Can Danny Boyle strike Olympic gold?
Have faith, argues Cath Clarke, he's been setting the pace of British film for years
Do you think the Olympic Opening Ceremony will do justice to Britain? No? You’re not alone; 73 per cent of people taking part in a recent poll agree with you. We Brits could make a sport of arms-crossed, it’ll-all-end-in-tears doom-mongering, but still… Even the ceremony’s artistic director Danny Boyle had a giggle last month unveiling a mini-model of his £27-million extravaganza. A vision of our ‘green and pleasant’ land is how he described it. So yes, he confirmed, the farmyard animals will be real: a dozen horses, three cows, two goats, ten chickens, ten ducks, 70 sheep and three sheep dogs (no pigs, they’re prone to stress). In 2008 Beijing rewrote the history books with military-precision dazzle, but we’ll wow them with… what? A city farm?
Boyle looked remarkably relaxed. Not at all like a man feeling the pressure of staging a show expected to be seen by a billion viewers. We’ll have to wait till next Friday to see how it pans out. I’ve got a sneaky suspicion that Boyle might pull it out of the bag. He put a shot in the arm of British film 18 years ago with his savagely funny debut, ‘Shallow Grave’. Here was a Brit film that grabbed you by the lapels. One that called time on the stranglehold of period drama and gritty realism on British cinema (that was the plan anyway). We had our Tarantino.
Except Boyle is no enfant terrible. He’s a populist, and proud of it. Look at ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ hoovering up Oscars and making $378 million (it cost $15 million). And it wasn’t just bums on seats – people want to talk about his films. When I tell people I interview actors and directors, they usually ask: who’s the nicest person you’ve interviewed (a toss up between Julianne Moore and Ken Loach), or the most famous? (Always stumps me, that one.) At the start of 2009, all anyone I met wanted to talk about was ‘Slumdog’. There was the doctor who’d found it sentimental, but who had taken his teen kids to see it and they’d had a long chat about it. Or the British-Indian nurse in her twenties who told me it made her feel proud, but she worried that the poverty didn’t look real enough.
The thing about Boyle is that his instincts are impeccable; he’s got a knack for knowing what we want to watch (it sounds simple; it isn’t). He can nail a zeitgeist; he did it in ‘The Beach’, capturing the gap-year generation (‘Yeah man, I was in Thailand before the tourists, like, totally ruined it’). His films tackle the ‘who we are, where we are’ without being scare-the-multiplex political: portraying India’s slums in ‘Slumdog’, junkies in ‘Trainspotting’. ‘I try to make exciting films,’ he says. And his MO is total immersion: a blast of energy with a thumping soundtrack that gets you in the gut (take your pick from the toilet scenes in ‘Slumdog’ and ‘Trainspotting’, or James Franco chopping his arm off in ‘127 Hours’).
And Boyle can pull off spectacles: Cillian Murphy walking in deathly silence across Westminster Bridge in ‘28 Days Later…’ is astonishing. And, typically, it was done on the cheap (stopping cars for a few minutes). Boyle is a thrifty director –it keeps you on your toes, he says – so we’ll get plenty of bang for our buck next Friday.
Which brings us to his vision for the Opening Ceremony. It turns out that Boyle pulled a fast one with that model. We will get a countryside idyll, but it’s only the first act in his ‘Isles of Wonder’ ceremony, inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. (Well, £27 million did sound like a lot to spend on chickens). If the leaks are to be believed, meadows will give way to an industrial landscape and at least one British tradition not so beloved by the ‘Horse & Hound’ set: protest. A ‘History Parade’ segment is set to include miners, suffragettes and a celebration of immigration. That sounds more like it. Boyle lives a mile from the Olympics site, in Tower Hamlets, and growing up in Lancashire his dad worked as a boiler stoker at a power station, so that whole babbling brooks set-up always smelt a bit fishy.
The Chinese killed it in Beijing. Their opening ceremony felt like a statement of intent: watch out world, this is how a global powerhouse does it. Everything was perfect down to the cute seven-year-old girl singing China’s national anthem. Except she was lip-synching – the real girl wasn’t pretty enough. You won’t get that at London. ‘I want it to be inclusive – it’s one of the unique things about London,’ says Boyle. He’s got a reputation for infectious enthusiasm and is working with 10,000 volunteers. He says he wants to give us ‘a picture of ourselves as a nation’. Are there ingredients for a shambles? With animals and dancing nurses? You bet. But it could make for an idiosyncratically British shambles.
A journalist once asked Boyle what they’d discover about him just from watching his films. His reply was that they’d learn he had a black sense of humour but is also a bit sentimental. ‘I want my films to be life affirming… I want people to leave the cinema feeling something’s been confirmed for them about life.’ If he can pull that off next Friday, we’re on to a winner.