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. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

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With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

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While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

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Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).