And so for 11 more days the flame burns brightly in the east, with the London Paralympics 2012 open for business after a lengthy opening ceremony so packed with high-brow science and arts that it made Danny Boyle’s Olympics shindig a month ago look a bit common.
Boyle had clearly got all the money and there was a definite sense that this show was made on a fraction of that budget, but in some ways not only was that not a problem, it was an advantage: this ceremony was consequently more human and more intimate, more about individuals and their hopes and dreams than it was about impressive spectacle.
I’ll be honest, until the last couple of weeks I had no idea that the concept of the Paralympics had been seeded in a British forerunner, the 1948 International Wheelchair Games at Stoke Mandeville for WW2 veterans with spinal cord injuries. It was held on the same day as the opening of the 1948 London Olympics, and was the revolutionary idea of Sir Ludwig Guttmann (a German doctor who escaped Nazi Germany before the start of the war) which transformed the way that treatment of such patients with disabilities were approached. Instead of viewing his patients as men whose lives were essentially over bar the dying, Guttmann used sport to prove to them that they could still achieve great things whatever their injuries; and from that, not only did the Paralympics proper come into being in 1960, but the whole medical approach and treatment of people with disabilities was transformed for all time. It’s something that Britain can be very proud of having played such a crucial part.
That’s also a daunting legacy to live up to. The Olympics opening ceremony had the audacious aim of trying to define what it meant to be British – not only to overseas audiences, but to the British themselves; the Paralympics opening show, by contrast, could allow itself to be no where near as parochial. Its aim was nothing less than to show what it means to be human, in all its diverse and equally wonderful forms and guises.
The Paralympics ceremony took on The Tempest theme that Boyle had started a month previously, and ran with it. Where Boyle’s opening credo had been Caliban’s line “Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,” here the central plank of what followed was from Miranda:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in it!
It was intended as a celebration both of what defines us as a species, but also of our individual uniqueness. Or as Professor Stephen Hawking put it: “We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit.”
With such lofty and worthy aspirations, this opening ceremony didn’t have the freedom to convey the same sense of wicked humour, anarchy and subversiveness that made Boyle’s Olympics opener so joyously brilliant, but it had its moments: a section on the importance of books and a moment to pause and reflect on reading rooms (a.k.a. libraries) carried the same sort of implied rebuke to current government cost-cutting fervour as had Boyle’s section on the NHS. And what certain sections of the government backbenches will have made about the prominence of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights there, or the recreated equal rights demonstration that followed, can only be imagined.
Arguably the best bit of subversiveness came spontaneously from the home team ParalympicsGB, a sizeable majority of whom seemed to have pointedly hidden their identification lanyards out of sight so that the sponsorship of Atos – the company behind the loathed assessments throwing hundreds of thousands of disabled people off employment support allowance – was resolutely concealed.
But the ceremony did carefully and rather brilliantly seed itself with nods back to its Olympics counterpart a month before, by no means ending with retaining The Tempest theme. The music had something of the same mix of the opening ceremony, with some beautifully moving epic yet human newly composed classical-sounding pieces, Orbital providing the techno in place of Underworld, and David Bowie’s “Heroes” once again blasting out to welcome the arrival of the home team at the end of the parade of athletes.
Where the Olympics had relished the chance to play once-forbidden songs by the Sex Pistols and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wednesday night featured a cover version of “Spasticus Autisticus”, itself once banned because of the language used about the disabled. That’s despite having been written by Ian Dury, who suffered a debilitating attack of polio aged seven: the choice was sublimely perfect to show how things had changed (and how in some ways they hadn’t.) And where the Olympics opening ceremony was opened by Sir Kenneth Branagh, this time we had Sir Ian McKellen; and where we’d earlier had a brief cameo from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, this time there was Professor Hawking. It was an almost “whatever you can do, we can match it” nod at Boyle’s earlier spectacular; but in this show, McKellen and Hawking got far bigger, more important parts to play than Branagh and Berners-Lee ever had.
McKellen as Prospero had the lead role in the show along with Nicola Miles-Wildin as Miranda, and did a perfect job that only improved still further when he was able to cast off Prospero’s robes at the end and party down with his co-stars, all of them looking like they were all having the time of their lives. And Hawking was brilliantly used as the intelligence of the show working as the narrator/master of ceremonies, carefully announcing the themes of the show as it progressed.
“Look at the stars and not down at your feet,” said Hawking early in proceedings, encapsulating the spirit of what was to come. “Be curious.”
The overall message was that if we do indeed look up and dare to dream, then we can all achieve truly astonishing things with our lives no matter our individual circumstances or the issues and obstacles that confront us: whether in science and technology as in Hawking’s own case, or in the performing arts (some brilliant dancers and singers emphatically proved this point), or in the field of sporting excellence that is after all what the Paralympics is most centrally about.
Downsides to the evening? Well, it did overrun by nearly an hour and some of the Paralympians were starting to look very cold and tired by the end, but that was doubtless due to certain inevitable logistic points such as the pace of the athletes’ parade that couldn’t be hurried. And one could whinge about a less-than-stellar performance by the Channel 4 broadcasters, who looked as though they were painfully learning how to do this sort of thing on the job. Their deficiencies were only highlighted by the inclusion of experienced hand Clare Balding, fresh from being quite the best thing of the BBC Olympics coverage two weeks before (does she ever sleep?)
But the howls of outrage from viewers that Channel 4 should dare interrupt the ceremony for advertising breaks were misplaced. They are, after all, a commercial broadcaster flying without the aid of the BBC license fee, and this is the reality of the media business. After all, this is how the rest of the world saw London 2012 as a whole. We were just very, very lucky indeed that our own experience in the UK was filtered through the advert-free BBC prism, and rather than being outraged about Channel 4’s ad breaks it would be more appropriate to take the time to remember how very special a thing the BBC is – and how it needs to be protected from being broken up by any thoughtless politicians looking for cheap headlines.
The best thing of all about Wednesday’s ceremony was that it was the perfect salve to heal the memories of the Olympics’ closing ceremony, with its gaudy, superficial vacuousness so inappropriate to the 16 days of achievement and aspiration that had preceded it. The Paralympics ceremony did much to restore that sense of wonder and awe in which we had been basking up to then.
Key to that was the cauldron: in one sense this was the cost-saving re-use of a second-hand prop from the Olympics, and yet it was so much more than that. Seeing it where we had left it a fortnight before – still splayed open but now cold and dark – evoked a sense of melancholy even as it linked the two events together. So when Margaret Maughan (the winner of Britain’s first Paralympic gold medal in Rome in 1960) lit the cauldron anew at the end of a near four-hour ceremony, it was a sense of hope and wonder that was being reignited along with it.
Seeing the cauldron burst into light and reassemble itself was the perfect antidote to the downbeat ending of the Olympics: it said that even when things are over, they can be rekindled and reignited and can live again. Dreams never truly die as long as someone, somewhere still carries the torch and keeps it safe.