You know what I did last summer

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory." 
- Rita Mae Brown
A little while ago I told you a few things about my summer job (which we will still generally avoid referring to with the "O" word, just in case) and implied that I'd have some more to say at some point.  I've finally managed to bash out a few hundred more words about some of the odd and random things that happened over the summer, so here are some recollections you might appreciate.

Hasn't this happened to us all?

Maybe I imagined it, but my list of projects seemed to have more than its fair share of downright weird stuff on it.  This is not to imply that it wasn't all pretty weird.  Managing the procurement of 350 bespoke light-up hospital beds is by no means normal.  Nor is the production of 600 umbrellas equipped with colour-changing LEDs, neither of which projects were my problem (thank God).  But how about this for not-precisely-run-of-the-mill?: The supply of the equipment and expertise necessary for fifty volunteer cast members to create giant soap bubbles, on cue, for thirty seconds.  I can't say that's been on my To Do list before.  (Then again, it was only fifty and by that time in the process it was hardly worth the effort to get out of bed for less than a hundred of anything.) Nevertheless, I located an extremely dedicated man who was fiercely devoted to the production of bubbles, and procured from him the equipment needed. He also agreed to come and instruct our cast in how to get the most from their bubble gear, so schedules were arranged.

The first time we tried to rehearse the bubbles in the stadium was in conjunction with rehearsals for another segment - the space was often shared because there was so much to accomplish in so little time.  On the night of the bubble rehearsal we'd barely even started when the wind direction and the bubble production conspired to create a, err... slight slip hazard for the other segment. Rehearsals were quickly suspended while we scrambled to clean things up and I wondered if my career would survive the distinction of bringing the entire ceremony to a sudden and crashing halt with nothing more than a few buckets of soapy water.

Naturally, the next time we did a bubble rehearsal I had to find another space where we could bubble away to our heart's content without loss of life.  To this end I scouted out a lonely stretch of grass beside a canal outside the stadium. It took about ten minutes to get the cast and their bubble gear and the bubble man and the stage managers out there, but I was confident that once we arrived we'd be free to bubble in peace.

Bubble rehearsal
See? What could possibly go wrong?

What did I discover when I finally arrived with my bubble entourage? Of course we weren't alone after all. Certainly not. The ceremony was far far too big for it not to have reached into this forgotten corner of the park. So when I saw a member of our Special Projects team sitting in an inflatable dinghy in the canal next to my rehearsal site I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that my empty patch of earth had been designated as a possible landing zone for the helicopter jump rehearsal that was about to take place.  I should have known better.  I mean who among us hasn't had their giant bubble rehearsal interrupted by a helicopter jump? Certainly not me.

'Queen' parachutes into stadium
In the end both the bubbles and the helicopter jump went off without a hitch. Though the jump received just a touch more media coverage than my bubbles, which didn't even make it into the broadcast.

I'll take "Flags of the World" for $500, Alex

One of my other things was flags. You know the flags that the athletes march with when they enter the stadium? Those are props, and they were on my list. This was actually one of my favourite bits though as with much of the ceremony, the scale was defeating. For instance, on the day we first took delivery of the flags and opened up the boxes and started putting them in their specially designed racks, it was undeniably cool and very very olympian.  But even in this coolest of moments, the scale was defeating. We started out all bright-eyed and excited: "Kenya!" "I've got Lesotho" "Madagascar here!"  But there were 204 nations competing so the novelty wore off pretty quickly. After about 50 flags it got a bit work-a-day. And by the time we unearthed Zambia and Zimbabwe arms were aching and brows were dripping. And that was just the first time we racked those flags.  The process was repeated every time we used them in rehearsal, and every time we packed or unpacked them to move them to or from the stadium, which was depressingly often.

The flags, still fresh and clean and unused.

Flags are important. It's important that you have them all. And it's important that they're clean and tidy and unwrinkled, which is no mean feat when they spend most of their lives outdoors. Most of all though, it's important that you get them right. The Koreas, for example, are tricky.  However, I'm happy to report that we got the right flag into the hands of the right flag-bearer one hundred percent of the time. And did you know that Malawi changed their flag quite late in the game? You would if you were the one ordering six new Malawis on short notice.

Eventually, though, the flags became old friends. This culminated on the afternoon of the Paralympic Closing ceremony when we racked up the flags for the last time. The day before we'd rolled them each onto their poles and covered then with protective plastic sleeves for the trip to the stadium, which meant that just a sliver of colour was visible on each pole. Yet when we unpacked them I was able to recognise a disturbing number of them from just a snatch of colour. Botswana and Micronesia both feature a lovely shade of light blue.  Qatar is the only only with a dark purpley-maroon colour, Leichtenstein has brown.  Mozambique has a machine gun on it, Uganda has a rooster, Bhutan a dragon. It was a bit freakish. Even now when I encounter a flag in the wild, I've got a pretty good shot at identifying it.  A few weeks ago I was walking down a random street in London and thought to myself, "What's the flag of Barbados flag doing on that building?" And while on a hash run in the embassy district a while ago I correctly identified both Bahrain and San Marino which are not exactly up there with the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes in the Name-That-Flag Game. These are things that simply wouldn't have entered my head before this job.  Just another small hangover from my summer.

Flags on Tor
All my flags planted on the Tor.  I thought this looked bloody fantastic.

Did that really just happen?

Does anyone remember these?

Speech Bubbles
They were called the speech bubbles.  Or, to be more precise, the f***ing speech bubbles.

