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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. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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