A summer of ceremonies (and dentistry)

by Michael

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I would reserve judgement about the Olympics Closing Ceremony until I had been to the dentist the next day. Then, I joked, I would be able to say definitively whether it had been as painful as having a tooth pulled out.

That just about sums up my summer. I went to the dentist for the first time in, oh, 20 years just before we went on holiday to Sweden. A tooth that had partially crumbled about 18 months earlier had begun to hurt occasionally. ‘Yes,’ said my dentist, ‘that’s coming out. And I’ll do you seven fillings at the same time.’ Ouch.

So the day after we got back from Sweden, I had one of my 32 champing (off-) white knights removed and his erstwhile neighbour filled in. The following week, four fillings on the left side of my mouth. This week, just two fillings on the right. I will be getting the bill in the post soon. Ouch again.

All this has rather distracted me from writing about the Olympic ceremonies, although I do love a ceremony and was fascinated to see how we would do them. As the Paralympic opening is tonight, this is as good an opportunity as any to jot down what I think of the ceremonies so far.

Not much.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair. Danny Boyle’s extravagance had some good moments (the forging of the Olympic rings in the faux-Industrial Revolution he directed; Heatherwick’s cauldron was lovely). But, whether it was to do with having to fill three hours and having chosen to do it with sustained, continuous spectacle or not, it lacked a certain element for me: the element of ceremony. Which is, at least the name suggests, the point.

I know: there were the speeches and Olympic anthems and athletes parading and all that pother. But there was also a risible love story played out to a back/sound/drop of pop music (as if that’s the only music we have ever played in the UK). I enjoyed Rowan Atkinson’s puncturing of the orchestral pomp of Chariots of Fire but where was the rest of the pomp – to be punctured or not? We eschewed ceremonial in favour of spectacular. It was good spectacle (on the whole); it was not good ceremony.

As for the Closing Ceremony, well Hazel Irvine commentating on the BBC gave it all away when she said – parroting a press release, I imagine – that the director’s vision was that it should be a good old party for the athletes (I paraphrase). This rang so many alarm bells for me, I hardly know where to start. First, Irvine trotting out the party line is a symptom of BBC coverage, I suppose, in that it bought into the whole concept without questioning it. Questioning would have been perceived as unpatriotic, perhaps, but what is more British than being a bit cynical?

Secondly, if you want to give the athletes a party, how much more classy would it have been to have done it behind closed doors? Save the televised ceremony for a bit more ceremony. Then there is the question of what the ceremony is for. It was supposed to close the Olympic Games, pass on the torch (literally – oh no, wait, they don’t actually do that) to Rio, wrap up an amazing fortnight of sport. Instead, they got some music gig producer to smash obliviously through the same pop musical milieu that Boyle had already milked in the Opening. This time without genuine spectacle, just things that were big enough and, in some cases ugly enough, to seem spectacular when in fact they were egotistic. Who thought reuniting the Spice Girls would be a fitting and proportionate element of the night? It was naff.

Michael Billington, the Guardian’s theatre critic, said it was impossible to review the Closing Ceremony (“You can only describe it”). I suppose, from his perspective, he was right because there was no overall theatrical or narrative or even spectacular (and certainly not ceremonial) vision to comment on. It was just a sprawling, unconstrained pop concert. But I would like to see it properly reviewed – as a ceremony – and slated for falling short.

Again, the requisite ceremonial elements were shoehorned in, left bereft of context and meaning. I thought it would have been so much more impressive to have actually incorporated some of the stories of the 2012 Games in the Ceremony. I know it would have been difficult to be creative with that (would have probably ended up as video footage) but it would have at least related the occasion to the event it was trying to ‘close’. Instead we got George Michael singing one past hit and one current song. It was just marketing.

At this point, part of me says, Well, it was all marketing. The ceremonies are three hours long because that’s what the IOC demands them to be. How I would have loved our Olympics to break the mould: cut the ceremonies to 90 or even 60 minutes. Make them short, snappy, meaningful and not long, flabby and – ultimately – predictable. Extending my yearning for taking a step back among all the Olympic hoo-hah, why did we have to have the biggest medals ever when something smaller might have been more impressive? Why did we have to have flowers presented as well as medals (I know, it’s so each sport’s regulatory body bigwigs have their moment in the sun as well as the IOC members but that’s a shit reason)? So much crap has crept into proceedings and no one ever dares to remove any of it.

People alluded back to the “austerity games” but London 2012 was never in any danger of being austere: we continued the trend for bigger, more expensive, more extravagant Olympics when I would have liked to see more of the elements built to the right proportion, not just as big (which some people equate with impressiveness) as possible. The cauldron was perfect; the stadiums were – from what I saw – spot on. But everything that had to be tailored to IOC’s egomaniacal ambitions was bloated and rather crass.

So how do I rank the pain so far?

The Opening Ceremony was watchable and had nice moments: Definitely least painful.

Having a tooth pulled out was done under local anaesthetic and although it was sore for a few days, the experience was not altogether unpleasant and I learned a lot about dental structure. The Closing Ceremony was obviously not as painful as the tooth extraction, and yet if I had to choose which to go through again, I might just opt for the dental surgery. At least it was interesting, useful, performed with great skill and, most importantly, it was done and dusted in an hour.

Now let’s see how the Paralympic Ceremonies rate….