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August 02 2012

Bradley Wiggins on his Olympic throne – a reminder of Britain's true history | Jonathan Jones

This picture hints at something that was missing from Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony: empire

The 2012 Olympics began with a vision of British history. Danny Boyle's romantic panorama started in a pastoral land of shepherds, then showed it torn apart by the rising chimney stacks of the industrial revolution. But out of this pandemonium rose the suffragettes, marching for the vote, and the wonder that is the National Health Service.

Five days into the Games, and Bradley Wiggins was pictured here on a golden throne in front of Hampton Court Palace. Wiggins sprawls on his throne for photographers after winning his gold medal in the cycling time trial. He paid this royal palace the ultimate insult of apparently not knowing where he actually was – "wherever we are", he told interviewers. This picture might be seen as a sequel to Boyle's imaginary revolution. The people have occupied the palaces! Comrade Wiggins sits on the tsar's throne!

And yet, the red bricks of the mighty building behind King Bradley tell another story. As Olympic events take place at evocative locations across southern England, there is some consolation for Tory critics who suspected Boyle's extravaganza might – just might – be a little leftwing in its none-too-hidden messages. While Boyle celebrated a people's history of Britain, Olympic locations like Hampton Court, not to mention the Eton rowing lake, offer a toffs' history after all. As Wiggins celebrates his medal in this picture, the warm ochre facade of Henry VIII's palace bears quietly formidable witness to who really built Britain.

Boyle's vision of Albion imagined a Britain where folk shared the common land before the rise of those "dark Satanic mills". But Hampton Court is a monument to the powerful state built by the Tudors centuries before the first factories appeared. This grand house, originally built for Cardinal Wolsey, became one of a constellation of royal palaces along the Thames. Here Henry received his advisers. Here, according to folklore, walk the ghosts of his executed wives.

Hampton Court is as much a wonder as Wiggins is – and it tells a story of Britain just as spectacular as the one Danny Boyle crafted. The ancient wall behind the triumphant cyclist has terracotta portraits of the caesars embedded into it. Within the palace itself are Mantegna's paintings of power and glory, The Triumphs of Caesar. Why all the caesars? In Mantegna's paintings – bought for Britain by Charles I – defeated prisoners are brought to Rome as slaves while their goods are booty. It is an image of imperial triumph. And here's the real absence in Boyle's vision of Britain: we had the biggest empire in world history.

Britain's wealth did not start with the steam engine. It started with empire. The British empire was imagined in Tudor times, as Hampton Court's caesars show. When Henry VIII was desperate to divorce his wife and the Pope said no, Henry's scholars "proved" Britain had always been an empire since ancient times. A dangerous idea was born. By the end of the Tudor age tentative colonists were braving the wilds of north America. Plantations in Virginia prospered in the 1600s on the back of slavery. Britain's slave empire was driven by an appetite for sugar not only among the rich but among the innocent ordinary white people so celebrated by Boyle, too.

The strong, centralised monarchical government so long established in Britain enabled it to rule a global empire without any pressure on its internal social fabric. Essentially, the British are not Boyle's nation of protest but a docile people who celebrated their royals while the French and later Russians were executing theirs, and who enjoyed the wealth of empire with few questions or scruples.

Maybe this picture holds within it not a Tory so much as a pessimist's history of Britain. Are we really a nation of rebels and visionaries? Or are we lost in Hampton Court's Maze, our present and future bamboozled by a royal and imperial heritage?


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July 30 2012

Letters: No room in the Olympic family for genuine sports fans

My 12-year-old daughter, a member of three sports clubs in Newham, started saving Christmas and birthday money to buy Olympics tick ets. Two weeks at home in the Olympic borough would replace an annual holiday. We spent hours trying  to make a purchase. Our saving and time spent clicking were rewarded with not a single ticket.

