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. 

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.