I thought not.  They ended up being a vanishingly small part of the Opening Ceremony. Nonetheless, they required an awful lot of effort to make happen.  I won't go into the details since they are tedious in the extreme, but I will tell one short story that illustrates the "Did-that-really-just-happen?" kind of thing that happened more or less all the time.

I hope I'm not bursting any bubbles (Bubbles! Ha! I can't escape!) when I reveal that there were short segments of the ceremony that were filmed ahead of time.  Everybody knows about the Queen's parachute jump of course, but there were one or two other small bits that were filmed in advance, and my speech bubbles appeared in some of them.  And because the filming took place far in advance of the actual ceremony date, there happened a day when complete and perfect speech bubbles in a variety of sizes and fonts had to be present on set for their big moment.  And as is the way with such things, it was all just a trifle last minute. So it was that I found myself rushing from our workshop to the studio to hand deliver the props to the set.

I'm a theatre person from way back, but a film set is a foreign place to me.  Completely foreign and slightly scary.  I was petrified that I'd inadvertently walk into a shot and ruin everything, so I crept around on eggshells until I finally located the man I needed to talk to: the director, Danny Boyle.  I needed a decision from him about something to do with the speech bubbles, but he wanted to see them in context, on the correct set.  I, on the other hand, didn't even know how to find that set.  When he discovered that Danny said, "Have you never been on a film set before?" (Not in an angry way, just slightly bemused or possibly disbelieveing.)  I allowed that this was indeed that case, and when he heard this Danny proceeded to take me on a little tour of the studio en route to the set in question.

At the time I can remember thinking, "Damnit Danny, I just need you to tell me which one of these bloody speech bubbles you like so I can get the rest made!  I don't have time for this!!" And then I took a mental step back and thought, "Whoa.  Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director, is giving you a personal tour of his film set.  This is not an everyday occurrence. Just settle down and enjoy it."

And so I did.

Sometimes I love my job

This was one of my things too, a large representation of the S.S. Windrush that was built sort of like a giant kite.

You've seen this picture before, but it's the only remotely decent shot I've got.

The S.S. Windrush was the ship that carried the first large group of black Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica to the London port of Tilbury in 1948.  It was a watershed moment in English social history so it was included in the bit of the ceremony that was known as the History Parade, and which included, among other things, suffragettes, Chelsea Pensioners, Pearly Kings and Queens, a steel drum band, Jarrow marchers, Notting Hill Carnival dancers, and two large inflatable yellow submarines.

The hull of the boat was a very cleverly built tensioned fabric structure in four sections, and was carried by volunteer cast members.  The masts and funnels were backpack-mounted structures worn by people on stilts.  They were lovely people, my stilt walkers, and though they required a lot of attention, they were grateful for everything we did to help get them and their stilts and all their other bits and pieces working.  It was a long long haul but finally, on a rare sunny afternoon a few days before the ceremony, we found ourselves putting the finishing touches on and feeling like things might actually finally be coming together.

As always seemed to be the case, there were a few other things going on in the stadium that afternoon.  While we were plugging away at the north end of the field, there was a sound check going on under the big bell in the south.  This happened a lot; headline talent (the really famous people) only had one or two rehearsals so it was important for them to have a solid sound check to make the most of the rehearsal time available.  So as I and the stilt walkers and crew were working, we started to hear some familiar piano strains coming from the other end of the field, though I didn't really pay much attention.  No one thought it was anything more than a techncian or roadie testing the mix.  Then we heard the voice: "Hey Jude... don't make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better...".  So yeah, Paul McCartney was there, sound checking.  Gradually we realised that the office had emptied out and a small knot of people had gathered near the stage where Sir Paul and his band were playing.  And then a couple of the stilt walkers headed over there too, still on their stilts, so I went with them because I kind of had to, to make sure they were ok, right?  Purely selflessly, of course.

Sometimes - a LOT of the time - working on the ceremonies was a repetitive, soggy, impossible slog.  Then every once in a while, just often enough to keep you going, the rain would stop and the sun would shine and things that had once seemed impossible actually started working and you'd find yourself dancing with stilt walkers to Paul McCartney singing "Hey Jude".  And then your sixteen hour work day turned into fifteen hours and 56 minutes of hard graft and four minutes of magic.  I'm not saying that kind of thing happened every day, but there really was a sense of being part of something truly wonderful and insane and fantastic, which is good because getting through all the long hours and mad requests and unrelenting schedules and never-ending rain and other soul-destroying obstacles for anything less than the biggest show on the planet would have been a bit of a disappointment really. Maybe it's just because I'm still unemployed and aimless and don't have much to focus my attention, or maybe I've got a serious case of ceremonies-induced dementia, but damn, sometimes I miss it.

P.S.  And how lovely is this? After the ceremony, all our prop bits and pieces went to a huge logistic centre for sorting, re-sale and recycling.  Naturally, the Windrush went along with everything else.  And where was this logistics centre?  At the London port of Tilbury, exactly where the original ship had docked 64 years earlier.  And rather than sending the pieces of the ship for recycling, the port workers themselves were allowed to take the fabric that made up the skin of the boat to display in the port museum.  Awww.

P.P.S. And you know what else?  A lot of the Jamaican immigrants who arrived on the Windrush in 1948 settled in Brixton, which I now call home.  There's a big central gathering area at the intersection of Brixton Hill, Effra Road, Coldharbour Lane and Acre Lane, right at the heart of Brixton.  I go through it almost every day.  In 1998, on the fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the ship, that space was renamed Windrush Square.

Windrush Square
Windrush square in the November gloom.

1 Comment:

Viviane Dohle said...

Fantastic to hear about your adventures with the O! Thanks for sharing with us Pam.

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