This frustration was compounded when we saw rows of empty seats just half a mile from our home and then discovered that at least a fifth of seats are reserved for the Olympic family and their corporate friends (Army brought in to fill seats, 30 July) . The ticketing process is seriously flawed and designed to ensure that those who make a profit through encouraging obesity prevail over those who want to see and learn from their role models. So much for the commitment to "inspire a generation" and "create step change in sporting participation".
Simon Shaw
Stratford, London

• Empty seats filled by soldiers, teachers and schoolkids? Potemkin seats?
Mick Furey
Maltby, Rotherham

• Against a fall in sales pre-Olympics of 6.5% year-on-year, the last two weeks has seen a drop of 26% and last week a drop of almost 38%. Other shops have experienced a similar collapse in sales. Warnings of congestion in central London have made the area a ghost town. How many shops will survive until the end of the Paralympics on 9 September?
Nigel Kemp
London

• One reason that the opening ceremony delighted so many (Letters, 30 July) is that, in an age shaped and limited by politicians and marketing people, this was the vision of an artist.
Nigel Richardson
London

• Was Commander Bond employed to guard the Queen before G4S was found wanting, or was he part of the troops brought in to make up the shortfall.
David Walker
Dudley, West Midlands

• We deplore the article by Ai Weiwei (China excluded its people from the Olympics. London is different, 25 July). People around the world have strong memories of Beijing four years ago. The Games were more successful than many expected. They have left a profound legacy for China. The huge contribution to the international Olympic movement is globally recognised. China's careful preparations and high efficiency won applause from across the world, including the IOC.

The entire Chinese nation showed enormous enthusiasm and interest. They actively participated: 1.7 million volunteers busied themselves. Their smiles were sincere, their participation spontaneous, their hard work selfless. Ai's opinions by no means reflect the true feeling of China's 1.3 billion people. We wish the London Olympics a great success. At the same time, we will not let the Beijing Olympics be diminished or China be falsely accused.
He Rulong
Chinese embassy, London

• I keep getting confused between the main paper and your Olympics supplement.
Chris Faux
London 


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July 28 2012

Olympic opening ceremony: Ai Weiwei's review

The leading Chinese artist who withdrew from Beijing's opening ceremony explains why London's was very different

Brilliant. It was very, very well done. This was about Great Britain; it didn't pretend it was trying to have global appeal. Because Great Britain has self-confidence, it doesn't need a monumental Olympics. But for China that was the only imaginable kind of international event. Beijing's Olympics were very grand – they were trying to throw a party for the world, but the hosts didn't enjoy it. The government didn't care about people's feelings because it was trying to create an image.

In London, they really turned the ceremony into a party – they are proud of themselves and respect where they come from, from the industrial revolution to now. I never saw an event before that had such a density of information about events and stories and literature and music; about folktales and movies.

At the beginning it dealt with historical events – about the land and machinery and women's rights – epically and poetically. The director really did a superb job in moving between those periods of history and today, and between reality and the movies. The section on the welfare state showed an achievement to be truly proud of. It clearly told you what the nation is about: children, nurses and a dream. A nation that has no music and no fairytales is a tragedy.

There were historical elements in the Beijing opening ceremony, but the difference is that this was about individuals and humanity and true feelings; their passion, their hope, their struggle. That came through in their confidence and joy. It's really about a civil society. Ours only reflected the party's nationalism. It wasn't a natural reflection of China.

Few of the people were performers. They were ordinary people who contribute to society – and if there is a celebration, then it should be for everyone from the Queen to a nurse. I feel happy that they can all have their moment to tell their story.

It was about real people and real events and showed the independent mind of the director, but at the same time it had so much humour. There was a strong sense of the British character.

The Chinese ceremony had so much less information and it wasn't even real. It wasn't only about the little girl who was miming – which was an injury to her and the girl whose voice was used – but that symbolically showed the nation's future. You can't trust or rely on individuals or the state's efforts.

In London there were more close-ups – it didn't show the big formations. It had the human touch. In Zhang Yimou's opening ceremony there was almost none of that. You could not push into a person's face and see the human experience. What I liked most with this was that it always came back to very personal details. And that's what makes it a nation you can trust; you see the values there. Anyone who watched it would have a clear understanding of what England is.


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June 12 2012

The Olympics are exposing us as a nation self-obsessed

Plans for the opening ceremony are to be a mixture of celebration and gentle jibes about our nation. But aren't the Games about more than just us?

Patriotism becomes daft when you expect other countries to share your national pride. America nearly got away with it in the age of the moon landings, when children of my generation accepted it as fair enough for the stars and stripes to hang out there in space. But it has been a long time since even the land of Coke could teach the world to sing. Why should the entire world be expected to embrace the British self-love that appears to be at the heart of the Olympics opening ceremony? Are we offering ourselves as the new America, a land so marvellous it can export its self-image?

