‘Enlightenment’ and the Paralympics Opening Ceremony

Phil Morris considers the Paralympics and themes from the Enlightenment in his review of the Paralympic Opening Ceremony 2012.

What are opening and closing ceremonies for exactly? The combined budget of all four ceremonies for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics is purported to be around £87 million, which represents a fraction of the monies spent by the Chinese authorities four years ago in Beijing. What lies behind the stated motivations of both the British and Chinese governments, who similarly do not enjoy popular electoral mandates, to invest so much capital in four such spectacular parties – can we really believe that it is simply a benevolent desire to cheer the lives of their peoples, or an open-armed embrace of the global community? Olympic ceremonies are often characterised as mood setters that provide each games with its distinctive identity; we recall the collective orchestrations of faceless masses in Moscow 1980 and the brash overkill of 84 grand pianos and rocket-man Bill Suitor in Los Angeles 1984. Most disconcertingly, we trace the first lighting of an Olympic flame in1936 to the inspiration of the Nazis. Each ceremony, in the fullness of time, is revealed as the grand staging of a national myth that each host needs to believe, or tries to assert, about itself.

The success of ‘Sir’ Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was attributable to how the celebration of Britain’s historic achievements, particularly its significant contributions to the industrial and digital revolutions, was laced with a welcome dose of humour and satiric wit, which operated as an internal critique running counterpoint to the wider triumphalism. In this, Boyle was aided by his frequent collaborator the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. By contrast, the Olympic closing ceremony was a lazy and anachronistic evocation of Cool Britannia, which itself seemed a moribund concept as long ago as the turn of the millennium. Heading out to East London, I wondered on which side of the artistic divide the Paralympic Opening ceremony would fall – would it walk that tightrope between celebration and irony, or would it be an overblown self-congratulatory pat on the back for a self-proclaimed inclusive society. I was comforted that, at the very least, I would be spared the inane chatter of Trevor Nelson, Hazel Irvine and Huw Edwards sounding like they were at the same embarrassing three-way date.

The auguries for the Paralympics Opening ceremony were not good. Ticket holders had been advised by LOCOG to be in their seats by 7:30pm, but this was only so that a pre-ceremony briefing could take place in which the great British public could be drilled in what it does best – participate in mindless group exercises in the name of collective fun. TV presenter Matt Fraser began by telling everyone not to drape items of clothing over the light-displays behind their seats as this would “spoil the pictures” for the TV audience at home – an indication of priorities, and of the role of noise-making cheerleaders that the stadium audience would be obliged to play throughout the evening. Next came a short course in mass apple eating, during which volunteers dispersed throughout the stadium, each one armed with a pair of glow-sticks, took us through a semaphored countdown to a “big crunch” trailed as a potential highlight of the evening. As though things could not get any worse, just ahead of the live broadcast the stadium rocked to the strains of Pulp’s ‘Common People’, and once again we were transported back to the mid-nineties – clearly the last time any of the ceremony creative team had listened to popular music.

Having attended several Olympic events throughout the Summer, from Taekwondo to Tennis, I had developed some sense of what I had missed by not being born before 1966. The 2012 Paralympics presented me with a further opportunity to enjoy the pinnacle of sporting excellence in my own country, and so it was with some hope that I looked to the introduction in the event programme, written by the ceremony’s co-directors Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey. Taking inspiration from the legacy (that word again) of Sir Ludwig Guttman, founder of the Stoke Mandeville Games and father of the Paralympic movement, the ceremony would celebrate “the transformational possibilities of ideas, science and human endeavour” on the theme Enlightenment.

As national myths go, the English Enlightenment is not a bad one – reason, free thought and scientific enquiry being the foundation the modern, inclusive society most of us would like to see realised in this country. The challenge for the creative team, therefore, was to find ways in which these Enlightenment values could be staged and dramatised within the vast space of an Olympic Stadium, in which the imperatives of creating a mind-boggling spectacle for an audience of 86,000 people (and a worldwide TV audience of millions) would, for obvious reasons, predominate.

Ultimately, the ceremony succeeded only in name-checking and air-quoting Enlightenment values, in the same vague, casual and soulless manner that the Olympics Closing Ceremony had rendered the traditions of British popular culture into a bland, tasteless porridge of cultural nostalgia. Here and there were the faint echoes of big ideas, a sampling of familiar lines and multimedia projections of mathematical equations. What did it all mean? The answer was everything, and nothing. Just as the vast musical achievement of The Beatles was traduced by a gurning Russell Brand, the history of the Royal Observatory could not be adequately represented by floating carnival-type recreations of various planetary bodies. Stephen Hawking, billed as the “world’s most celebrated scientist” exhorted Miranda (ably played by Nicola Miles-Wildin) to, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet…try to make sense of what you see…be curious.” If that is the best that the great physicist can do, then it is a good thing he is a whizz with numbers.

