spooks means something else that side of the water (= derogatory term for African-Americans). They changed the title to MI-5 in the US for just that reason. So I almost fell off my perch when he started talking in a South London accent. Much like when I first heard Eton-educated Dominic West speaking after watching The Wire – BTW McNulty’s partner The Bunk (Detective Moreland) shows up as a token American actor in Selma, Wendell Pierce plays the Reverend Hosea Williams who leads the first Selma to Montgomery march in MLK’s place.
1. David Oyelowo plays the big man himself, Dr Martin Luther King Jnr
David was born in Oxford and trained at LAMDA in London. His portrayal of MLK certainly makes him a Best Actor contender in the forthcoming awards season – I thought Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking was way out ahead of the pack before I saw Selma. He’s done the whole African-American story at this point with roles in Lincoln, The Butler and The Help. He also appeared in the aforementioned The Last King of Scotland as well as a small part in fellow Brit Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
He puts the success of British actors down to their training which he characterises as focusing on building the character from the inside out, diametrically opposite The Method. His accent in the movie is flawless, King having a very particular mix of accents with an equally distinctive preacher’s inflection.
He felt fated to play this role (it took eight years to get the movie made and he was cast early on). Shooting on location in Selma and Montgomery, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge which was the frontline of the protest (the bridge being named after an Alabama senator and general who also led the Alabama Ku Klux Klan – surprisingly (to a Brit at least) it retains its name to this day), shooting on location in the places where the civil rights history played out made for some very powerful experiences for the actor. One Twilight Zoney story he told was how when they came to shoot the final speech in front of the Capitol building in Montgomery the Production Designer was unhappy with the rostrum and podium. He went over to the nearby church, where MLK had preached, and asked to borrow a lectern. The pastor went down into the basement to look for anything suitable and found one covered in dust. When the Production Designer got it cleaned up and onto the set he checked back against contemporary photos and found it was the actual one used in 1965.
2. Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, MLK’s wife
Carmen was born in Kensington (London, England) of a Nigerian father and Scottish mother. She’d already played Coretta in the HBO TV movie Boycott thirteen years earlier. She met her current husband, actor Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig era Bond films), on the set of that movie but was previously married briefly to British trip-hop artist Tricky. She met Coretta King when making Boycott. She captures the dignity of CSK well and has a good scene with Malcolm X as well as a key one confronting her husband about his infidelity.
3. Tom Wilkinson plays LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson)
Tom lives up the road from me in Muswell Hill. He’s great as Mr President, a touch crude and ultimately concerned with his legacy. He was born in Leeds and trained at RADA. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing US Presidents including Anthony Hopkins as Nixon and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln.
4. Tim Roth plays Governor George Wallace
Tim is from Dulwich, South London and studied at Camberwell Art School. He is in a strong tradition of Brits playing evil baddies. Wallace qualifies as indicated by the assassination attempt which left him in a wheelchair from 1972. Roth set out to play him as a despicable monster and pulled it off pretty well, you really want to hiss every time he appears. Roth came from a left-wing/Communist household and the Selma-Montgomery Marches were well known to him from it.
It’s a really striking movie and very well acted by the Brit Pack. What makes it particularly resonant though is that recent times have made it abundantly clear that the race issues that dog America (not least because it’s a nation founded on a genocide) are still here #ICantBreathe
I’ve been coming to DocFest (formerly the Sheffield International Documentary Festival) since the dawn of time. I’m sitting cross-legged on the hill of Howard Street, on a black marble seaty-thing, as I write this, buddha-like. The hill runs up from the station towards the city centre and is one of the best bits of urban regeneration I’ve seen in this country. Overlooking this spot is an Andrew Motion poem written on the side of a Sheffield Hallam University tower block addressing travellers arriving in the city (Andrew Motion in part inspired Simple Pleasures part 4). After my many years coming to the festival I came up with a good strategy involving this hill yesterday. Instead of relentless regular blocks of formalised meetings crowding out the day I arranged no meetings – just sat on one of these black marble blocks and waited for people I knew and wanted to see pass by me. It worked very well – I got to chat with more people and the chats were the lengths they needed to be.