A billion people around the planet are expected to witness the £27m ceremony conceived by film director Danny Boyle to start the Games. In details announced today, it emerges that he will turn the stadium into a vast model of an ideal and somewhat mythic British countryside. Complete with landmarks like Glastonbury Tor and entitled Green and Pleasant, the spectacle will treat the world to a romantic vision of our national landscape. Real farmyard animals will be grazing; in total there will be 70 sheep, 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese and three sheepdogs. There will also be clouds with fake rain in case the night is clear. "If it doesn't rain, we have created our own," said Boyle at the announcement, pointing to four huge clouds hanging from wires over a model of the stadium.

Look, I am not a huge athletics fan. Sometimes I watch the Olympics on TV, sometimes I don't. Is it the done thing to obsess about one's own national identity quite so overtly in the opening ceremony? By the sound of it, though, Boyle's spectacle will be far from complacent: with references to the aftermath of the industrial revolution and a cast that includes NHS nurses, it does sound as though he is offering an alternative, radical style of patriotism, not to mention laughing at national traits and the soggy climate. But radical navel-gazing is navel-gazing nonetheless.

There seems to be a unfortunate blur between this summer's jubilee and the Olympics. It is a culmination of a boom in self-regard that has made modern Britain ever more inward-looking. Waving flags for the jubilee was logical: the Queen is nothing if not British. But the Olympics? Surely, the Games are international.

The British Museum in London currently has a modest display of 12 objects recalling the ancient Greek Olympics. The highlight – which no one who visits London this summer should miss – is the Motya Charioteer, one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Contemplating this sensuous statue of an athlete in a clinging robe, I could not help wishing the British Museum would put on a full-scale show about the history of the Olympics to celebrate us hosting the world's greatest sporting event. Instead, its big exhibition for the Olympic summer, in the same flag-waving mood as Boyle's sceptred-isle landscape, will be about Shakespeare. I am looking forward to it. But then I am British.

Is Britain playing host to the world this summer – or to itself? Why on Earth is the romantic Little England of Boyle's opener the appropriate way to begin a festival celebrating the human planet?

There's something very 1930s about all this. When we remember the Depression, we see the vicious hyper-nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini as nightmares never to be repeated – yet democratic countries too became inward-looking and self-obsessed in that age of austerity. British artists harped on about the landscape. Novelists feasted on British eccentricity. Now, in this new age of austerity, imaginations are once more preoccupied with homegrown qualities and known landscapes. Isn't the Olympics meant to be bigger and more generous than that?


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April 17 2012

Cultural Olympiad: but will the tower of mist be ready?

Confused by the Cultural Olympiad? With the 2012 Games just 100 days away, Alex Needham reveals the 10 things you need to know

1 Some of it's already over

The Cultural Olympiad (CO) kicked off in 2008, described by the government as "a four-year programme of cultural activity" intended to showcase the best of British art in the run-up to the Olympic Games. Some projects have launched already, like the celebrations for Charles Dickens's 200th anniversary. And one event has not only opened but closed: David Hockney's landscapes at the Royal Academy. Ruth Mackenzie, the programme director, cleverly got round this by badging it "a countdown event".

2 London is everywhere

Even to seasoned observers, the CO can be confusing. But all will become clear (hopefully) on 26 April, when the final programme will be announced for the big finale. This is called the London 2012 festival (21 June to 9 September) even though it encompasses events all over the country.

3 Why £40m might be bad news

The CO will cost around £97m. Though some projects will be screamingly high profile, they will seem like a slow night at an arthouse cinema compared to the opening and closing ceremonies. More than 1 billion people watched the 2008 opener in China. In December, David Cameron doubled the ceremonies' budget to £81m. This is either a good sign (the plans were so great they deserved even more dosh) or a very bad one (they were so awful only a £40m cash injection could save them).

4 It will feature a very big bell

Directed by Danny Boyle, the opening ceremony, on 27 July, will last four hours and has a 12,000-strong cast and crew ranging from a rumoured Paul McCartney to schoolchildren from the Olympic boroughs. The ceremony has been titled Isles of Wonder after Caliban's speech in the Tempest. At 9pm the biggest bell (27 tonnes) ever cast in Europe will toll, inspired by the one in Boyle's recent staging of Frankenstein at the National theatre. The BBC's coverage includes a skit filmed in Buckingham Palace, starring Daniel Craig as James Bond. There will be a section celebrating the NHS; one on the suffragettes; a soundtrack by Underworld; and, finally, the lighting of the Olympic torch.

