Four years on, the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics feels even more significant than it did at the time. In 2016 it is difficult to imagine anyone even trying to imbue the idea of the United Kingdom with an unforced and attractive completeness; to coax together the nation and make it something more than the sum of its parts.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer of the Ceremony, not only played a key role in the shaping of the event, he also worked tirelessly as a propagandist for the Olympics’ best self. He has needed to be. In the polarised present it’s easy to look back on the Opening Ceremony as climactic; a light that burnt brightly because it was about to go out. Not that Boyce accepts this characterisation. He will have none of such talk. ‘To lament that not enough has changed – as if things were just going to change – is to miss the point,’ he argues, ‘it was always: what are we going to do about it?’
FCB: What I remember about my work on the Olympic Games was that everyone told me that it was going to be terrible, rubbish.
Q: The press was terrible”¦
FCB: People have forgotten this now but it was really awful all the way up to the day. I do remember one particularly apocalyptic day when we did the dress rehearsals, and the days of dress rehearsals were all raining – just terrible, terrible apocalyptic rain – and a tabloid helicopter flying back and forth over the stadium trying to get photographs so they could issue spoilers and tabloid stooges hanging round outside the stadium trying to get people to sell spoilers. It was like a diagram of everything that could possibly go wrong with a society.
Q: Why do you think the atmosphere was so negative?
FCB: I think the reason that people thought it was going to be rubbish was that when they thought about the story of Britain, the images that came into their head were so stale, and so familiar, that they were almost meaningless. That when they tried to imagine an opening ceremony they imagined Queen Elizabeth in a ruff with maybe Shakespeare and Churchill and that would be about it. And everyone had forgotten that we had done an industrial revolution: we did this, we changed the world.
Q: Can you say a bit more about that?
FCB: W. H. Auden said, ‘books are how we break bread with the dead’. So this fantastic sort of coincidence had happened that Danny Boyle (the Ceremony’s artistic director) was doing a production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre when we first started and they kind of overlapped actually, and I said, ‘I didn’t know you were doing Frankenstein; that’s brilliant. You have got to read this book by Humphrey Jennings called Pandemonium’.
Q: What was it about Pandemonium?
FCB: Humphrey Jennings was a genius and one of the things he wanted to do – he had a kind of impossible movie in his head – he wanted to make a film about the coming of the machine, about the coming of the Industrial Revolution. And we were all incredibly excited by this book. This book became the opening section; we tried to make the movie that Humphrey Jennings couldn’t make.
Q: Can we rewind a bit? One of the reasons I think that people were negative is that we saw Boris on a bus in Beijing, we had the Millennium Dome”¦
FCB: With regard to Boris and the handover in Beijing that became a kind of touchstone for us because whenever we thought of something to add to our ceremony we would check that it hadn’t appeared there, because everything that appeared in the handover was so tarnished with that kind of epitome of crapness. That’s why for instance we didn’t have a London bus, although I would have quite liked to have a London bus.
We looked at Beijing and it was sort of unbearable to watch because it was just so brilliant and huge and everything. What could we do that they couldn’t do? It’s funny, scary and emotional, you know, and for Danny, visceral. And the first question is: how do you make the Olympic rings, which is a logo, visceral? How do you do that? And because of the Humphrey Jennings thing the idea of forging them was there straight away. You would just make them from molten metal in front of you.
Q: I just wondered if you looked back to, say, the Festival of Britain, because you’ve talked mainly about the Industrial Revolution but the second part of the ceremony was about the internet. It struck me that there might be some kind of overlap”¦
FCB: With the science and technology”¦
Q: Yes, with the display of science and technology.
FCB: I just happen personally to be quite enthusiastic about the Great Exhibition of 1851. I had a particularly lovely book about it, which I brought in, and people were interested in that so I think that was the technology side of things, but you are making it sound very systematic”¦
FCB: It was actually all quite ad hoc because we were all still working; we didn’t get paid for doing this. We would come to a room in Wardour Street when we could and it was very like primary school: there would be a lot of cutting out. I would just do this, little presentations about Humphrey Jennings, or Tim Berners-Lee, or whoever. They would go on the wall and gradually there would be a winnowing process but it wasn’t systematic”¦
Q: But that is a method, and as you said, that is what Jennings does. Perhaps, in a way, the method influences what the story is going to be?
FCB: Well obviously we took this imagery from Jennings, but another really important thing is that Pandemonium’s not arranged chronologically. It’s arranged thematically and it has these little narratives in it. So there’ll be a section in which someone says, ‘it’s brilliant: today I have invented the spinning jenny it’s going to revolutionise everything’, followed by a kid saying, ‘I have worked all day on this spinning jenny’ you get this kind of, there’s no attempt to sort of smooth it over. I think one thing that we really took from it is that idea that you can contain contradiction, you don’t have to reconcile these things. So a lot of people saw it as a very left-wing ceremony but it is also the ceremony that showed the warmest and most appreciative view of the Monarch ever I would have thought, of any monarch ever.
