diamond geezer

 Wednesday, July 27, 2016

London's Olympic Games began four years ago today. It's still officially our turn, the 30th Olympiad doesn't end until Friday next week when Rio takes the baton. And it all kicked off with that Opening Ceremony, that feelgood factor, and that cauldron. The ceremony's always there to be watched on that DVD you probably bought, even if the feelgood factor's taken something of a bashing of late. And the cauldron's still around too, if you know where to look, and ever need a concentrated emotional boost.

The Museum of London has been playing host to a special 'cauldron' gallery for the last two years - precisely two years, it turns out. The museum used to have a courtyard at its heart, underused other than as a lightwell, but it's been requisitioned for this special exhibition through construction of a lofty black chamber. It needs to be tall to fit the stems in - not all 204 of them, but a fair number, one cluster of 55 rising high in one corner and another cluster of 42 splayed out in the corner opposite. Saves throwing them away, or hiding them in a storeroom somewhere.

The gallery's quite dark, all the better to evoke the cauldron's pre-midnight slot, and to aid the illusion that the reflected quarter-circle goes all the way round. But not too dark. There's plenty of background information to read, and photos to look at, plus a couple of quite distracting videos that play out on large screens overhead.

Although these are the actual metal stems, they're not the actual copper petals perched atop. Those have all been returned to the individual countries they represent, and who'd brought them into the stadium at the start of the athletes' parade. A rather delightful display shows representatives from several countries posing beside their allotted piece, in Thailand's case quite stuffily, but in the UAE with grins and a thumbs up. But the designers made three sets, one for the Olympics, one (slightly less numerous) for the Paralympics, and another purely for testing purposes. It's these test petals that appear in the exhibition, along with several shelves of the individually carved wooden blocks which guided their construction.

We learn that each Olympic petal had a special alphanumeric code, from A01 in the centre to J31 round the edge, with countries allocated in parade order. We learn that construction took 25,000 man hours, and that the top secret project was codenamed 'Betty' (after the executive producer's dog). We don't learn that a New York design studio claimed to have come up with the idea first, a claim eventually settled out of court, because this is more of a celebration of Thomas Heatherwick's design.

The gallery's called Designing A Moment, reflecting the organising team's desire that the moment of the cauldron's formation should be utterly memorable, rather than the subsequent burn. The designer's brief also said "no moving parts", a restriction later entirely disregarded. It's intriguing to look at the mechanics at the base of each stem and imagine the myriad of ways in which they could have gone wrong, causing global embarrassment, indeed the final technical rehearsal apparently misfired. A huge creative gamble, which thankfully paid off in spades.

One of the two looping videos features athletes and the design team talking about the cauldron, but it's the other which arrests everyone in the room when it begins. This film kicks off with the arrival of the torch at the stadium four years ago, and shows the lighting of the flame and subsequent lift, rising to a crescendo as the petals merge. There follow cauldron sequences from the other Opening and Closing Ceremonies too, but it's that first one which still packs a punch, thanks in no small part to the evocative backing of Caliban's Dream.

A word of warning if you've not been to the Museum of London lately - they now have a security check at the entrance requiring every bag to be searched, all metal objects to be withdrawn and every visitor to be patted down with an electronic wand. A sign outside confirms that each guard is wearing a body camera and that every word of conversation is being recorded, which I guess is a reflection of the potential strategic significance of a museum with the word 'London' in its title. I found the whole thing inordinately depressing rather than reassuring, a sad indication that the spirit of 2016 is very different to that of 2012. But if your optimism needs a boost, and you can bear the initial intrusion, why not pop down and relive a bit of cauldron magic?

Re-watch the Opening Ceremony
Isles of Wonder (3:22)
The forging of the rings (5:33)
The Queen dropping in (6:26)
The start of the NHS section (2:34)
Lighting the London 2012 cauldron (9:29)
The entire four hours (3:59:49)

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