5 Perfect people needn't apply

Insiders say idiosyncratic performers were chosen for ceremonies over ones with perfect looks or voices. The director has said he is aiming for the ramshackle charm of Sydney's opener rather than Beijing's epic stage-managed slickness.

6 Musicians are not amused

Masterminded by Kim Gavin, the man behind Take That's recent live extravaganzas, the closing ceremony on 12 August will include a two-and-a-half-hour "mashup" of British music. Much to the displeasure of the Musicians' Union, everything except the vocals will be pre-recorded, which the organisers have justified by blaming everything from the weather to the shape of the stadium. The Rolling Stones, Adele and the Spice Girls have all been rumoured as possible performers – but, tragically, the Sex Pistols have said no.

7 Keith Moon can't make it

The organisers also asked whether Keith Moon, the Who's drummer, was available for the closing concert, despite the fact, as his old agent explained, he died in 1978. Perhaps, like Tupac at Coachella this year, he may appear in hologram form.


8 The mist may be cancelled

The ceremonies will be as mainstream (albeit with an edge) as possible, but there will be highbrow projects, not least Birmingham Opera's staging of Stockhausen's six-hour opera Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light). Its finale sees a string quartet performing airborne, in four separate helicopters. Olafur Eliasson's proposed artwork Take a Deep Breath, in which people record their breathing on a website, was turned down for a £1m grant after much rightwing media mockery. There is also little sign of Anthony McCall's Column, a six-mile-high tower of mist planned for Merseyside. One of 12 commissions called Artists Taking the Lead, it is still undergoing tests thanks to fears it could endanger aircraft.

The jury is also out on Martin Creed's Work No.1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and as Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes, which asks everyone in the UK to ring bicycle bells, doorbells and churchbells at 8am on 27 July. Spoilsports the Central Council of Bell Ringers have declared they won't be playing.

9 Aeolus, god of wind, is coming

The strand of the CO dedicated to deaf and disabled arts has received £3m and has big plans. Pointing the way to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, a project called Boomba Down the Tyne, will mashup Geordie and Brazilian culture. Comic Laurence Clark's show, Demotivational Speaker, promises to challenge perceptions of the Paralympics by asking why everyday activities are considered inspirational when disabled people do them. And a collection of disabled theatre companies will be on Weymouth beach performing Breathe, the story of Aeolus, the Olympian god of wind.


10 The Bard travels by tube

Shakespeare will be everywhere. Even if you're not going to the British Museum's Shakespeare: Staging the World, listening to the companion show on Radio 4, or watching the BBC's all-star productions (Henry IV stars Jeremy Irons and Julie Walters), you might find Mark Rylance declaiming monologues on the tube. It's all part of the World Shakespeare Festival, produced by the RSC with partners ranging from avant garde theatremakers the Wooster Group, who are putting on Troilus and Cressida, to the equally out-there dreamthinkspeak, whose "meditation on Hamlet" is titled The Rest is Silence. Amateur theatre groups all around Britain have also been invited to put on Shakespeare plays partnered with the RSC.

Then there's Globe to Globe, in which global companies perform Shakespeare's plays in their own languages – with minimal surtitles. Love's Labour's Lost will be in British Sign Language and Cymbeline in Juba Arabic, of South Sudan. So how do you say "Fear no more the heat o' the sun" in Juba Arabic? Only 100 days to go until it all kicks off and we find out.


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July 29 2011

Is the Tate too good for Danny Boyle?

Patrick Keiller's video at Tate Britain is hardly a surprise – he's an arty director. But where are all the mainstream film-makers?

Patrick Keiller, poetical and meandering independent director of such films as London and Robinson in Space, is to create an installation at Tate Britain. He joins an elite of cinematic auteurs, including Peter Greenaway and Atom Egoyan, who have crossed the line from showing in cinemas to showing in museums – in Egoyan's case in London's abandoned Museum of Mankind several years before it became the Haunch of Venison gallery.

