Olympic opening ceremony: the challenges of televised spectaculars Danny Boyle's "live film" must satisfy both viewers in the stadium and at home. Can the director pull it off?
Fireworks explode over the Olympic Stadium during a rehearsal for the London 2012 opening ceremony. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP
Danny Boyle is unusual among Oscar-winning film-makers in also having had sustained success as a theatre director. This makes him an inspired choice to produce the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, as the special challenge of such events is that they must simultaneously satisfy two audiences: the select set watching live in the stadium, who become the equivalent of theatre-goers, and the millions watching on screen. It may also be useful that another of the rare screen-theatre hybrids — Stephen Daldry, who, like Boyle, once worked at the Royal Court Theatre in London – is one of the creative consultants to the Olympics.
By saying in advance interviews that he is aiming to create a "live film", Boyle shows that he understands the existence of this forked audience and the hybrid art form that is most likely to satisfy both. The risk is that an element which seems startling in front of the eyes of ticket-holders – the participation of live animals, for example, or the involvement of vast numbers of participants – may look less impressive on a flat screen to billions of viewers potentially jaded by television's long record of spectacle. But Boyle has shown the ability to meet these contrasting demands: having filled multiplexes, but also creating, in his recent National Theatre production of Frankenstein, thrilling live optical effects.
The risk in the selection of Boyle is that he has an erratic cinematic record: the London Olympic Organising Committee will be praying that they have hired the director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting (though perhaps with slightly fewer references to intravenous drug use) rather than the director of A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. And the film that got Boyle the gig is surely Slumdog Millionaire, in which he marshalled large crowds of non-actors and supervised lavish musical sequences within a narrative that had a strong sense of place (in that case, India).
A few teaser sequences, filmed during dress rehearsal and released by BBC News on Thursday night, were a well-chosen show reel to advertise Boyle's plans and ambitions: they suggested a range of tones (comic, musical, political) and the use of camera angles that best present spectacular images, including aerial views and wide sweeps of focus.
What's new to Boyle – and represents the largest variable tonight – is that, for the first time in his career (except, possibly, when his Frankenstein was beamed to cinemas for one night as part of NT Live) what he has produced and directed will be mediated, for the majority of the audience, through another set of hands: the BBC production team. Indeed, as the experienced TV event director, Hamish Hamilton (a veteran of Oscar ceremonies and other screen jamborees) is part of Boyle's team, there are effectively three levels of visual input.
In this context, it's concerning that there is a history of difficulty in television during occasions when there is uncertainty over whether the broadcaster is presenting the event or reporting on it. An annual example is the Eurovision Song Contest, when the BBC is part of the consortium that organises and stages the competition but traditionally frames its own coverage of the evening in twinkling, distancing irony.
More problematically, Royal events (weddings, funerals, jubilees) have often left the Corporation looking confused between being a dumb conduit for the images and a journalistic interpreter of them. Most notoriously, in the recent River Pageant for the Diamond Jubilee, it was never clear whether the BBC was pointing cameras at someone else's event or hosting its own programme.
In the Olympics, this blurred role occurs again: host broadcaster in the host nation, is the BBC's job tonight simply to make sure that what Boyle has created reaches viewers digitally crisp and clear and advantageously framed? Or to comment on whether what he has delivered is any good? During the expected sequence hymning the achievements of the NHS, does BBC balance demand that Huw Edwards or Hazel Irvine drop in a few distancing statistics about waiting lists and healthcare rationing?
There could have been no better choice than Danny Boyle for this event but, in the presentation of his presentation, the broadcasters will have difficult choices of their own.
How to watch the London Olympic opening ceremony
The BBC coverage goes on for over five hours, so here are some top tips on how to prepare – what bits to focus on, and what to ignore
It's difficult to top the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony's synchronised drummers, but as long as you ignore athletes parade you should be fine. Photograph: Adrees Latif/REUTERS
It's Eurovision without the voting, the X Factor final without the local mayors whooping into Stacey Solomon's face, the jubilee flotilla without crowds of people scowling in the rain. (Or so organisers hope). Tonight's Olympic opening ceremony is going to be brilliant.
Or at least it will be, so long as you do it correctly. Trust me – if you approach the opening ceremony incorrectly, you're in for a world of pain. You'll drop off halfway through and wake up on your sofa at 3am with a drool-covered remote control embedded into your face and a vague recollection of Sue Barker haunting your dreams. This is why I've compiled a brief list of instructions for you. Stick to them, and Olympic heaven will be yours.
The BBC's coverage of the opening ceremony starts at 7pm and doesn't finish until 12:30am. That's five and a half hours. Don't forget to stay active for as long as you can before it begins, to drink lots of water and to move around as much as possible during the ceremony, maybe by mimicking the dancers or decanting all your Pepsi into old Coke cans so as not to offend any sponsors.
Ignore the bit with the athletes
When people talk about the Beijing opening ceremony, what do they always mention? The levitating rings? Yes. The millions of perfectly syncronised drummers? Yes. The really long bit in the middle where all of the athletes competing in the Olympics trundled around the stadium really slowly in what basically amounted to single file? No. Be honest – on television it is always the least essential part of the ceremony, and you'd do well to avoid it completely. Yes, you'll miss Chris Hoy carrying a flag, but everyone knows what Chris Hoy looks like. He's the man from all the Bran Flakes adverts, right?
Forget the storyline
On paper, the opening ceremony will be the realisation of Danny Boyle's grand vision – an epic opera about a land recovering from its industrial legacy. Who knows whether that will translate to your television screen. But if not – don't worry: even if the concept goes out the window within a minute or two, we'll still have a load of people in silly costumes charging about and flapping their arms around a lot in an entertaining manner.
Look, you're not going to make it on your own. The ceremony was designed as a communal experience, so you'll need company. Ideally this company will be real-life and tangible, but if that's not possible you can always machine-gun out your pithy string of observations on Twitter. Failing that, you can anthropomorphise a volleyball like Tom Hanks did in Castaway. He'll appreciate your bon mots, even if nobody else will.
The traditional response to televised spectaculars looks rather dangerous in this case – the ceremony is on TV for five and a half hours, after all – so proceed with caution. You'll also need a lot of booze if you're going to drink whenever the words "glorious", "spectacle", "majestic" or "pinnacle" are used, whenever Huw Edwards looks vaguely like he's losing the will to live, whenever a wacky Fearne Cotton-alike presents a kooky segment from backstage, whenever one of the farm animals defecates on camera, whenever anyone struggles to pronounce the name of a foreign athlete and – just to promote responsible drinking – whenever the Queen looks visibly happy to be there. You're probably safe with that last one.
There. Now you can enjoy the Olympic opening ceremony the way it was meant be enjoyed – begrudgingly, on a sofa, possibly half drunk. It's how Danny Boyle meant you to watch it.