Children’s author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce was the writer of the Olympic Opening Ceremony – a key collaborator with director Danny Boyle in a madcap spectacle that captured the imagination of the world. He talks us through just how they managed it.
Danny Boyle calls you his “representative on Earth”. What does that mean?
I’ve no idea! I find it really hard to explain what most of those two years of work was like. It was like being in primary school. Through all of it, Danny totally protected us. You’d walk through the park and get inside the stadium and enter a kind of Utopia. I ended up thinking that as long as the volunteers were having a great time I didn’t care!
The Opening Ceremony wasn’t what you would call a “safe” show. Did you expect criticism?
I think it was as surprising for me as for everybody who was watching it how well it went down, and how much it meant to people. There had been so much negative press in the build up to it. It was quite funny in a way. I remember reading that Danny had locked himself in his trailer, and all I could think was: “Danny hasn’t got a trailer!”
Then there were people’s predictions for the show. All due respect to him, but the idea that David Beckham would light the cauldron? What does that mean? It doesn’t tell you anything more than he’s famous and this is happening. We wanted more than that.
Could you relax and enjoy it?
I always thought something would go wrong, but then I’m that kind of person. I was in the stadium with my wife and two of my children on the night, and from the minute the rings went up and the fireworks went off, I thought, “That’s just fantastic.” I can remember seeing drawings of the Olympic rings being forged and sparking up, but the next time I saw anything to do with that it was happening for real. It was magical; I didn’t really worry after that.
What was the hardest part of putting it all together?
The hardest part was keeping Betty a secret – that’s the name we gave the Olympic cauldron. We knew it could be so fantastic, and because of that it had to be so secret. Even the way we worked with it was very secretive – we couldn’t test it until everyone had gone home, so we would be there until three in the morning waiting for the stadium to be empty so that we could see if it worked. That was very emotional, being there on your own with a tiny number of people in this huge stadium watching this thing come to life, hearing the gas piping through.
Why was it called Betty?
That was the name of our executive producer Catherine Ugwu’s dog. Ridiculously we thought that if we used the name Betty people would think we were talking about the dog. But obviously saying “We’ve got to clear the stadium for Betty,” “Betty’s coming at 3am, you can only come in if you’ve got maximum clearance” was never going to work. It was very surreal!
What’s the best reaction you’ve had?
The most eloquent was from my son Joe, who said it had divided the nation… but it divided it 99.999 to 0.001%! I thought that was brilliant. And I got an email from Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies. He said it made Boy meets Girl on a Saturday night feel like the most important thing in the world.
Were you worried no one would get it?
There’s a great quote from the classical playwright Terence, who said, “I’m a human being. Nothing that’s human is alien to me.” I always thought that if we tried to second-guess people, and what should be in there, we’d end up with something that nobody really likes. But if you’re just honest about what you really love, you very quickly discover that lots of people feel the same as you.
All those clips we picked for the film and television collage for example were so personal, but now I’m constantly being stopped by people who tell me they loved seeing Gregory’s Girl or A Matter of Life And Death making their way into the Olympics. They’re not the biggest hits of British cinema. No one in the rest of the world will think they really represented Britain, but everyone in Britain knows that together they did.
We knew we’d paid our dues. The Queen was there, James Bond was there, Mr Bean – those are the three brands you knew would travel to Mongolia and back! We felt we’d earned the right to put Bill Forsyth and Deidre Barlow in.
Talking of the Queen – how did you convince her to make that entrance?
Everyone has different memories, but as far as I recall, the team had come up with this idea and submitted it to the Palace for them to approve. We wanted to check if it was alright to represent the Queen in this way. And then we got a message back saying, “Yes, that’s fine. She’ll make the film on the following day.” And we were like, “um, ok then!” I’m not sure we were asking her to do it herself!
Danny Boyle’s re-edited version of the entire London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, plus over seven hours of sporting highlights, is available to buy from today for £29.99 on DVD and £34 on Blu-ray