THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH


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(And it happened here in London)

Friday 27th July, 2012 9pm GMT+1 (London), will go down in History as the time when The Greatest Show on Earth took place to a world-wide global audience.  Yes, I am talking about the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics.

This is the first time since 1948 that the Olympic Games have been held in the UK (ironically, the last time being London).  It has been seven years in the making and planning.  There has been a lot cynicism on the part of the Nation and especially Londoners generally.  This has stemmed from the way things have been handled or not handled, especially by Government and the dark hand it seems to place over any endeavour especially when it raids the National Lottery Fund for good causes to part fund any endeavour, instead of from general taxation.  The Lottery Fund is still taxpayer’s money because The Lottery has been a Tax in everything but name.  I only ever played The Lottery for fun.  I wouldn’t bet my life savings.  Easy to say because I have none.

Would the whole endeavour come off, let alone come to fruition?  Security issues, one cock-up after another.  Not enough security people a couple of weeks before The Games begin.  The endless squabble about money, the lack of or how it is being spent.  All these things really put a dampener on the whole aspect and important aspects about The Games.  Why did London bid for the 2012 Olympics?

  1. London had a far-sighted and forward-thinking Mayor. Whatever is said about London’s First Elected Mayor, one thing is for certain.  Ken Livingstone knows London and as a London-based Politician, locally and nationally, he knew what London needed.  Inward investment and the regeneration of its poorer areas.  East London in particular.  Also he would pack his bags, travel abroad and drum up business for London.  Business doesn’t come to you. You have to go out and get it.
  2. London needed The Games.  There have been other bids for a UK-based Olympics.  Birmingham bid for the 1992 Games.  Manchester bid for the 1996 Games. Neither City won the respective bid.  London is an International City.  It is Diverse, Cosmopolitan, has a great history with so many things to see and an infrastructure that could possibly cater for The Games.  The truth is very different but the negatives could be worked out and unfortunately the infrastructures weren’t as good as they should have been.  But there are reasons for that.
  3. The Vision was there.  Leadership.  This was one of the keys.  London had a Mayor who wanted to bring London to the fore. He was insightful, forward thinking and managed to bring Londoners, the then Labour Government under Tony Blair’s Premiership onboard.  Major sporting personalities and other influential people also came onboard. Vision and Leadership. It was all in place.
  4. East London needed to be regenerated.  On a massive Dr. Who kind of scale.  Between 1999 and 2002, I worked in Stratford, East London.  I can testify, that after my office relocated to East London, that was the most painful three years of my life.  The area was dire.  It was dying on its feet.  The area badly needed regeneration and as London (due to the machinations of the Thatcher Government,) had denied London, City-wide representation, London was in situation similar to Washington DC where there was a case of taxation without the kind representation that a City the size of London required.  While I was still working in Stratford, there was a lot of demolition work going on so the process was slowly beginning but this had more to do with the kind of representation, London now had in the office of a democratically elected Mayor.  And Ken Livingstone was the Man for the job.
  5. A Legacy.  Working as an Executive Assistant for the then COO of London First, who was involved in this area.  This was probably where London if they were going to succeed with hosting The Olympics, would make a real lasting impression.  This would be by creating a lasting legacy that said The Games were held here and this is what hosting The Games has left us.  The 2012 Legacy was a major project.

The above are some of the reasons why London bid for the 2012 Games.  Another big factor was it would be good for Business.  There are opposing views to that, given many of the contracts were awarded to multi-national corporations.  Given that, how does that regenerate the UK Economy and pull us out of a Recession?  So given this line of thought, where and when did things start to go wrong?