Hawking’s narration was clearly dumbed down for his TV audience – no one would want or expect a physics lesson at an Opening Ceremony. He was present in his customary role of secular prophet, speaking empty platitudes via his computer about the infinitude of space that are meant to comfort us all in this age of non-spiritual spirituality. Hawking’s involvement illustrates the limitations of spectacle in the expression of important and complex ideas. From the era of the Elizabethan masque, the British ruling-class has established itself as a world-leader in the field of public spectacles – note recently Diana’s Funeral and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – which have privileged the heart over the brain. Consequently, nationwide convulsions of sentimentality have been fostered in place of collective gatherings of the British people around a coherent set of ideas. It might be argued that the Paralympics is not the place to outline new and grand visions for the nation to cohere around, but I would counter that that is precisely their aim. The real question is, what kind of vision do we want to be presented with – one that tasks us to face up to complex realities with some degree of honesty, or one that tells us that we should celebrate ourselves and our limited notions of progress as we have already arrived at an albeit temporary nirvana.

Only a churl would deny Paralympians their moment of being cheered into a stadium they would later distinguish with such impressive performances, and the largely British audience was generous to all nations during a seemingly interminable parade of one hundred and sixty four teams; and yet where were the indications anywhere during the proceedings that in Cameron’s Britain the plight of disabled people is considerably more fragile than the Paralympics coverage would suggest? Somewhere in an attempt to avoid pitying and condescending to disabled people, the opportunity to publicly confront the nation with the pernicious removal of thousands from disability benefits and much needed support was lost. One of the most delicious moments of the Boyle ceremony was seeing pride in the NHS being asserted, alongside works of Children’s literature, by eight hundred dancing nurses. Days after, Cameron and Boris Johnson felt compelled to defend the ceremony against charges of left-wing propaganda.

It has been said that the Paralympics should not be used as an instrument for social change, but viewed simply as a celebration of elite sport. While Paralympians should be regarded as elite athletes, this apolitical idea of the Paralympics would seem to ignore the significant role the Summer Olympics has played in tackling racism. From Jesse Owens destruction of Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy at the Berlin Games of 1936, to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ ‘Black Power’ podium salute in the Mexico Games of 1968, the Olympics have provided a global stage for dissent. There was something of that defiant spirit to be found in the sight of thousands of disabled artists and athletes singing “I am what I am” as they danced round a giant version of Marc Quinn’s statue of Alison Lapper, which itself is an example of art that is simultaneously a statement of visibility and a celebration of the human form in all its diversity. Yet as the ceremony neared its end, I yearned for the spikiness and wit of Ian Dury, whose protest song Spasticus Autisticus was drained of its bite in a strangely upbeat rendition from the chorus of Graeae Theatre Company.

It cannot be denied that the ceremony had some real highlights. The lighting of the cauldron by legendary Paralympian Margaret Maughan was very moving, the more so for its quiet dignity. David Toole, who danced while singer-songwriter Birdy performed her version of Anthony Hegarty’s Bad Gerhrl, was mesmeric, and his rise on wires into the heights of the stadium was a stunning moment of simple grace and beauty. The circus skills on display from a specially trained troupe of disabled artists were also highly entertaining, and happily they will receive continued funding and support of their work beyond 2012. Admittedly, these moments seemed more striking on the TV screen (I watched the ceremony days later on 4OD) than they did in the stadium itself, where the bombast of large choirs, loud fanfares and exploding fireworks became oppressive as midnight approached.

The watchword of both London Games has been legacy, which, as yet, remains a rather nebulous concept. LOCOG and the British Government appear to believe that the generally excellent performance of Team GB alone will suffice to inspire a generation to future sporting greatness. Surely the lesson of both Games is that through a combination of considerable political will, volunteer spirit, targeted public funding and a widely-held sense of communal values, our supposedly beleaguered and impoverished national has staged one of the best Olympics and Paralympics to worldwide acclaim. That achievement should engender in us a renewed self-confidence that allows us to repudiate the Cameron’s blandishments about the big society, and his government’s dismantling of our welfare state. The London 2012 Paralympics has gone a long way to shatter ignorant stereotypes about life with physical and intellectual impairment, but its opening ceremony might have done more to speak up for those services that sustain many disabled people in lives of dignity and some comfort. An aggressive reassertion of the importance of state intervention and public service to the general health of British society – now that would prove to be a truly golden legacy.