We’re waiting in Vom 1. Months of early-morning dance rehearsals all come down to this. Immune to 80,000 noisy ticket holders outside, all we hear are instructions from Gina, our Manc director and segment chartist, on our in-ear radios. It’s 9.57pm on Friday 27th July 2012, and we’re about to be watched by an expected more than a billion people for the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The house lights are up, and none of us can breathe. My blisters have turned into ugly weals, my muscles are like bricks, my stomach is panicking. After 2 auditions, nearly 150 hours of rehearsals and 12 weekends, tonight, 1,400 volunteers, pro dancers and performers will perform in a segment known as ‘Thanks Tim’.
These numbers are meaningless.
My journey began in August 2011. With no real expectation of much and with zero performance boxes ticked (acrobatics, trampolining, stilts, BMX, pointe etc), my partner and I decided to apply to be part of the Olympics Opening Ceremony (OOC). Something to tell the grandkids, we justified. I no way did either of us ever expect to actually get through.
When we received confirmation emails telling us the time and place of our first audition, our hearts sank. EAST London, you say? But we live west. It’s so far. Wouldn’t it be easier just to not go and just to pretend we hadn’t been given this opportunity? We have no visible skills. What could Danny Boyle, Hollywood film director extraordinaire possibly want with the likes of us ordinary Londoners?
That’s the thing about ordinary: if you believe you are, then you always will be. That’s the first and last thing I’ll say to the haters; haters who have no clue about the personal sacrifices it takes to get involved with something quite so extraordinary. This really was a once in a lifetime chance and we weren’t going to snub it.
So, hand-in-hand, we went along to 3 Mills Studios near Bromley-by-Bow for our first audition. That was a mistake.
“Olympics is a couples’ sport!” announces the casting director to a roomful of auditionees. Embarrassing.
Like most studios, 3 Mills is an odd, rather anticlimactic place. Filming and broadcast sounds bloody exciting, but the shells that house it are large, vacant rooms, ready for the transformation du jour. Rather like all showbiz in that respect.
We line up, entertained by scenes from the Atlanta and Beijing Ceremonies. I vaguely wonder what it would be like to play a metaphorical ocean wave or an eagle’s feather or a ray of sunlight.
I’m relieved to see London’s rich tapestry – old, young, male, female – not just the ‘kids from Fame’ we had feared. There are 300 of us.
We run on coordinates. We run in all directions. We freestyle. We dance. We act. We follow instructions. All the while, the cast co-ordinators or ‘mass team’ as they will come to be known are judging us and making notes. And we have absolutely no clue what they’re looking for.
Against all odds, we get called back for a second audition, but at different times and for different roles. Turns out, I have been ‘spotted’ for my freestyle moves, and my partner for his acting prowess. So it transpires we have some semblance of talent.
My heart is freefalling throughout my second audition: four hours of frantic dance, overseen by industry-renowned choreographers. Remember those ‘Fame kids’? Well, they’re all here. They’re shorter, a lot younger and appear to be picking up this dancing lark a lot quicker than I am. We are lined up in rows to first battle each other, and then to perform row by row. Again, there are around 300 of us and the whole thing is extremely unsettling. We are asked to talk into a camera and sum ourselves up in three words; nightmare, nightmare, nightmare. I leave 3 Mills with the sinking feeling that I’m simply not good enough against these flexible girls, confident gay men and showbiz brats. Damn them all for being so good. My partner feels similarly about his own audition: it was long, arduous and left him with a feeling of inadequacy.
Christmas comes and goes. What if one of us gets through and the other doesn’t? Scrap that; we haven’t got through.
It’s January 2012, and the confirmation emails are sprayed across the country. We both get one, and only then does it occur to us just how much we really wanted this. Just you try to wipe the Cheshire cat grins off our stupid proud faces.
Let me preface this by saying I am no dancer. Yes I’m tall, and yes I can move in time in a club at 1am or at the odd Zumba class, but no, despite a brief spell at tap dancing in my teens (I was never graceful enough for ballet), I have never ever danced in front of anyone. Not like this, at any rate. Yet suddenly, against all the odds, more than a billion people across the globe are going to be watching me dance in the Olympic Stadium – more people than those who tuned into the moon landings or President Obama’s inauguration. Oh Danny Boy, I do hope you know what you’re doing.
It’s April, and the rehearsals begin. We’re back at 3 Mills, queuing in the cold at 9am and nervously second-guessing the events that will transpire over the next five hours or so. Passes freshly scanned, and donning pink and purple bibs with our numbers (I’m 242) and the mysterious legend ‘TIM’, we’re taken into an empty studio where Danny Boyle is lurking.