Q: It’s impossible to talk about the ceremony without talking about national identity, but I wondered: is it about an English identity or a British identity and how did you make that distinction?
FCB: It’s definitely British. I gave it the title ‘Isles of Wonder’. It’s about an archipelago, not about a political territory.
Q: But being British isn’t without its difficulties”¦
FCB: Sure. People did ask us, you know, culturally what’s there? And I used to have a great answer to them because it was as though they were saying ‘where’s Wales?’ meaning, ‘where’s the male voice choir or a woman in a steeple hat?’ I’d say, ‘this is about the NHS: it’s a Welsh invention, that’s your contribution.’ They’d say, ‘where’s Scotland?’ I’d say, ‘this whole section is about television: you invented it.’ So, you know, it’s like how do you define culture. Culture isn’t just knick-knacks. Culture is what you gave.
Q: Following on from that, aside from the monarch, how do you go beyond a narrative of nation that is dominated by men?
FCB: The big presence of women is in the children’s section, the NHS section, just because”¦ people talk to me about the you know Aidan Burley quote (the Conservative MP who attacked the ceremony on Twitter) which is, what did he say? ‘This is multi-ethnic rubbish’? They were the people who turned up. The picture of Britain we got is the people who were prepared to stand up for Britain. The overwhelming number of women in that section is because they turned up. See that NHS thing – going back to visceral – that became a political thing. But really it’s that, you know, what’s visceral? Birth and death. Where do we British people die and get born? In the NHS. It was completely clear to us from the beginning that the NHS embraces and defines the big emotional things in our lives and so that became a thing where we wanted the NHS section to be NHS workers so the look of it was determined by who came.
Q: I was thinking then in terms of participation, that participation defines the ceremony”¦
Q: That participation defines the ceremony and not the other way around”¦
Q: Because in some ways it is, it was”¦
FCB: You provide a context for something to happen. You are completely right. I don’t really know how to express this: they weren’t actors in a show that we devised; they were the show. That’s London talking there in those faces.
Q: British history, the way we as a nation talk to ourselves, doesn’t necessarily cross borders that well. One of the things that I noticed when I spoke to people abroad, one of the things they all mentioned was not the stuff about the industrial revolution but Mr Bean, which is not bad, but you know, I was wondering if there was any attempt to appeal”¦
FCB: Obviously when we first started there were just a few of us, but as the year went on the team gradually filled up and Danny would every now and then get everyone who was on that floor and say ‘tell me ten British singles that you think are really good.’ And out of that came, cos none of us was a Mr Bean fan, out of that came the fact that, because those people were from all over the world, that Mr Bean was a global brand the way that the Queen or James Bond is. But that was kind of the only, well I wouldn’t even call it a concession because he was great, he was perfect, that was the only kind of time that we thought”¦ Well I kept saying and I still believe this: the more specific you are, the more universal you are.
Q: I found an interview where you said that you think of yourself primarily as a children’s writer. Now there’s a large section on children’s literature in the Opening Ceremony, but there’s also a nice phrase where you say that ‘children’s literature is a way of breaking out of the prism of the present’ and a bit where you say that your ideal reader is an adult and child reading together and I just wondered whether these principles apply to your work on the Games? The ceremony had the same ‘ideal reader'”¦
FCB: Yeah, definitely, and also the bit about ‘breaking out of the prism of the present’. That’s a really big thing. A really good example was that as I was leaving my eldest son said to me, ‘who’s lighting the flame, because Paddy Power are giving these odds?’ I had genuinely not thought about the fact that people would be betting on that, and I looked and I thought, how the hell would anyone think that any of these people would be lighting the Olympic flame? David Beckham: he’s not an Olympian, how would that be a thing? We had not tried to be surprising about the Olympic flame. We had just done what had seemed to us glaringly obvious. The motto of the whole games was, ‘inspiring a generation’, so you get some old athletes in, you get them to pass the torch on to some young athletes. We were looking for emotion and these were people with genuine relationships; you could see on the screen that Dame Kelly Holmes really cares about her protÃ©gÃ© and then to find out that people thought these things”¦ When people tried to imagine it, they tried to imagine who was on the front of Hello! magazine. Maybe this is an internet thing. The internet has made tonnes of knowledge available to us but it has really shrunk the present, it’s shrunk everything down to the present.
This interview is an extract from ‘”Not a History Workshop vision”: Frank Cottrell Boyce on the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games’ published in Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge (Eds.) The New Elizabethan Age. Culture, Society and National Identity After World War II (I.B. Tauris, 2016).