  1. A Change of Mayor.  A change of leadership is always unsettling, especially if it is in the middle of a major project such as building the infrastructure for hosting The 2012 Olympics.  I was never so sure or certain Boris Johnson was really serious about being Mayor of London, let alone providing Leadership and facilitating the hosting of The Olympics, the first to be held here since 1948.  Even now that The Games has started, I am still not certain he was and is the right man.  When Ken Livingstone talked about ‘My London’ at least you knew he cared.  I was never so certain of Boris, I am still not and never heard him talk about ‘My London’.  Different style of Leadership. Never been comfortable with it but there is no denying he is an intelligent man and engaging in his own way.
  2. A Change of National Government.  This by far proved to be the biggest single headache and while Boris is a Conservative Politician, thankfully he doesn’t share many of the policy ideas his Party shares while in a Coalition Government (or the ConDenNation, as we like to call the kind of Government and the Nation as it now stands). If we thought we had problems with a Labour Government after thirteen years, at least when they won three General Elections, they had a working majority.  What we had after the 2010 General Election was a Coalition Government no wanted, had voted for nor wanted.  This led to ‘Austerity Measures’ which involved as its main backbone, the cutting of ‘The Deficit’. This entailed massive cuts right across the Public Sector, the scrapping of the Schools’ Building Programme (initiated by the previous Government,) and generally ripping the heart and soul out of the Country.  Increases in the Value Added Tax (VAT,) really struck a nerve with the general public. Austerity rules.  How is this not helpful to London and the UK generally when it is trying to put together a major global sporting event?
  3. The Dark Hand of Government.  No matter what Government you have in the UK, there is always the ‘Dark Hand of Government’ especially in upbeat endeavours and initiatives.  My personal view is the preparation and hosting of the 2012 Olympics should have been driven solely by Private Enterprise as many of the most successful Olympic Events have been.  Look at Los Angeles in 1984 (by far the most successful ever,) and Atlanta 1996.  Once the British Government was too closely involved all sort of hassles occurred.  The more recent problems have been Security or rather the lack of, with little under a week before The Games began.  Is G4S the only Security Firm in the UK?  And yet they had the sole contract for providing Security for The Games.  Its (G4S’) record of holding other Government contracts isn’t exactly sterling but we are talking about the UK Government here so one shouldn’t be too surprised by this revelation.  Anyone who remembers the building of the New Wembley Stadium will remember the comparison made with Arsenal Football Club’s investment and building of The Emirates Stadium and that of Wembley.  One (Arsenal’s) was private enterprise at work that was successfully built on time and within budget while Wembley’s construction was the complete opposite.  Why?  Wembley had the ‘Dark Hand of Government’ all over it.
  4. The traffic and travel infrastructure of London.  Ken Livingstone while he was running the Greater London Council (until the Thatcher Government abolished the Metropolitan Borough Councils,) had to a certain extent began integrating the public transport system.  It was cost effective to travel by public transport, be it Tube or Bus but huge investment was needed.  This along with many other initiatives disappeared with the abolition of the GLC.  Nothing more was initiated until Livingstone was elected Mayor.  One of the most controversial decisions/initiatives was ‘The Congestion Charge’.  Essentially you drive a vehicle in Central London, you pay for the privilege of doing so.  I see the point of the initiative but I always felt that massive investment in Public Transport, the integration of Bus, Tube and Overground Rail within the M25 Corridor was probably the best way forward and a good strategic policy.  However the then Labour Government still had this love affair with privatisation and the Public-private Partnership (PPP), which doesn’t really work and has proved to be the case.  In some way under both Mayors of London there has been some kind of integration of Public Transport as the London Overground Rail Services are now control of Transport for London (TFL,) but there still needs be full integration of Bus, Tube and Rail for London’s Public Transport work truly well.  Another huge factor is the continual rise in travel fares each year.  This has made travel via Public Transport (especially via Tube and Rail very prohibitive).  There is also Morning and Evening Rush Hour chaos that on any ordinary weekday is chaos.  What happens when The Olympics get here people ask?  Well The Games are here so let’s see.

Given the above, it is neither hard nor difficult to see why there has been so much scepticism among Londoners in the lead up to The Games.  As someone who was hoping this would be a time to make money and be in regular employment, I am more than disappointed this has not been the case but I am not alone in voicing that sentiment.  When I see people giving their time for free and in a recession of all times it is galling.  I speak from a personal perspective as one who has done this up until more recent times and have had no return reasonable or otherwise on such dubious investments in my time and energy.   But let’s discuss the Open Ceremony – The Greatest Show on Earth.

If anyone of us had our doubts (and I had many,) that The Games would be a disaster.  Danny Boyle’s directorship of the Opening Ceremony put that to bed almost immediately.  What he did was give us a show that truly represented Britain historically and culturally on every level.  I have to say this is the first time I have watch any British production and actually saw my Life, My History and My Culture – British Culture represented so accurately.  For the first time I actually saw myself on TV without being there.

Sir Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel appears, recites a speech, and takes us from the Agriculture to the Industrial Revolution with the rise of ‘Those Satanic Mills’ as recited in a rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ earlier.  Fantastic but overlooks the fact that the wealthy landowners could not get the poor folk to work in their factories because they grazed their own livestock on free land so the wealthy landowners, got The Government to pass ‘Enclosure Act’ ensuring even free land that no one owned became theirs by enclosing off from those (the poor who needed it).  So the poor had no choice but to go and work in the factories.  Yes, this was overlooked but we are talking show business here so the facts are never relevant. Gets in the way of putting on a great show.

