Thursday, 30 August 2012

Review - Paralympic Opening Ceremony

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was with in the beginning with God. John1 v1-2

Well, that's the biblical view. Last night, it all started with the words of Stephen Hawking and a Big Bang. God was present - in the anthem at least, and also in the "god particle" - but the words were Hawking's. And Shakespeare's. And theme of Enlightenment was unapologetically scientific. 
The Paralympic Opening Ceremony kicked off with the words of one of the greatest thinkers to have ever lived - and one of the best examples of what can be achieved despite what life can throw at you. To have Hawking as a narrator and guide through the opening ceremony - encouraging the world to look to the stars and not down at it's feet - was inspired. Where the Olympics had a brief appearance from Tim Berners-Lee, the Paralympics had the greatest scientific mind since Einstein. Great as Berners-Lee's achievements are, there was no contest.

His words were followed by the Big Bang which was followed in turn by a routine performed to a backing-track of Rhianna's Umbrella. While the umbrella motif was an important part of the overall ceremony, this section was disappointing; it lacked wit and it lacked Brit. Fortunately, this was an aberration.

The lack-lustre opening number led into another appearance by Hawking and the first appearance of Prospero... Not, this time, Branagh as Brunel as Prospero but Sir Ian McKellen with disabled actress Nicola Miles-Wilden as Miranda. For the rest of the show, these three would be our guides; helping us to explore the world and our place in it.
This was followed by an original composition, "Principia", composed for the occasion by Errollyn Wallen and sung by a massed choir of performers. Inspired by Newton's Principia Mathmatica, it celebrated Scientific and Human Endeavour.
The Queen and Sir Philip Craven (head of the IPC) entered followed by the Union Flag which was accompanied by a beautiful rendition of Britten's setting of God Save The Queen. Rarely heard, it really does deserve wider dissemination.

Then the athletes parade then got underway and - perhaps predictably - overran spectacularly. It was almost eleven by the time our Paralymians made their way into the sold-out stadium to an accompaniment of Bowies' Heroes and 60-odd thousand cheering spectators.
The stadium - now bursting with both spectators and athletes - was rapt as the programme recommenced and Denise Leigh, the winner in 2001 of Channel 4's Operatunity, sang another new composition (also by Wallen) based on the Paralympic motto "Spirit in Motion". It was a spellbinding moment which augured well for what was to follow.
Lord Coe and Sir Philip Craven gave the opening speeches - Coe's inspirational, Craven's slightly too long - and the Queen (with slightly more enthusiasm than at the Olympics) declared the games open. Channel 4 reported that this was the first a head of state had opened both Olympic and Paralympic Games - if so, then it's another sign of progress. The Paralympic flag was paraded in to the strains of Holst's Jupiter, and raised to the Paralympic anthem. The oaths of the athletes, coaches and officials were taken - and it was time for the off again.
Handel's "Eternal Source of Light Divine", sung by Elin Manahan Thomas, raised more goosebumps as six paralympians - including Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson took to Zip Wires across the stadium in an aerial ballet. Miranda's journey of discovery - in an upside down umbrella - pays tribute to our nautical past and the role of science in navigation and leads to yet another spine-tingling, eye-welling moment: Birdy playing a piano and singing "Bird Gerhl" accompanied by double-amputee dancer David Toole.
This was a truly remarkable moment in an evening of remarkable moments. Mind, Body and Spirit uniting to convey something special about the human condition: it's ability to triumph over adversity and the inherent worth of all.
A tribute to Isaac Newton was followed by a tribute to the Large Hadron Collider, where the Higgs bosum (another British scientific idea) appears to have been identified in real life. Orbital performed and upped the tempo - to be followed by the Graeae theatre company performing Ian Dury's Spasticus Autisticus. Even this celebration of science could be edgy, it seemed. McKellen was waving a banner for equality!
And so, at last, we arrived at the lighting of the cauldron. The flame was carried into the stadium by Royal Marine Commando Joe Townsend - who wants to compete in the Triathlon when it becomes a Paralympic event in Rio - who descended on a zip-wire from the top of the "Orbit" tower. It was then handed to footballer David Clarke before being given to Margaret Maughan to light the cauldron. There was something very fitting about the choice of the winner of Britain's first ever Paralympic Gold (back in 1960) to perform the task - and for future, present and past Paralympians to all be involved.
Where Danny Boyle's Olympic Ceremony was exuberant and modern, Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings created a more sedate, measured vision of Britain but one which is equally at one dealing with it's history, particularly scientific history, and the future. One in which, as Hawking said, "there should be no boundary to human endeavour". 

It was a ceremony in which (dis)ability was both present and not present - with performers of all disabilities and none at one in the presentation of the spectacle. There was no patronising and no sympathy seeking. There was just a cast of thousands wanting to put on a show to match those of just a few weeks ago. It was exactly as things should be - a vision of a Britain and World not yet attained but which this Paralympics can help build.
One of my tweets last night said "Welcome to the Greatest Paralympics ever. We ran a Great Olympics but these games could be a bigger legacy to international sport." Whilst our Olympics were great, the competition was fierce - we couldn't match the extravagance of China, for example, and there will be future games that will exceed us in other areas. But our Paralympics will be a stand-out moment in the history of the movement; a staging point that says "This event is every bit as important as the Olympic Games. These athletes are as elite as their "able-bodied" counterparts. These games are worth investing in, are worth seeing, are worth supporting."
The show ended with Beverley Knight singing I Am What I Am. Not a disco-diva karaoke version but a slowed-down, soulful version. It was pitch-perfect and it said everything that needed to be said.

After a shaky start and a lengthy parade, it was the perfect close to a truly astounding, creative and emotional ceremony. In many ways more structured and coherent than Boyle's Olympic opener with (arguably) a better playlist than Gavin's Olympic Closing Ceremony, it was a ceremony that took the Paralympics another massive step on the way to being treated as seriously as it's bigger brother. In that respect it truly was about Enlightenment.


P.S. Aside from the peculiar syntax of the second verse, I was amazed to pull the quote from John from my memory.
P.P.S. I hope to goodness they make a CD of the music available - as yet, there is no sign of this.


Stephen Chapman said...

I noticed that the music was on iTunes this morning.

Andrew Brown said...

Yeah - I saw it on iTunes last night. Want a physical copy, though... Also wanted it to include Birdy, but I don't suppose you can have everything.

Raybeard said...

A totally comprehensive account, Andrew. Can't add anything at all. Caught up with it on the newish and very useful Freeview channel '4seven'.

I was already familiar (or thought I was) with the Britten arrangement of the National Anthem but I didn't recognise this as being so until it was announced afterwards - largely because he asks for the first verse to be sung in hushed pianissimo, which just would not have worked in that packed stadium.

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