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August 3, 2012 7:27 pm
Among the sighs of adulation for Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, a faintly snooty critical phrase has recurred, that the evening was also like a school play. I take this to mean that the cast were amateurs and that it was strung together as a piece of entertainment rather than worrying too much about structure or higher purpose.
The general lesson for all event planners is to decide whom it is for and what you want to achieve. As we know, from weddings to award ceremonies, recording the event for a wider audience or posterity can be a killer. People are fixed to their seats, there are endless longueurs, and guests grow self-conscious and bored.
Boyle’s slogan, “This is for everyone”, turned out to be true; the evening was brilliantly inclusive. He used every medium he could lay his hands on, a mash-up of theatre, film, music, video games. When Stephen Daldry, who oversaw the celebrations as executive producer, predicted that the best view would be from the sofa, it was partly true. Boyle was thinking of television audiences. But he also wanted the guests to have a jolly time. The audience joined the cast of “volunteers” by participating in the technology without feeling corralled into canned applause or laughter.
You were free to come and go and to carry around drinks, unlike, say, at the Oscars. There was an evangelism about friendliness for that evening. Boyle may have wished to keep religion out of the show, but the instruction to turn to a neighbour and say, “’Ello Mate” was really a version of the sign of peace. David Cameron must have been biting his lip to see the Big Society created before his eyes but under a clear banner of socialism. Nobility lay in the welfare state or in union movements. Even Bob Crow, the controversial Tube union leader, would not have seemed out of place on stage.
Clearly, there was never going to be a maypole dance to celebrate London’s dominance in financial services and Prince Andrew was not going to be the one lighting the cauldron.
The humbling of the powerful and mighty extended to ticket allocation. The former foreign secretary David Miliband reportedly made do with a technical rehearsal, even though his wife was performing as a violinist during the Simon Rattle sequence.
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Another tip for party planners is to define yourself against the competition. Boyle’s motivating principle appeared to be Not Beijing. China could do everything except charm and humanity. In Beijing, a girl mimed because the real singer was not sufficiently beautiful. Boyle chose to use a mixed choir, including children who are deaf. I was initially puzzled by the badminton game going on during the pastoral scene. The women could hit the shuttlecock while the men consistently missed it. Here was a clever little joke, which turned out to presage the misbehaviour of the Korean and Chinese badminton teams.
The message that kindness matters more than pure excellence is heart-warming but curious at the start of an Olympic Games. As Boris Johnson said: “The games won’t be remotely inclusive – not on the track. They will be dazzlingly elitist.”
British ambivalence over amateur charm versus ruthless brilliance is still deeply embedded. Under the sponsorship of Sky the British cycling team has been steeped in sports science (I particularly enjoyed the data on experiments into rehydration that created a new problem of sweatier – ie heavier and therefore slower – cycle shorts.) This intense professionalism is reportedly resented by other national teams, which may partly explain the lack of assistance to the peloton in the road race. Some commentators wavered over whether to call our boys Team Sky or Team GB, as if sponsorship were more defining than national identity. Lay viewers admire the professionalism but also want the charm of amateurism. Our notion of an Olympic hero is still Roger Bannister, but amateurism cannot survive, despite Danny Boyle’s attempts to celebrate it.
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A non-sporting teenager shopping in the west of London sends me a series of increasingly indignant texts about her inability to cross the road during Saturday’s cycle race. “STILL TRAPPED. I HATE SPORT.” “This is what I would describe as a major mare.” “Just saw the Argentinian guy. I mean come on, if they’re this slow they shouldn’t let them compete.”
It is not quite the Blitz, but in their fashion, our teenagers are learning about sacrifice for the greater good.
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It is hard to work out a true audit of the Olympics on the London economy. The other side of the fairly clear roads and transport system is the lack of custom in restaurants, shops and theatres. Museum heads tell me that figures are notably down. My hairdresser’s only clients on the day of the ceremony were those going to it.
There is definitely an Olympic economy in the city. I have two nephews with summer jobs in the Olympic Park. If you walk through central London, about one in 25 people is wearing 2012 labels, and games cars and buses are the main source of traffic. The pride and friendliness of the Olympic team, paid and unpaid, is also a plus.
Catching the Tube home at midnight, one post-A-level student with the label “Housekeeper” round his neck told me that his work cleaning the rooms of athletes was “brilliant”. Lord Coe has kept quiet about his future ambitions, but motivating the workforce of the UK would be one good use of his talents.
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Danny Boyle’s belief that mediums must mix should be heeded by newspapers. For those of us in print, it has taken a while to form a natural relationship with digital. First, we secretly feared it, then some went overboard, seeing digital as the only true form of journalism.
The Olympic coverage shows how the two are mutually enhancing. I love the freshness and immediacy of Olympic tweeting and blogging but also look forward to the more considered news, analysis and comment of print. Sometimes the dust can take a little time to settle. The best photograph is not necessarily the first one taken. For a newspaper such as the Evening Standard, which has tackled the economics of the industry by going free, print and digital are like the Chinese synchronised divers. You work together.
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I am enjoying Armando Iannucci’s television series Veep, about a US vice-president and thwarted ambition. A snapshot of American might is seen in the cavalcade with flashing lights that accompanies the Veep, even to the yoghurt store. I have recently returned from Siem Reap, in Cambodia, a trip that happened to coincide with a visit to south-east Asia by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and would say that even better than the cavalcade is the substantial personal plane. We are not just talking about a VIP road lane here. Local traffic, including a hearse, was forced off the road altogether. A Foreign Office staffer told me that the Brits were embarrassed to be given the full security treatment when accompanying Americans. The staffer said this with a broad smile and a wistful expression.
Sarah Sands is editor of the Evening Standard
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