I am now on the train pulling out of Sheffield. I leave behind a very satisfying couple of days’ experience. It began as I got off the other train the other way on Sunday evening. I dumped my stuff at the hotel and went out for dinner just out of town with Colm O’Callaghan, a colleague from RTE in Dublin. We chatted about all manner of stuff, centred on Ireland and music, and most excitingly discussed the possibility of doing a collaborative historical project next year. We headed back to town to meet at a bar the speakers in the session I was to chair the next day. We did a judicious amount of preparation (mainly a quick chat to reassure them we’d be talking about stuff they know well and don’t have to think much about and ascertaining what video material they’d brought with) then oiled the getting-to-know-you wheels with alcohol.
The session the next morning entitled ‘Interacting with the Past’ focused on interactive and multiplatform TV in the History genre. Joe Myerscough, Producer/Director from the excellent Windfall Films, represented the superb D-Day: As It Happens project from Channel 4 in 2013. The delightful Elizabeth Klinck, a super-expert Canadian visual/archive researcher, added an interesting perspective. And my Channel 4 colleague, Online Producer Marie James, focused on The Mill, a historically accurate drama set in 1831. We managed to range across a lot of territory around what interactivity brings to History TV and from a lot of perspectives (indy producer, broadcaster, support services, commissioner), driven by questions from the audience, so it felt free-flowing, flexible and practically useful. Went down well, felt good.
At the other end of the day I went to see a new history documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by Andre Singer. I can’t write about it yet beyond what’s already in the public domain but suffice it to say it’s a very impactful film about the filming of the Holocaust. It will be showing on Channel 4 in January coming. One unexpected aspect of the story is that Alfred Hitchcock was involved in this filmic recording of the Holocaust by Allied troops. I chatted with Andre and his wife Lynette, who wrote the commentary for the film, on the way out. Also the producer Sally Angel, who I first met last year through an online project via my friend Steve Moore. We had a lively discussion about what age is best to first introduce young people to the imagery of the Holocaust. I believe it should be 16+. The person from the BFI thought younger was OK on the basis that kids get to see horror films (not an argument I buy – the documentary footage in Night Will Fall is another world from scripted drama). I first crossed paths with Andre and Lynette when I was starting out on my career and they ran an outfit in Covent Garden called Cafe Productions (that name’s just come back to me after all these years). I went on a bus ride with Andre last May (2013) to Yad Vashem when he first told me about the film. It’s been nestling in the back of my mind since then.
So a day steeped in History.
And today started out in similar vein. I went to see Brilliant Creatures: Rebels of Oz, a 2-part BBC/ABC documentary about 4 Australians who made good in London in the 60s, bringing a fresh perspective to a country only just emerging from the War. The Creatures in question are Germaine Greer, writer Clive James, art critic Robert Hughes and comedian Barry Humphreys. Jacobson considers Germaine Greer the most rebellious and radical of these. It’s a fabulous story – woven together by novelist Howard Jacobson (who himself wrote startlingly about the Holocaust in the brilliant Kalooki Nights, which sits on my Shelf of Honour). I had a brief chat with him after, mainly congratulating him on pulling together such an illuminating story. He said he was in search of the secret to the Oz “zest for life”.
I got close to having a chat with Germaine Greer but it didn’t quite happen. I wanted to talk Frank Zappa with her as the BBC recently released a wonderful radio documentary she made about him. There was a great clip in the film of her hanging with Robert Plant and Led Zep.
Over breakfast this morning I had a great plan-hatching session with a couple of documentary makers (one from Leipzig where my dad was born) which was also a kick.
So it’s been a couple of days with a heartbeat of History. I had to give it up as a subject in formal education after O Level (apart from a small burst of it as part of my German/Modern Languages degree) but at heart I’m still a History Boy.
On a hunt for NFL gear in NYC this morning for one of the Enfants Terribles, I walked past Macy’s and noticed this brass plaque. The exact wording it turns out is crucial. You leave with the impression that this is where the first movie was projected – “Here the motion picture began” is what misleads. But the truth is actually precisely (and narrowly) what it says below: it’s where Edison first projected a movie. It was put up by “The American Motion Picture Industry” where truth is not always at a premium.
