I helped produce the London Olympics opening ceremony: the spirit of 2012 is no antidote to Brexit Britain

The Olympic stadium, Stratford, London. Image: Getty.

A misplaced nostalgia continues to grow around the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. Chuka Umunna’s recent policy document for his think-tank The Progressive Centre used Danny Boyle’s production to define “progressive.”  Yvette Cooper almost cried contrasting the idyllic evening to our current predicament. Eddie Marsan pre-empted Chuka and suggested the ceremony could form the basis of a party political broadcast for a new centrist party, while JK Rowling set an entire novel in the halcyon days of the 2012 Olympics.

Our 2012 nostalgia harks back to a time of momentary unity, before we voted to leave the EU, before our government was in complete collapse and before the opposition proposed ripping up the economic status quo.

I worked on the production team for the ceremony. I look back on that night with sincere affection and remember the period with clarity. Until the night of the opening ceremony, the public mood towards the Olympics was one of grievance and pessimism.

On the following morning the entire country did a double-take; I sat on a bus strewn with double-page spreads of the molten Olympic Rings while everyone around me chatted feverishly with pride about the portrait we had created of Great Britain. So it is understandable to transport this fleeting pride beyond those four hours of entertainment. But it is delusional to confuse that moment in time with a mode of politics that is somehow superior to the present day.

Olympic ceremonies are made with the unambiguous agenda of selling the host nation’s virtues to the rest of the world. To employ one as a reference point for reality is irrational. Any project that has the express aim of celebrating modern Britain, availed of an £81m budget, an Oscar-winning director and a cast of 10,000 volunteers would be largely successful, regardless of the political moment in which it was made.

The ceremony was the culmination of six years of planning and the work of more than 2,000 people. My small role saw me organising the movements of the thousands of cast and crew, a speed boat, a helicopter and the Red Arrows. I attended meetings with the Civil Aviation Authority, the Metropolitan Police and COBR. The sheer level of ambition was intoxicating, its coordination staggering; to be a part of it was exhilarating and, mostly, joyful.


This was a heavily choreographed and purposefully innocuous performance – which was precisely the reason for its broad appeal. Each iteration of the government-funded production was vetted by the International Olympic Committee. Non-profit in law, if not in spirit, the IOC trades in the abstract notion of achievement. The end result was a colossal theatre show that left scant room for critical viewpoints.

Beneath the ceremony lay the success of propaganda. While it celebrated many of Great Britain’s most noble traits and achievements; the industrial revolution, our literary history, the Women’s Suffrage movement, our multiculturalism, our working class and our first broadcast lesbian kiss, it omitted less virtuous ones, including Britain’s history of colonialism. Incredibly, the ceremony concealed the politics of the time.

Umunna invites us to remember how we celebrated the foundation of the NHS, 600 working nurses amongst the cast, but it was well known among the production team that David Cameron had explicitly requested this segment be cut from the show. The producers were brave enough to override their prime minister's opinion, unlike my next experience helping produce the Olympics ceremony in Russia.

Nevertheless, Cameron’s attempt to suppress praise of the NHS shows that off-stage the government, far from celebrating the health service, planned to run it into the ground to justify its subsequent privatisation. This political agenda existed as much then as it does now.

The Military were brought in to provide security for the event, including the months of rehearsals, after G4S failed to meet their contractual obligations. Since then, the same government has continued awarding G4S controversy-ridden contracts amounting to millions of pounds.

As Yvette Cooper points out, the show’s opening tableau, charting the dramatic transformation from a feudal to an industrial nation, gave a heartfelt moment of focus to the Windrush generation. Beyond the walls of the stadium, however, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, had announced her hostile environment policy two months before the ceremony.

Crucially, in 2012 the total sum £9.3bn spent on the Olympic Games indicated that austerity, which then chancellor George Osborne was already selling as a necessity, was indeed ideologically founded. Austerity catalysed the economic inequalities that have fuelled social divides in Brexit Britain.

We should be in no doubt that the policies which led us to Brexit were already in place as the world smiled at the Queen jumping out of a helicopter. The political terrain established in 2012 led us directly to the economic inequalities currently dividing present-day Britain. Nobody – not even JK Rowling – should look back at the year of the Olympics with an uncritical eye. 

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Beyond the wall, with John Lanchester

A sea wall in Japan. Image: Getty.

This week it’s another live episode, of sorts. In early April I was lucky enough to chair an event at the Cambridge Literary Festival with the journalist and novelist John Lanchester.

John was mostly there to promote his latest novel, The Wall, a “cli-fi” book about a Britain trundling on after catastrophic climate change has wiped out much of the planet. In the past he’s also written about other vaguely CityMetric-y topics like the housing crisis and the tube - so he’s a guest I’ve been hoping to get on for a while, and was kind enough to allow us to record our chat for posterity and podcasting purposes.

Incidentally, I didn’t find a way of turning the conversation to the tube. We do lose ten minutes to talking about Game of Thrones, though.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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