The highlight of my evening was the appearance of Daniel Craig in James Bond mode.  007 goes to Buck House to escort Her Majesty the Queen via helicopter to the Opening Ceremony.  He enjoys (in his wry 007 humour style that the Gorgis are left looking up from the door step as their Owner and Escort, take off via Helicopter.  I was surprised at how surprising good The Queen was as an Actress and her sense of humour. Craig as always was in fine form and did his job as always.  The jumping out of the helicopter and the parachuting down to the Olympic Stadium by The Queen and Bond, funny and totally unexpected.  I am left with thought:  The Queen is now clearly the Oldest Bond Girl ever and clearly not the first married woman Bond has escorted via his endeavours, even if this was in his official capacity.  After all he is on ‘Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.

While I was watching the Show, I was tweeting my thoughts throughout the evening.  Two over-riding comments, which is nothing new if you have read my recent Blog entries. They are working for nothing in a professional capacity as a performer.  And the other?  The diversity or rather its continual lack of inclusion in British Television and Film Drama.  Okay lets deal with the working for nothing scenario.

As someone who has until recently worked on theatre productions for little if any again (financial or otherwise,) I take great exception to this.  We are in the middle (or never ending phase,) of a recession. Times are hard.  We have a major global sporting event where interested parties are going to be raking in the profits. Why should professional performers be expected to do what they do for free?  At one end of the Spectrum, Spotlight (the Actor’s Directory,) says many of their people (i.e. Professional Actors,) are there, while someone else tweets me and says they are all keen amateurs.  Which is it?  I have a lot of time for keen amateur performers because they perform in an environment where no one is ripping anyone off and no one gets paid – No one.  There have been many a good amateur production and have been done superbly.  The same cannot always be said of Fringe Theatre but that is another story entire but I will stick to the point.

There is no doubt that whether one is paid or not paid to perform in the Opening Ceremony it is good exposure but this is the exception rather than rule.  It certainly wouldn’t hurt the careers of the performers who are seen in close-up and to say they worked with and for Danny Boyle. But if it is true that they weren’t paid and were professional, is that right?  Personally, I don’t think so.

The Diversity Angle.  Not for the first time I have tackled this subject and got accused by a theatre director I worked for free for four years who then turned around and accused me of playing ‘The Race Card’.  Simply my lack of response or actions demonstrated I was no longer prepared to be his mug any longer but I digress.  It has long being known that British Television and Film Drama does not accurately reflect Britain.  Certainly British Period Drama is virtually devoid of any kind of diversity.  Every character is white and Anglo-Saxon.  Blacks and people of colour are virtually invisible – Not totally but see my Article on ‘Bigots, Broadcasters and a Lack of Historical History Being Strange Bed Fellows’ for a more fuller explanation.

The Opening Ceremony gave a Visual History of Britain that is seldom if ever seen or produced by British Television or Film.  At every stage of that Visual History you see cultural and racial diversity.  Why isn’t this happening in the casting decisions in UK Film and Television? In my other article, I give examples of what isn’t happening so won’t reiterate here.  In the light of Mr. Boyle’s brilliant staging and direction of this Show, it will be interested to see what, if any, effect his Show will have on future casting decisions in the British Media.  I say this because now, the World at large knows there is a Britain that exists that is not being represented to the World and that has to change.  It worth noting and giving credit to Mark Summers a London-based Casting Director who responded by saying, without diversity, he would not be here.  Insightful.  And certainly one Casting Director who it seems lives on Planet Earth. Another would be Dan Hubbard. His casting of Sky One’s Sinbad, demonstrates why he is one of the top UK Casting Directors.

If the likes of Morgan Freeman can notice this diversity and make a statement about it and the hard time black actors are getting in the UK, what say the rest of the World?  We shall see.  I think the time of ‘token’ characters and ‘token’ shows with ethnic characters has past.  There is always a case for a drama about an Asian Family, a black African or Caribbean family or even a family from Eastern Europe.  We are all here.  And as long as it is well-written, insightful and has something to say, why shouldn’t it stand a chance of being commissioned and made?

Let me leave you with this thought.  According to a study/report by the Greater London Assembly some years ago, there are three hundred different languages spoken in London alone.  That tells me there are three hundred stories not being told.  Time for a change and way of thinking within the British Media.

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