Keiller makes complete sense for such a commission. But does he, in fact, make too much sense in this context? Like Greenaway, who has found it natural to translate his deconstructive interest in images into installations that interpret great paintings such as The Last Supper, Keiller is – well, he's arty. His meditations are not far from video art and have surely influenced it. So he will fit snugly into the Tate's atmosphere.

I think it would be more interesting to bring film directors into art galleries who do not come from essentially the same culture. What might happen if mainstream directors were invited to the Tate?

The team behind The King's Speech might curate a moving display of royal portraiture at Tate Britain, while Chris Morris could be let loose on Tate Modern. But perhaps Morris does not count as a mainstream film-maker. OK, then let Danny Boyle follow up his National Theatre production of Frankenstein with a gothic art extravaganza that fills both Tates with light, noise, dry ice, groaning naked monsters and the works of William Blake.

Actually, this is not a purely facetious argument. Why is it so unlikely that Boyle would stage an exhibition at the Tate? He did the National Theatre. Many Hollywood stars appear on the London stage. But when it comes to film-makers in art galleries, it is only the ones who are already close to the art world who are invited. To put it another way, why would the same middle-class audience who flocked to see Boyle's Frankenstein smirk at a noisy Tate exhibition curated by the same man?

It's because art galleries are smothered in snobbery. We check in our real cultural passions at the door, put on a clever face, and prepare for a couple of hours' posing. Ah, a fine video work by Keiller, so restrained and boring – I mean profound. Art has to fulfil a set of criteria: to be reserved, abstract, conceptual – not because there is a modernist revolution going on (there isn't) but because the ritual of visiting a gallery is a ritual of social definition and differentiation: a way of showing off. It is the opposite of a dark cinema where you become part of an egalitarian crowd.

Obviously I don't think this is the whole truth about art and art galleries – but read Distinction by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who really did think it was the whole story. Looking at art should be and can be as passionate and genuine as enjoying a good film. But the culture of art-going gets in the way of that innocent eye. Art shorn of snobbery would look very different, and be a lot more fun. There might even be popcorn.


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June 17 2010

Stephen Daldry and Danny Boyle: masters of Olympic ceremonies | Vanessa Thorpe

The directors of Billy Elliot and Slumdog Millionaire will be 'thinking laterally' to make the opening of the 2012 London games look as good as possible

Two new highly impressive signings this morning for the team designing the artistic side of the London Olympics: film directors Stephen Daldry and Danny Boyle.

But will they be setting up an X-Factor style talent contest for the opening event, as Mayor Boris Johnson slyly, and perhaps mischievously, suggested at a meeting last week while he was listening to a school band play? When asked about the mayor's comments, Johnson's office told me candidly that they couldn't be expected to explain everything that the mayor said and that he himself would probably not remember.

But things are looking up anyway. Daldry and Boyle are two award-winning talents, the first best-known for Billy Elliot and the second for Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, and they are now helping to decide how to make 2012 look as good as it can.

From the outside – and most of us are still on the outside – the creative aspect of the Cultural Olympiad seems to be getting more and more populated, and more and more complicated. But there is some sense of order slowly emerging.

At first, when Britain won the bid five years ago, there was a period of ambitious over-reach, with a plan for an integrated, thematic national celebration of our multicultural history. However, nothing much had been decided by the time Tony Hall, who also runs the opera house in Covent Garden, was appointed to run the Cultural Olympiad last year. He then started to search around for an artistic director, eventually securing former New Labour arts advisor Ruth Mackenzie. From the outset, Hall was also at pains to point out that he had nothing to do with the opening and closing ceremonies at the games, which are still under the aegis of the Olympic organising committee, known as Locog.

A few months ago the illustrious originator of this blog, Charlotte Higgins, memorably asked Hall if this strange separation of powers meant that he woke up sweating in the middle of the night, worrying that a really appalling opening ceremony might ruin all the hard work and any successes he had managed to pull off under the broader banner of the Cultural Olympiad. He smirked and said little.

Now it looks as if Hall can relax. Boyle and Daldry are unlikely to disgrace us. Boyle, who is specifically in charge of the opening ceremony, has sensibly emphasised the fact that Britain will have to go down an idiosyncratic artistic route if it wishes to impress the world. It cannot, he admits, hope to compete with China on scale and spectacle. He says he will be "thinking laterally". I wonder if that rules out a mainstream, populist event such as a national X-Factor competition?


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