My first impressions of Danny Boyle are that he’s a pretty normal genius. He’s grounded, chatty, with no airs and graces and absolutely no ego. It’s as if his name precedes him; the brand of Danny Boyle is more famous than the man.
But Danny will attend every single rehearsal. He will film us dancing with a hand-held camera, he will sign our bibs, give us a thumbs-up and wish us luck, and he will constantly tell us what amazing people we are for volunteering to do this. He knows it’s not his event; it’s ours, and he’s gladly giving it to us, and to his audience, and to everyone else who’ll be watching around the world on the 27th. A few weeks from now, I’ll catch Danny Boyle singing along to the lyrics from The Jam’s Going Underground: “The public gets what the public wants…”
And so we gather round his model of the stadium and listen, rapt, as he shares his vision for our section. Forgive me for paraphrasing in a Lancashire accent:
“You’ll be dancing. You’ll be doing a variety of other things, but mainly dancing. Think of any typical Saturday night out – girl getting ready in a too-short dress, mother laying the table in your average, life-sized Barratt Home. Video games are played, social networks like ‘FaceSpace’ (audience titter) are used, texts are sent.
“All the action from inside the house is projected onto a massive blow-up house in the centre of the stage. Girl goes out; girl meets boy; boy and girl fancy each other. They party through various clubs through the decades (’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and ‘now’), all to the backdrop of sitcoms, soap operas and famous film love scenes projected onto the big house. Everyone parties back into the little house, vanishes, then the house lifts up to reveal Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Your section is called ‘Thanks Tim’. This is for everyone; we are all connected.”
There’s a brief silence before the clapping. One girl near me wonders if it’s a bit predictable. But then we’re shown a VT made up of sketches, live sequences and animation, and I get goosebumps.
This is really bloody clever, but most of all, it’s just funny. The mish-mash of famous quotes and an excellently-mixed soundtrack that expertly changes tempo and style without losing any of its pzazz is hilarious. Beijing was a metaphorical art display; London is going to be a smack-in-your-face literal interpretation of a big fat piss-up party.
Our era? Well we’re the first group in at 9am – the first of any of the segments in fact – so naturally, we’re swingin’ ’60s. My costume dream has come true: I’m not a leaf or a lobster or a masked highwayman as I’d earlier feared – I’m in a sequined dress and wig; an actual girl’s costume! This is excellent news.
With our five-hour rehearsal underway, I discover we’ve been put into first-name order (consequently my good friends would all start with L,M and N) and I would soon become accustomed to seemingly ungettable choreography, dancing in lines and sweating tears. For a month Group 49B danced like this, drawn together from all circumstances, some of us dancers, some of us not. My preconceptions about showbiz brats were instantly banished when I got talking to people, some who’d travelled from afar (one girl was commuting from Glasgow), some who were Chinese and Canadian, some who were scientists and chocolate-makers and actors, but most who couldn’t quite believe their luck that they were here.
Things I knew for a fact: the ’60s choreography was hard; the ‘now’ choreography where all fourteen-hundred of us battle each other was impossible. It still makes me want to cry thinking about it now. It was fast; so fast that even our dance captain Bradley admitted that it was going to be challenging to get everyone up to speed. He kept referring to ‘muscle memory’, when your body automatically knows what’s coming next. My muscle memory couldn’t come soon enough.
Next stop: Dagenham, or 1:1 to use its correct codeword. An outdoor venue and the location for recent British film Made in Dagenham, the disused Ford plant became our new dancing home. With a giant circus tent sandwiched between two stadium-sized practice arenas, there was enough room for some of the other sections to practice at the same time.
Here, we came to learn what ‘blocking’ meant, i.e. standing around for hours waiting to be placed on a specific coordinate. I was blocked in ‘home base’, ‘Tube A carriage 2’, ‘ ‘horseshoe’, ‘peace sign’, ‘now block’ and ‘exit’.
To expand, I would start from my home coordinate, run on from Vom 1 (an abbreviation from the old Greek/Olympian word Vomitorium meaning theatre entrance), stand and form part of a tube train, run into the front of a giant horseshoe shape made up of 60s dancers, dance round the horseshoe into the top of a giant peace sign, wait for all the other eras to dance before running to perform the ‘now’ choreography battle with everyone, and then run under the house and through a trap door. Simple, right?
At times, 1:1 felt at best like a gentle army boot camp and at worst like Hitler Youth. It took nearly two hours to get there on the District line and connecting shuttle bus, it was arduous and boring, and I was thrilled to see the back of it. Yet 1:1 brought me that little bit closer to everything; making a three-hundred strong peace sign was fun; watching the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s come together was captivating; getting instructions through our in-ear radios for the first time was pretty damn cool. And it brought us closer to the Stadium.
