diamond geezer

 Friday, May 06, 2016

Ten years ago this weekend, the Sultan's Elephant 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.

If you need reminding, here's what I wrote at the time, here's my set of photos, here are some much better photos, here are some better photos still, here's a video of the elephant setting off on its first journey, and here's the official eleven minute video by the organising group. I needed reminding, and it was great.

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.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream