I was very fortunate enough to take part as a drummer and marshal in the greatest show on earth the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Throughout the period I kept a written diary below are some of the notes I made at the time or shortly afterwards. This blog focusses purely on the drumming which is close to my heart.
It was back in February that I completed an online form to take part in the Olympic Opening ceremony. I have no idea why I did it. I had resisted earlier and then for some reason that I will never know on a Friday afternoon I changed my mind filled the on line form in and was called for an audition and what an audition it was. Queuing up outside 3 Mills Studio in Stratford surrounded by dancers in latex and leg warmers and a sprinkling of drummers I had serious second thoughts. Whilst waiting to enter a security guard was making polite conversation as he patroled the queue, who were no threat to security, when he asked the two tall gangly young men with bags of kit and bleached blonde hair in front of me what role they were auditioning for ? They answered in soft voices that they were dancers, he then asked me and I answered in no uncertain terms that I was a drummer. Then during the audition itself which included some movement exercises and dancing I really had second thoughts. However I thought that nobody knows me here so I gave it my all and they were clearly impressed by my ability to dance through Beyonce and I made it through and was called back to a second audition which involved actual drumming. Yes it was on buckets, but it was actual drumming. Firstly, a short what I would term body percussion session, checking co-ordination, timing and being able to clap on the off and the on beat, whilst walking or marching. Then through to the drumming audition ( At last ) this was taken by the great Ralph Salmins, an all round nice guy and a great drummer just check his website to see who he has worked with, but I was aware of who he was from his big band work with Robbie Williams on his DVD Live at the Albert Hall. Also my first introduction to Rick Smith of the Underworld who had put the music together. Ralph put us through some very simple exercises and then began to hand out parts for us to play. Each of us playing on a plastic bucket. The man was brilliant, extremely encouraging and devoid of ego. We were put through our paces and finally split into three groups according to our own perceived abilities and each group given a part to play which we then played together. Then off we went and waited to hear how we had done.
Once succesfully through the audition, it was rehearsals at 3 Mills in Stratford. We arrived and were allocated bibs with numbers, which were our numbers for the foreseeable future ( 297 was mine ) and took a seat. The initial rehearsal came with a chat and presentation from Danny Boyle himself ( There was a kind of Wow, that he was actually thee Danny Boyle thought running through my head at the time ) about his vision for the opening ceremony a first look at a scale model of the stadium as ” Green and Pleasant Lands ” and then a short film of a visualisation of the industrial revolution part of the ceremony in which we would play an integral part. A powerful piece of film. Once that was over, the chairs cleared away and we started in earnest. Once again starting with initial body percussion and movement exercises taken by Paul Clarvis who was excellent and then handed over to Ralph Salmins for the drumming part. The drums were then unveiled, a builders black plastic bucket played with traditional drum sticks, a larger plastic bin with a rubber top glued to it, a deeper plastic base bin akin to a small composter also with a rubber top. These two were played with two sticks to the top of which had been attached a tennis ball. Finally a metal bucket which had vertical rows of screws drilled into it and was played by brushes. The brushes were made up of thin wooden green gardening rods jammed into a plastic handle. Again very simple exercises to warm up and get people moving and hitting something in time and on the beat. The time went really quickly.
And so the rehearsals at 3 Mills went on with peoples confidence growing, all of us getting used to trying all the different drums / buckets and the gradual introduction of what we would be playing. Myself I was sad to see Ralph Salmins take a back seat and Mike Dolbear come to the fore, but its horses for courses and they both did an outstanding job. However the intial rehearsals soon became a routine, arrival and queue at 3 Mills, get you bib stand in your line in numerical order, warm up exercises, collect your drum and practice. Then came the slow introduction of what we would be playing, using the excellent ” If you can say it, you can play it ” mantra which I use alot. They introduced us to the words that will forever be with me until I die. Initially they started with ” Play your drum ” and then adding ” So your mum can see you on TV ” much hilarity, but effective. And so the rehearsals continued at 3 Mills then the introduction slowly of the music track to which we would be playing.
The rehearsals then moved to Dagenham and things moved up a small gear. The journey was not the best, but for some who were coming from far flung parts of the UK it was not that bad. We were based in a huge circus marque, which is apparently also used by the Glastonbury festival. On our first arrival we were re-bibbed and given new numbers ( Number 306 group 33 ) which were to be our final numbers and into our groups, which would be our group for the ceremony. We were then introduced to working with a click track, keeping time, movement and working with the music. Sessions were spent listening to the instructions of Rick Smith and Mike Dolbear and rumbling, boshing and playing the rhythm practice after practice. Including making changes and slight alterations as dictated by Rick as well as some sound recordings to appear later as part of the production and for the CD.
We finally got our first sight of the Olympic stadium on a bright Tuesday evening on the 10th July. What a exciting time to actually be sitting in the stadium where the games are going to be held, they were mid preparation for the opening ceremony, ” Green and Pleasant Lands ” was taking shape, the Tor was in place, as was the Bell. Over the next few sessions we settled into a routine of arrival, walk from the station, security check, swiping in, collecting our lunches or dinners and wait for a quorem to arrive before we could start. A brief from the amazing Steve Boyd the artistic director regarding some technical issues or changes and then peel out and collect your drums, straps and sticks. Over the weeks we built bonds with our group members, played the music, moving from various ideas of how to make our entrance onto the field of play, from the Voms or elsewhere. If you were part of group 33, we managed to enter from every part of the stadium, whilst they tried to find us a home. I think it’s really difficult to describe the emotions when we finally got to play our piece in the stadium for the first time. The noise of the first big BOSH on the drums and the shout of HOYE by a thousand drummers was astounding. All we could hear was the manical laughing of Rick Smith saying how fantastic is sounded and his oft repeated word of ” Beautiful ” So the rehearsals progressed, finally settling on us marching through the audience onto the field of play. All grumbles apart this was building into something very very special. You would be tempted just to stop, remove your in ear’s and listen yourself from time to time to the sheer volume of rhythm we were making, which was truly amazing you could actually feel it in your rib cage and chest. I would just get carried away into a zone of sheer joy and rhythm. Just standing and listening for the first time in the stadium to the opening bars of Nimrod and that speech from the Tempest gave a number of us large lumps in our throats and a feeling of pride in ourselves and what we were doing. A mention should also go here to Justin Woodward our drum captain and all round nice guy, for keeping us on the straight and narrow.
( To be continued )