Al Gordon talks to Danny Boyle about the monumental challenge of arranging the Opening Ceremony
As a youngster, Danny Boyle had no real flare for sport, nor even considered himself sporty, despite a secret yearning to do so. But helming the Olympic opening ceremony is giving him a taste of what life is like as a world class athlete. Sort of.
“It gives me a very vague sense that I’m like a competitor for a moment. It offers an illusion, a mirage... like I’m an elite athlete in training. That was always something I dreamed of, but obviously never realised.”
When I spoke to him, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting was in the midst of his secret preparations for the Stratford spectacular, which is rumoured to have amassed a rather lofty budget of £80million – loosely equated to producing 165 West End shows at the same time. The spectacle is taking the theme ‘Isles of Wonder’, borrowed from The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most bewitching plays, and the country’s identity is represented by land recovering from an industrial legacy. Intriguing stuff. The set will feature meadows, fields and rivers, with families taking picnics, people playing sports on the village green and farmers tilling the soil. Add in a selection of farmyard animals (sheep, horses, cows, goats, chickens, ducks, geese and sheepdogs) and you have a very… individual… approach.
Boyle, 55, is very aware that his vision has to follow up to the stratospheric genius of the Beijing Games’ opening ceremony, although he maintains that he and co-creative director Stephen Daldry aren’t trying to better their Asian predecessors, but rather to produce something never seen before.
“We're striving to do something totally different,” he explains, “because I don't think the UK could quite top the spectacular theatrics of 2008. It’s unfeasibly foolish to even try, because it was such a huge, astonishing spectacle. Beijing was the summit of a specific type of show and I know everybody appreciates it would be ridiculous to try to top an event quite like that. It’s an opportunity to bring something new and fresh. That’s the challenge.”
At the end of the day, Boyle continues, the message is simple: “Sport is about young people, encouraging them to participate, encouraging them to succeed. That’s what I want the ceremony to represent. That’s the message I want to get out there.”
Fifteen thousand performers have been recruited for the ceremony, with a large tranche of civilian folk, including local schoolchildren and NHS nurses, in amongst the professionals. And Duran Duran, Blur, and techno gods Underworld are on melodic duty.
“It’s going well, we’re full steam ahead, preparing it all, dealing with all the various issues with budget and what have you, but it’s going well. Completing the 15,000 auditions was obviously a major thing, and the volunteers have been magnificent. It’s a huge logistical process auditioning people and then slowly moving towards rehearsing with them, but we’re in full flow. The whole scale is amazing, and I really had no idea how many people have to be involved in something like this.”
So have there been any logistical nightmare scenarios that have cropped up so far? “I think there are so many factors to do with the games that simply cannot be anticipated. It’s about staying cool under pressure and having absolute faith in the people around you. It’s a complete one-off and we know we’ve got to get it right... but, you know, I think we just might.”
Athletic associations and individual sporting stars have, however, already spoken against Boyle’s scheduling of the ceremony. It contains many elements best viewed at night, meaning that the extravaganza won’t end until late, leaving most competitors not getting to bed until long after midnight, and as late as 3am for rowers and canoeists who are located away from the main site. The result is a potential boycott of at least half of those eligible to parade in Team GB.
“I could talk to you forever about the starting times... ‘Why it isn’t earlier, Why it isn’t later’... and all these issues to deal with. It’s the most reasonable time we could come up with when considering all the factors, really,” Boyle sighs.
“There is always an issue with athletes who’re on very elite training programmes, and whose appearance in the Games they’ve been working towards for four years. They want to get themselves to bed at a certain hour, that’s their priority. The Opening Ceremony is obviously a major event and I’ve asked them all to be a part of it, but I know not everyone can be, and I understand that… but there’ll be plenty going on; you won’t be disappointed.”
Boyle won’t clarify everything though. There had been hints that 007 – Daniel Craig – was lined up to parachute into the stadium, having been set his latest mission by HRH herself. Can Boyle elaborate any further? “I can’t give anything away at all,” he laughs, wickedly.
And the Boris bikes – are they making an appearance? “I’m sure he’d love to get them in there... we’ll see where we can fit them in!”