Gilbey on Film: A Cinematic Olympics

Cinema's presence at the London Olympics stretches beyond the spectacle of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony.


Cinema has a significant presence at the London Olympics, and not only because it is a film director, Danny Boyle, who will go down in history as the first Briton to take home gold from the games. Let it not concern us that his medal is theoretical, and made of large quantities of acclaim, adoration and gratitude, which are more precious than mere metals, not to mention easier to get through customs. It is no small feat that Boyle produced an emphatic spectacle out of that most inauspicious furnace: seven years of public dread more consistent with the approach of a second ice age. His achievement doesn’t diminish the cost of the games, or the scepticism over the supposed legacy, but it is still a miracle in its own right.
The opening ceremony was also steeped in the cinematic. The montage (preliminary list here) of British cinema in the middle of proceedings was persuasive and eccentric: we got excerpts from Oliver Twist, Kes, Gregory’s Girl, The Full Monty and Four Weddings and a Funeral, while the oddness of seeing David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth was unexpectedly exhilarating. (It was sweet of Boyle, a self-professed Nicolas Roeg fan, to give that director the largest audience he’s ever had.) I was glad, too, that the famously humble Boyle included clips from his own Trainspotting, even if he stopped short of featuring the full version of the toilet scene
Earlier in the show we were treated to a blast of the theme tune from The Archers, and the film montage went on to include those other Archers, Powell and Pressburger, in the form of A Matter of Life and Death. Mike Oldfield played several minutes of Tubular Bells, a work now forever associated with The Exorcist, and multiple Mary Poppinses filled the air. Cinema was integrated into the ceremony’s cheekiest filmed segments, with Rowan Atkinson infiltrating Chariots of Fire and the Queen joining Daniel Craig to provide a literal interpretation of the title of the next James Bond film (Skyfall). It all added up to the greatest Danny Boyle movie never made.
Four short films were also commissioned by Channel 4 and the BBC as part of the London 2012 festival. After being unveiled in June at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the shorts have received cinema and television screenings and are on the BBC iPlayer for the next few days. The most conventional offering is What If (available until 31 July) a fantasy set on a London housing estate where a young boy is helped by a guardian angel (Noel Clarke) to see his life, his surroundings and his potential future through the prism of Kipling’s poem “If.” The directing team of Max Giwa and Dania Pasquina, who have a couple of Streetdance films to their name, opt for a glossy poverty-chic look where the monochrome sleekness of La Haine gives way in moments of special hope to bursts of sentimental colour (a pot of yellow flowers, or a rainbow arching over London) à la The Wizard of Oz or Rumble Fish. It’s a well-meaning piece that smacks of an ad agency show-reel.
Mike Leigh’s contribution, A Running Jump (available until 3 August), has been described by the director himself as “a bundle of gags” and “a humorous anecdote.” This story of a manic second-hand car salesman, Perry (Eddie Marsan), trying to flog a clapped-out banger has the vivid colours and perkiness of Leigh’s ostentatiously upbeat Happy-Go-Lucky, but rather less in the way of originality. Have wacky yoga routines and fast-talking wide boys ever been funny? I’m not convinced. But Marsan has some choice moments, particularly when trying to convince his daughter to do him a favour by bombarding her with promises plucked from the air (“I’ll buy you a new pair of trainers… I’ll run you a nice hot bath… I’ll give you twenty quid…”).
Leigh is correct: the film is a sketch, a fancy. But it’s still weirdly taxing: I didn’t have nearly as much fun as the actors seemed to. And the chirpy-cheeky score, with brass and bongo drums urging us on to enjoy ourselves, has now replaced for me the yuppie landlord from Naked as the single most irritating element in any Mike Leigh film. At least A Running Jump has a majestic sign-off shot: a broken-down car spewing smoke with London spread out in the distance. A harbinger of the UK’s Olympic prospects?
It has been noted that this is the first helicopter shot Leigh has used in more than 40 years of filmmaking. Asif Kapadia’s The Odyssey, on the other hand, is comprised of little else. This short documentary (showing until 1 August) is an overview of London’s fortunes from 6 July 2005, when the city’s successful Olympic bid was announced, to the present day; special emphasis is given to the 7/7 bombings, the financial crisis and last summer’s riots, with the tone of cautious optimism captured by audio-only interviews with contributors including Robert Elms and Richard Williams. The predominance of aerial footage, with its associations of objectivity but also surveillance, gives The Odyssey a helpfully analytical tone that was sometimes missing from the same director’s feature-length documentary Senna. The images from the riots are used particularly well: the camera hovers high above the flames, keeping us at arm’s length, while the soundtrack engages intimately with the panic and the rage on the streets.
It’s hardly a surprise that the most impressive and adventurous of the four films comes from Lynne Ramsay, an acknowledged master of the short. In Swimmer (available to watch until 3 August), Ramsay uses an aural and visual collage effect to portray an angelic young man’s long swim through the wilderness. As with Kapadia’s film, the most powerful effects here are often achieved by the friction between sound and image. While the eyes are soothed and stimulated by Natasha Braier’s lyrical black-and-white cinematography, the ears are greeted with a mini-tour through British cinema, including snatches of scenes from Billy Liar, If…, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Walkabout (Roeg again).
The worst aspect of the public experience during the games is likely to be the attempt to police vigorously what we can see or hear as we move around London. The walk across the bridge to the Olympic park, for instance, has now been comprehensively spoiled, with sponsor posters obscuring the bridge’s glass panels, which previously looked out onto Stratford’s criss-crossing train tracks and Anish Kapoor’s gloriously jumbled sculpture beyond. Inching across the bridge today is a claustrophobic experience: the exterior has been rendered interior, shutting out the beautifully grimy east London mishmash. The best creative works, whether they are as vast and ambitious as Boyle’s opening ceremony or as intimate as Swimmer, travel in the opposite direction, reaching beyond physical constraints and into the limitless imagination.
Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London Olympics (Photo: Getty)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The unsung heroes of Aberfan