Movies were first publicly projected 8 months earlier in Chicago at the Model Variety Theater. And they were first projected to a paying audience 5 months before in Paris at the Grand Café. In fact they’d already been publicly projected in New York before this date. I haven’t done much research but I dare say there are some other European claims to challenge these dates.
Edison had already charged members of the public to watch movies prior to this date but on peephole machines, not projected. On the date marked by this bold and brassy plaque the film was part of a vaudeville show and was simply three of his peephole films spliced together. So over-stated, over-charged and over here.
Meanwhile back at home in London, I was thinking the other day about blue plaques because a newspaper story has been doing the rounds about how English Heritage, who now administer the blue plaque scheme, established in 1866 and believed to be the oldest of its kind in the world, are about to kill the blue plaque. The scheme was set up under the auspices of the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of the Arts, of which at one time I was a Fellow). The baton then passed to the London County Council and in due course to the Greater London Council. In 1986, English Heritage took up the responsibility. So the press stories recently suggested that the scheme was about to end but I suspect this was actually cack-handed PR on the part of English Heritage, crying wolf in the face of tight times and cuts. They have subsequently said they are just pausing the scheme to deal with a back-log and slow things down in these cash-starved times. What they have done in the process is drawn attention to the cost of what should at heart be a simple operation with expenditure limited to making a robust piece of blue ceramic, but no doubt there is some immense bureaucracy accreted around a simple idea designed to make a plain link between notable characters from the past and the buildings in which they lived, worked and died. As English Heritage summarises the 147 year old scheme with which it has been entrusted: “It is a uniquely successful means of connecting people and place.” I suspect if EH did pull the plug, we the public could do it for ourselves at a fraction of the cost and bring back a long tradition of public subscription in our country with the help of some open, sharing digital technology.
Any way, enough kvetching as they say around here (I’m writing this at 3rd Avenue and 24th Street), I’d like to draw attention to my favourite blue plaque. It’s high up on the wall of 22 Frith Street in London, above the Bar Italia, directly opposite Ronnie Scott’s jazz club – and it’s a model of British understatement:
So basically “Here Television began”.
If you go to Bletchley Park, or certainly this was the case about five to ten years ago, you could see the concrete base of the hut where the world’s first programmable computer was created by Alan Turing. The hut was knocked down some years ago. The spot is (or was) not specifically marked. I remember standing there and thinking if this was in the USA there would be something pretty significant to mark this stupendous happening. “Here Computing began.” Or at least “Here programmable Computing began.”
It was minus 13 the night I arrived here. As an Englishman in New York I might have said: “It’s a bit nippy”. But there’s a time for sang froid and a time for being big, bold and brassy…
I look down at my feet of red clay
The stone threshold is a vale
Worn by hundreds of residents
On thousands of journeys
Behind which lies the story of Nathan
And his married sister Else
In which seventy-two years later I stand
And cross my path with theirs.
What mathematics zigzagging
Across the great gentle curve
Along the angles of history
Brings their heirs to this square
Where I feel they were happy?
