Frank Cottrell Boyce: Guided Tour
“I had the great joy of being part of the creative team for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics – a multi-media extravaganza that was streamed, tweeted, favourited and blogged about across the planet. For all its noise and technological innovation, the show was nourished from its earliest stages on the quietest and most ancient of art forms – poetry. We worked for the first year in a little room in Soho which we plastered with pictures and poems. The show opened with Caliban’s extraordinarily beautiful speech from The Tempest, and with the equally haunting “found poem” – the Shipping Forecast – both spoken over a tableau inspired by Blake’s ‘The Echoing Green’. The song that ushered in the Olympic torch used Auden’s phrase “affirming flame” to describe the beautiful Thomas Heatherwick cauldron. The official programme doubles as a poetry anthology – with its selections from Carol Ann Duffy, Milton, and from Heaney’s ‘The Cure at Troy’ – which became a kind of manifesto for us. From time to time while we were mooching and thinking, I would turn to the Poetry Archive search engine to look for new ideas, new voices, to freshen our perception. ”
Frank Cottrell Boyce was the writer for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. He is a children’s author and film-maker. His book Millions won the Carnegie Medal in 2004. His latest book is the official sequel to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
One of Danny Boyle's favourite poems is Paul Farley's 'Liverpool Disappears for A Millionth of a Second'. I've chosen this one because when we were talking to Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld, they talked about the power of unexpected silence. They started their career as providers of beats and tunes to massive crowds of ravers. Even their high velocity monster hit - 'Born Slippy' - contains a moment of pause. The glory and noise of the opening ceremony was punctuated with moments of quiet and even a minute's silence. Another of Paul's poems catches the emotion of the tradition.
One evening a few weeks before the opening ceremony, I was alone on the platform at Bromley by Bow when it was suddenly invaded by hundreds of volunteers, heading home from their rehearsal - Londoners of every shape, size, age, race and ability, each carrying a little bottle of water, piled onto the train, laughing and chatting. A party on rails. It was impossible not to the think of 'The Whitsun Weddings'. As, station by station, the party disintegrated, "what it held/ stood ready to be loosed with all the power / That being changed can give". I had a really strong sense that all the ideas we'd had and work we'd done were just a pretext. What mattered was the way the event would bring people together - either as participants or spectators - that being together was the most important thing, and that a nation was not a set of images or customs but a "frail, travelling coincidence".
The great trade unionist John Burns famously called the Thames "liquid history". The opening ceremony began with a film charting the river's course from its source to the stadium. Spencer's phrase "Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song" which bobs up like a drowned sailor in Eliot's 'Wasteland' was written on our wall. Andrew Motion's 'Fresh Water' also made the wall. As did Joe Strummer's strangely powerful yell, "London's burning and I live by the river". The most recent we found was this by Ben Zephaniah. I love the phrase "It's had it/ but it's ours".
Security was so tight in the stadium -your accreditation only entitled you to move along various approved "routes". This meant that you were always miles from a toilet so I thought a lot about peeing. This took me right back to my long distance running days when you would stand on the starting line trying to decide whether your bladder was empty enough, and how much water you could feasibly drink without putting yourself in a necessary stop situation. The other sporting connection with this poem is of course Paula Radcliffe's famous pee stop during the 2005 London marathon. As someone with Irish family I'm slightly disappointed to see no mention in this poem of "great bladdered Emer" - a goddess who rose to power because she made the deepest hole in the snow.
Inevitably the opening ceremony became an exercise in capturing the national identity. I love the way Nagra settles for embracing the kaleidoscope of contradictions that makes us all, and sets it to this jaunty rhythm. Of course he has himself now become part of national identity.