Ten years ago this weekend, the Sultan'sElephant came to town. You may remember, and if you do, it's likely you'll never forget. One of the largest pieces of street theatre ever to take place in London, the giant puppets roamed the streets and transfixed the capital. And then they went away, and we've not really seen their like again.
In short, the story was this. On Day 1 a wooden spaceship appeared mysteriously on Waterloo Place, overlooking The Mall, steaming profusely from the cracked pavement. On Day 2 a young girl emerged from the spaceship, dangling from long strings, and wandered off to meet a giant elephant on Horseguards Parade. On Days 3 and 4, which were the weekend, the girl and elephant toured carefully selected parts of central London followed by increasing numbers of spectators. And at the end of Day 4 the girl returned to her spaceship and the elephant fell asleep. Presumably if you were watching in the early hours of Day 5 you'd have seen the French theatre company responsible quietly removing the lot.
Two questions. Why hasn't it happened since, and what would be different if it happened now rather than ten years ago?
Obviously it has happened since, just not on quite such a scale and not in London. Royal de Luxe continue to tour the world with their giant puppets, which have made appearances in Limerick, Reykjavik, Perth and numerous other cities. They tweak the narrative each time, so it's not always small girls and elephants, but their arrival is always a landmark event in the chosen place. Liverpool have had them back twice, for a 'Sea Odyssey' in 2012 and then for 'Memories of 1914', in both cases wildly successfully. But over the last ten years, despite their obvious success, we've had no subsequent bookings here.
Obviously other street theatre companies exist, some even local. Obviously much street theatre takes place in London, as for example at the annual Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. Obviously a lot of street theatre took place in the summer of 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad. But while much of that's been excellent it's not necessarily had an all-encompassing narrative, nor the irrefutable magnetism of the Sultan's Elephant. Are such events simply too expensive in this austere age, when the money could far better be spent on [insert name of valuable council service here]? Is this a deliberate choice made by City Hall over the last Mayoralty, or simply something they've overlooked?
As for what would be different about the Sultan's Elephant today, the most striking thing about the opening night's activities is how sparsely attended they were. When the beast woke to go on its first tour, early on a Friday evening, the crowds watching were only a few deep. I got a very decent view, and maintained this proximity when the elephant lumbered off up Pall Mall and blew its steam directly in my face. By Saturday morning the throng in Trafalgar Square was considerably thicker and getting up close was no longer an option. What we didn't have back then were smartphones and Twitter, and even if you were on Facebook you almost certainly couldn't access it on the move. Back in 2006 the internet worked more slowly to bring people together, hence most Londoners couldn't be summoned to the first night's events happening 'now', but were more easily alerted by the following day.
And then there's the photographs. It's striking, looking back at the photos I took that weekend, how few people in the crowds are doing the same. Maybe one in ten of those crowds had a camera in the air at any given time, generally a 'proper' camera or digital camera, and only rarely a phone. Photography had yet to become a universal hobby, hence the majority of people still looked at events as they were taking place rather than trying to record them. These days there'd be a sea of smartphones blocking the views of those standing behind, each of whom would have their smartphone raised anyway. These days there'd be selfies of "me with the elephant", and prolonged video recordings of the entire proceedings which nobody would ever watch. We've become obsessed with visually chronicling and sharing everything, because otherwise it's somehow not a proper event, whereas in 2006 we had yet to tip over the edge of that behavioural pit.
So it's possible that one of the reasons we loved the Sultan's Elephant is that we truly responded to it, rather than watching it through a lens, and another possible reason is that our memories of it aren't saturated by accumulated digital evidence. Of course the main reason we loved it is that it was brilliant, a simple tale painted on a huge canvas, the like of which we've not seen again since. And how brilliant it would be if the next Mayor, whoever he or she might be, threw a crumb of funding at something this inspirational so we might all come together as a city and grin our heads off once again.