How volunteer embalmers helped to handle the Welsh village’s tragedy.

Fifty years ago, on 22 October 1966, the Midland Division of the Institute of Embalmers gathered, bow-tied and ballgowned, in Nottingham, for the high point of the social calendar – the annual ladies’ night. The banquet was interrupted by a telegram requesting urgent help. In Aberfan, a Welsh village near Merthyr Tydfil, a 40-foot wall of coal waste had slid down a mountain at over 100mph and hit the Pantglas Junior School, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Leaving their partners, the volunteer embalmers returned home to collect equipment, embalming fluid and coffins. Travelling through the night, they arrived in Aberfan to join colleagues from across the UK. Some had flown from Northern Ireland on a plane with the seats removed to accommodate stacks of child-size coffins. Billy Doggart was one of them, and it was he who co-ordinated their extraordinary efforts. 

Some of the bodies recovered from the school were already wrapped in blankets and laid on the pews of the Bethania Chapel. Makeshift mortuary stations were quickly established. Working without electricity or running water, the embalmers took over from the police and performed their first task: cleaning the bodies for identification. The viscous slurry that had swallowed the school also covered the bodies. One embalmer, fresh from his honeymoon, told me that his first job was to remove a boy’s shirt and take it outside to the waiting parents. He had to hold it aloft and ask whose little boy had been wearing it. Usually in disaster situations such as plane crashes or explosions, identification is a big problem. Not so at Aberfan, where every parent was waiting outside, distraught and eagle-eyed for evidence of their child.

Once identified, each body was further cleaned and embalmed, ready to be placed in a coffin. In the Calvinistic chapel nearby, five embalming units were established in the vestry and a further two in the foyer. Dead bodies deteriorate rapidly, so embalming was an urgent task to save the bereaved from further distress. With nothing but rudimentary equipment and buckets of water that were carried back and forth by volunteers, the embalmers worked quickly and efficiently. Ever mindful of the parents waiting patiently outside, they tried to hide the worst of the damage wrought by the brutal impact.

Many men returned to their day jobs on the Monday after the disaster, having worked non-stop through the weekend in Wales. By the evening, all of the recovered bodies had been treated, and just six volunteers remained, waiting on call all night in case further recoveries were made. From Tuesday to Friday, it was just Billy Doggart, on sentinel watch at the school site, aware that the longer the bodies had lain under the wreckage, the quicker the decomposition would be once they were exposed to air.

Half a century later, disaster rescue work looks different to this. The privately owned disaster management company Kenyon International Emergency Services maintains three deployment-ready, disaster-scale morgues, ready for shipment anywhere in the world.

Yet, however advanced and efficient rescue operations have become, it will always require one human being willing to stand next to the mutilated body of another and treat it with respect and dignity. The aim is the same is it was that day in Aberfan: to give practical help at moments of shock and disaster.

With formaldehyde classified as a human carcinogen, and the whole process certainly not environmentally friendly, (although there are now organic embalming chemicals made with plant oils approved by the Green Burial Council), some argue that the main benefits of embalming are financial. There is a valid debate to be had over how we do it, but in disaster situations there can be no doubt embalming is a compassionate act.

For the past year I’ve been writing a novel about a fictitious embalmer at Aberfan, and have been privileged to interview some of those who were there at the time of the disaster, including Doggart. I’ve spent time with local embalmers and once I even watched one at work. What impressed me, during a shockingly intimate and invasive process, was the care and profound attitude of service with which it was done.

“Most of us are on anti-depressants,” one embalmer said to me matter-of-factly, “and most of us have lost and found, or found and lost our faith at least once”. Inevitably, there is a price to pay for those who go against the grain of human nature and confront our mortality on a daily basis.

The Queen visited Aberfan a week after the disaster, and Doggart was presented to her on behalf of his embalming team. I went there in September, and looked through the book of press cuttings collated for the anniversary. I found no mention of the embalmers, who had quietly arrived to serve a community at the very extremity of human distress and then quietly left again. Heroic by anyone’s standards, these men returned home with a sense of a testing job well done and unspeakable memories seared into their psyches.

A police officer who worked alongside the embalmers later wrote to Billy: “I shall always remember the expressions of relief on the faces of the bereaved who were able to view their children at the Chapel of Rest. . . They will never know the wonderful work that you and your colleagues performed to make this possible.”

Maybe that’s the point. Some heroes, by the very nature of their work, remain unsung.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage