London 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony: 'It’s going to be cheeky, cheesy and thrilling’
'TO me, this should be the greatest after-party in the world," says David Arnold, music director of the Olympic Closing Ceremony.
“If the Opening Ceremony was the wedding, then we’re the wedding reception. We’re the one where everyone gets out of their cars at the village hall, goes 'Wasn’t that lovely, everyone looked great, let’s put on Blame It On the Boogie and have a laugh.’”
Arnold is joking. Sort of. “It needs to be something where everyone, including the athletes, is going to be able to let off steam. There are seven and a half thousand of them there, so it’s a show for them all to get involved with, and hopefully it will wrap up the spirit of what these Games have been, which is slightly anarchic, slightly mischievous, funny, heart-warming, emotional, inspiring, and uniquely British.”
One of Britain’s leading contemporary film soundtrack composers, Arnold has scored five Bond films, the TV series Little Britain and Sherlock, and has a long history of involvement with pop artists from Björk to Shirley Bassey. A smart, funny 50-year-old, he conducts conversation with a deadpan wit that underplays the seriousness of his talent.
He looks tired, though. “It’s like spinning plates and they’re all on fire,” he says. Sitting outside the legendary Air studios in Hampstead, where he has an office, he declares that this has been the most exhausting and all-consuming job he has ever done. “I visited the Olympics site for the first time three years ago. I’ve been working on this for two years, 18 months pretty much full-time, and seven days a week since February.” He has had to turn down all other work for over a year, including the latest Bond movie.
“Right now, it’s 17-hour days. It is insane. There is just so much to do.”
With the ceremony due to take place on Sunday and secret rehearsals under way at a disused site at the Ford factory in Dagenham, the team are still making tweaks and changes. “We’ve got a cast of thousands and the bulk are volunteers, so we can only rehearse in the evenings. I get calls at midnight saying we’ve just found out it takes 20 seconds longer to get this amount of people in that amount of space, or we’re going to do this with 600 people rather than 400, so we’re constantly changing timings and anticipate parts where things potentially could change on the night. It’s huge. If you’ve got drummers at one end of the stadium and singers at the other end and dancers in-between, they’ve all got to hear what’s going on without getting out of sync. At one point, there are eight thousand in-ear monitor sets out on the deck.” Arnold laughs with a boyish delight that indicates exactly why he was chosen for the job. “It is the most fun I have ever had in music.”
Arnold is part of a three-man core team, including director Kim Gavin, a theatrical and ballet choreographer who oversaw Take That’s spectacular 2011 stadium tour, and designer Es Devlin, who has created sets for Lady Gaga, Rihanna and the Royal Opera House. “We were sort of blissfully left to get on with it,” says Arnold. Danny Boyle’s team for the Opening Ceremony was in the office next door. “Everyone would be playing mixes and getting excited and then you’d hear someone else’s mix from the next room, and we’d go, hold on, we’ve got that song, or vice versa. There is going to be a crossover, even though it’s a completely different show.”
The two-and-half-hour production will be entitled A Symphony of British Music, with Arnold elaborating that “it is really a celebration of Britishness in terms of the arts: design, fashion, fine art, poetry and playwriting all sitting fairly and squarely on popular music. It’s more theatrical than a concert because it covers every inch of the stadium. It’s a big 'arms around the world’ event, where we are going to be asking people to get involved. Hopefully, it will be a big party.”
The worldwide broadcast will start at 9pm on Sunday and feature more than 4,100 performers, including 3,880 volunteers. It will take place across the stadium, with specially constructed sets. David Arnold has composed original music to link segments together and all tracks have been pre-recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, with only vocals performed live. Traditional matters of Olympic protocol have been incorporated, including the march of more than 10,000 athletes and flagbearers. The medal ceremony for the men’s marathon will be featured, and there will be a package of filmed highlights from the Games. Speeches will be made, involving the Queen, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, and Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympics Committee. There is a flag ceremony, which will include the national anthems of Greece (to honour the birthplace of the Olympics), Great Britain (as host of the Games) and Brazil (the nation hosting the 2016 Olympics). The President of the IOC will declare the Games closed and, at the climax, the Olympic Flame will be extinguished. “The challenge,” according to Arnold, “is to make all of that interesting and particular to our slightly quirky British ceremony.”
Who will be taking part and the exact shape it takes is something they are still trying to keep under wraps. “I’m always disappointed when something leaks. It’s like telling someone what they’re going to get for Christmas. You might be excited when you hear about it, but when it comes to opening the present you’ve already moved on.” There are 20 or more original artists involved, all of them household names, many among the greatest British stars ever, performing about 30 major pieces of music, which Arnold has been adapting and recording so that sections will flow together, working with famous musicians and incorporating classical and pop music. “I can mention the dead ones,” jokes Arnold. “Elgar’s definitely not going to be showing up, though his music will be. But even the reading of that will be slightly mischievous, slightly absurd.”
When he accepted the commission, he says, he “went through The Guinness Book of Hit Singles, from 1956 onwards, looking at the top 20 records for that year, and reducing that to 10 for each year. So you’ve got more than 500 songs, all of which you know, all of which were brilliant, any combination of which would make for an amazing show.”
He insists there was no tokenism or committee-like arbitration over inclusions to avert all possible criticism. “The worst thing you could do is be looking over your shoulder wondering what a particular person is going to think. It’s a way of disappointing yourself primarily and everyone else secondarily. What we’ve left out is simple: we’ve left out every piece of British music that has ever been written, apart from these 30. So there are huge exclusions, great artists we haven’t squeezed in, but everything we have is worthy of being there.”
Look away now if you want it all to remain a complete surprise. There have been a few leaks, and Arnold describes a speculative piece I wrote for the Telegraph when the show was first announced as “scarily accurate”. So I would expect the performances to include Ray Davies of the Kinks singing Waterloo Sunset (surely London’s most beloved alternative anthem), Paul McCartney pulling out another gem from the Beatles canon, the Spice Girls reminding us about when they were just Wannabes, Adele turning on the tears for Someone Like You, Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran doing Wish You Were Here with members of Pink Floyd and a galaxy of other stars, including Take That, the Who, Muse, George Michael, Queen, Paul Weller, One Direction, Elton John, the Rolling Stones and perhaps even the reclusive Kate Bush, Running Up That Hill. But I’m just guessing.
As Arnold says: “We could have done this 15 times over, and not had the same show, and it would still have been full of amazing British music. It’s going to be beautiful, cheeky, cheesy, camp, silly and thrilling. We’re trying to have moments where someone from the Cotswolds watching it on TV and someone from a tower block overlooking it in the East End will be able to find something in it of which they can say, that’s us, really, that’s Britain.”
Closing Ceremony is on RTE 2 and BBC1 on Sunday