The code is broken
By a facsimile map
On the back shelf
Of a dusty museum shop
Blown to high heaven
By a home-grown bomb
Ironically Angle or Saxon
Or written out of existence
By Soviet canonisation
Comes into alignment
In the palimpsest of charts
Etched back into history
As Käthe Kollwitz
As the lines and angles align
Our trajectory bounces off the city museum
Across the top of the central square
Towards Nat and Dora’s quarter
I fire off a text to a vestige of their family
And shoot off a volley
To the other half in the other Old Country
Then the rectangle is spotted
With invisible walls
And bronze chairs
For the invisible congregation
It’s Saturday morning, about eleven
Just the right time
And Nat’s three off-spring zag off onto the rectangle
Sit in the cold back row
Where I wonder what strange geometry
Brings us back here
And what the old man and his sister make of this
I’m sure he’s pleased we got him back home
They melted the angles
And Moorish curves and arches
In their chaotic flames
Then charged the Israelites
To demolish the remains
A hundred and forty haunted seats
Seventy-nine people per seat
Plus interest for 1933 to 1938
By the time the 69th arrived
The maths of dark bureaucracy
Calculated zero squared
We spun off to the first point of the triangle
Twenty-two twenty eighteen
A car park
Covered by a blue cloudless sky
Tranquil leaves swaying
Two years on plus two days
I zig back into town
To complete some symmetry
And get these last lines down
In the fatherland
Land of my fathers
May the old language endure
A car park
By the corner, the first corner
We piece together the crystal shards
Of our past
As eighteen so sixteen
Then translated to Carmel Court NW11
And rotated to that opening scene
Of burgerlich Krakow apartments abandoned
What fearful symmetry
A sweep round the circular by-pass
Brings us to the stone threshold
Number one on the Northern square
Is point two
The address on the birth certificate
With its eagle and perverted cross
What fearful geometry converted that cross
From auspicious object
Turning right and rotated
Night on blood in emptiness
To helpless subject with broken limbs
Nailed to the intersection
Father don’t forgive them
They knew what they were doing
They typed it all out
Signed and sealed it with the eagle
They had staplers and ink pads
That’s how mundane they were
The address after all these years
Turned out not to be home but hospital
The red pin dropped
On the point of birth
The last point of the triangle
Where the sons of the son of the son
Played on the black posts
Rising and falling
Lifting the feet of red clay
In the triumph of fearless play
A vestigial homeland triangle
Superimposed on the triangle of father . son . son .
Is a star
Burning across time
Leipzig, 27th October 2012
Yesterday evening (14 Oct 2012 UK time) Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner become the first human to go faster than the speed of sound without a vehicle, reaching a maximum velocity of 833.9 mph (1,342 kmph). In jumping out of a balloon 128,100 feet / 24 miles /39 km above New Mexico, the 43-year-old also smashed the record for the highest ever freefall.
VIDEO: Here’s him making the jump:
For me the magic moment is when he gains control around 3’30”.
VIDEO: And here’s him landing, with his reflections on the jump as the audio (from a press conference):
Here’s the accurate quote of what he said just before stepping out of his capsule – it’s been misreported as he repeated it roughly at that press conference afterwards.
When I got to work this (Monday) morning and everyone was talking about the Opening Ceremony I was struck by how long ago it seems – it was only on Friday night and yet a lot of water seems to have passed under the proverbial. It was exactly a week ago that I sped down to Stratford after work to watch the first full Technical Dress rehearsal of the ceremony thanks to a last minute ticket courtesy of London 2012 digital boss Alex Balfour. I was bowled over by what I saw and heard. It was clearly designed as a television event – you could sense many of the camera angles to come – so I was more than happy to experience the real thing via that medium five days later. I found the structure very interesting too – it seemed to revolve around an iconic moment right in the middle – the coming together of the five Olympic rings in a shower of steel mill sparks. We did not see the other iconic moment at the end – the lighting of Thomas Heatherwick’s 204 petal fire flower – which shifts the structure to something more balanced across the whole event. Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder proved to be a panoramic vision of what and who this country is, was and will be. It had a natural diversity and balance – ethnically, generationally, geographically, culturally – which reflect the greatness of Britain.
I’ve thought for a long time that Englishness (I’ll switch perspective for a moment) is characterised by these four things in particular:
- Eccentricity – we always have been an odd, outlandish bunch: the world will think so all the more now (no bad thing), with the striking contrast with Beijing 2008’s bombastic opening ceremony which I wrote about back in July 2012 in this very blog here
- Humour – we have a sense of humour that undermines authority, sometimes in a self-deprecating way (but different from New York humor in that regard)
- Tolerance – basically these isles have tended to absorb other peoples in a constructive way
- Creativity of a particular hard-edged brutal sort – I’ve written about this elsewhere in this blog, Creativity being one of the two the main themes, but to reiterate I believe the combination of Norman refinedness and Saxon warrior tendencies has brought about the kind of culture where a beautiful feminine dress is finished with a pair of DMs, that constant undermining of the conventional.