It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt during that first rehearsal at the Olympic Park. We’d had so many rehearsals, we’d practised our routine so many times (by this point and against all odds I had picked up most of the choreography), and we’d devoted so many of our weekends to the cause that ‘Opening Ceremony’ had digressed into little more than a catchphrase. After passing through airport-tight security (whatever you say about G4S, it was certainly pleasant to hug the super-friendly marines), picking up our dinner packs, shoes and radios, we were led into the Stadium.
Sitting in one of those eighty-thousand pristine white seats and looking out onto the raised stage, Glastonbury Tor, swinging tree, actual Barratt Home and incredible light tests and prop building that was being conducted by the dozens of workmen in high-vis jackets, it hit me: I’m in this thing.
Dancing on that stage for the first time, I probably felt awed and lucky and nervous and wired. It’s funny how even a recent memory can get muddled within the depths of experience.
Pumped and a million miles away from the negativity that followed me to Dagenham, every rehearsal became a blessing. I threw myself into the moves, let my eyes drink in every single movement of our full ‘Thanks Tim’ rehearsal, and even relished going down through the trap door to the construction site beneath the stage (until mass team changed our exit route to the Tor, that is). I listened eagerly to Gina, chief chartist and coordinator, in my in-ears, I devoured the last-minute choreography they threw at us (Bhangra hands, head nodding and heartbeats), and even managed to forgive Danny Boyle for revealing the opening ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ scene to the press.
Outside rehearsals, I became the best and worst of myself: humble about the opportunity but boastful to those weren’t involved; secretive for my own section but desperate for information on other sections; energetic in my new job (great timing, eh?) but exhausted at home. I repeat, like a mantra, to friends and family keen for information: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done”. It’s official: the OOC had consumed me.
One week to go, and the entire cast of 10,000 were moved to a holding area in Eton Manor, an arena on the far-side of the Olympic Park, where vast marquees were strewn with costumes, cast and make-up stations. Look it up on an Olympic Park map: it’s 2 miles from Stratford station and 1.6 from the stadium. For three days in a row I was walking about 6 miles on blister-encrusted feet and spending eight hours in hair and make-up, before performing in costume and stumbling home past midnight, utterly broken.
But to see the other sections, fully costumed, and to meet people from my partner’s group of ‘working men and women’ (WMW) covered in soot, to see the ’40s nurses in their get-up, the neon of the ’90s, and the utterly bonkers Britishness of it all in full daylight to the backdrop of the ultra-modern Olympic Park architecture was like a trippy day out to Neverland.
Everyone talks to everyone else, united by this weird thing that connects us all. When we see other sections perform, we cheer and high-five each other. We join Facebook groups dedicated to the cause and organise after-parties. We take photos. We do each other’s hair. We share weather reports for the week ahead. And we’re all connected through this #savethesurprise secret; privileged because we know what the surprise is, because we’re in it, because we’re making history.
Monday 23rd July, and tonight’s dress rehearsal is the first ticketed event to an audience of 60,000 Games Makers, friends and families. Wednesday 25th July, and our parents are in the audience. Queuing in Vom 1, in Tube A carriage 2, my friends and I can see the audience scattered across the thousands of seats. It’s a dark, hot night, and there’s something thrilling about being backstage. We’ve been listening to the entire show through our ear-pieces, but hearing the audience roar so close to us is a new experience. We grab, hug and squeeze each other, and before we’ve had time to get nervous, we run out, barely daring to look around, and launch ourselves into the dance.
We bop our wigs to 60s beat, stare up in awe at the rocket men launching into the sky, go mental in time with the fireballs and go well, bonkers to Dizzee Rascal’s Bonkers – all the while hurting our faces with smiles. We’re panting, sweating and buzzing all over.
The public reaction has been phenomenal; more so than perhaps we even expected. Those lucky enough to watch the two technical dress rehearsals are amazed with what they’ve just seen, and all the more importantly, they’ve promised to keep the secret at the behest of Danny Boyle’s clever social ‘save the surprise’ hashtag.
It’s Friday 27th July 2012, and all is calm. Ceremony script writer Frank Cottrell Boyce talks about the “generosity” of the volunteers on BBC Breakfast, and the weather, although slightly cooler, looks as though it might hold out. Bells are rung across the land and the Olympic Torch is making it final leg along the Thames towards Stratford, its home, our home.
Eton Manor is rippling with energy. The costume team make last-minute announcements. We live through this strange, strange companionship for one final time. We walk back to the stadium, and Gina commands “let’s kick this pig” (her way of saying “break a leg”) once more for old time’s sake. We’ve come a long, long way, but after months of extraordinary efforts, more emotions than an ordinary heart can handle and the forging of real friendships, finally we’re in the same place.
We’re waiting in Vom 1. And we’ll be here forever.