Danny Boyle’s ceremony was infused with all of these: Eccentricity in turning a sports stadium into a bucolic world from the past complete with farm animals and rugby players, that very eccentric game created when some maverick picked up the ball and ran with it; Humour well captured in that modern day Chaplin, mute and recognised the world over, Mr Bean, dreaming of Chariots of Fire (yes, it pains me to bracket him with Chaplin but there is that common universality) and in getting the reigning monarch to be shoved out of a helicopter to make her entrance (I loved the quotation in The Telegraph the next day: “With the words ‘Good evening, Mr Bond’ the Queen secured the monarchy for the next thousand years.”); Tolerance in the easy racial mix of the whole cast and story-telling, like the modern phone-centric romance of the Digital Revolution sequence, as well as the inclusion of the choir of blind, deaf and other children; and of course Creativity in every fibre of its being. I’m not a huge fan of Boyle’s films but I can’t really fault anything in his conception or direction on this occasion – real vision and insight.
Whilst writing this I had a quick look back at that blog post from the time of the Beijing Opening Ceremony and it read as surprisingly precient:
In 2012 to follow these people making a spectacle of themselves, partying to the tune of the Party, London must be itself, tune in to its idiosyncratic, eccentric, spirited creativity (one thing that cannot be manufactured); its rich mix of cultures and peoples; its unique, particular, genuine handmade in Britain talent; its individual dreams which thread the tapestry of its Jerusalem spirit.
I even got the opening song right – that beautiful rendition of Jerusalem which really should be our national anthem (or the English one at least). That child’s voice, and children throughout the event, were included with a genuine warmth and respect.
What was brilliant about the whole thing was how, despite the regime under which it was created, it raised an almighty finger to the Tory establishment and other right-wingers (including the US of A) by showcasing the NHS, the workers who built this country (and the Olympic Park itself, forming the honour guard when the torch finally entered the stadium), Johnny Rotten and the Pistols, Tim Berners-Lee who gave everything away in a very non-Capitalist way, ravers, lesbian kissing, volunteers, the works – all this, without aggression and in good spirit, plugging in to the energy of creative ideas and imagination.
It also captured the intergenerational aspect of the Olympics perfectly, no more so then when transferring that flame from the elder statesman of sport that is now five-time Gold Medal winner Steve Redgrave, via a generation of highly accomplished British Olympians who mentored and selected them, to the 7 emerging talents who carried those distinctive perforated metallic torches (one of which I’d seen from a few feet away two days before as it jogged across my manor by Victoria Park London N3) to light the petals of the cauldron which rose and were united in a single flame in a perfectly judged moment of symbolism.
On the Friday of the Opening ceremony I did my first shift at the Main Press Centre as a Gamesmaker (London 2012 volunteer). That I was working there is testimony to the narrowness of my skills – you didn’t apply for any particular job, you told them what you could do and they assigned you to a role, so I got the website and related social media. I woke up that Friday morning, in another well judged moment of symbolism, at dawn – excited like a child. And like a child I got on my bike (after first having driven it in the back of the car to Stamford Hill, site of my own raving in my 20s at Watermint Quay by the canal) and cycled along the self-same canal in the deserted early morning to the Hackney Wick corner of the Olympic Park. I clocked on at the MPC in good time, joined in the bell ringing at 8:12 (All the Bells by Martin Creed) and then got to it. Seb Coe wandered in during the morning to watch the Jacques Rogge press conference on our telly. He wandered in again exactly 24 hours later the morning after the Ceremony. He looked tired but content. (I’d had only 4 hours sleep myself, and I’m a basket case without at least 16.) I took the opportunity to congratulate him (his speech alone must have been nerve-wracking to a global TV audience of that magnitude) and talk about the reaction so far. He was delighted with the UK press reaction and felt that international coverage was equally positive. We then talked for a bit about what the approach signified for the future of the country, how it was emblematic of the edge our unique British creativity can give in a world dominated by huge populations and their cheap labour. What a telling comparison between the conscripted soldiers making up the serried ranks of the Beijing ceremony and the volunteer health workers and the like who populated the Isles of Wonder.