Published January 27, 2012
LONDON – There's a nod to Shakespeare, a big bell and ... nurses?
Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle offered a sneak peek of his vision for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, revealing Friday that he'll ring a massive bell to start festivities that will include thousands of performers and offer a tribute to a British institution, the National Health Service.
The revelations are unusual as the content of the ceremonies is typically a closely guarded secret. But Boyle seemed almost giddy as he offered small hints during a news conference to mark six months to the games. His attitude seemed a cross between 'I know something you don't know' and 'wait, wait you'll love it.'
"It's an enormous bloody thing," he said to chuckles at London's 3 Mills Studio, where the production is being shaped.
The ceremony, whose theme is "Isle of Wonders" is partly inspired by William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and by the industrial past of Stratford, the East London site of the Olympic Park. It starts with the ringing of a giant bell, and has a segment devoted to the oft-maligned — and much-loved — NHS.
Enormous or not, Boyle's news conference itself showed his skill as a master storyteller, unraveling the tale of his creation of the ceremony with the feel of a fireside chat. He began by noting how thrilled he was to create a glory moment of the games — particularly since he lives in the same part of London where they are taking place.
It is personal to him, and he wanted it to be personal to others so he set about trying to get as much "humanity," in it as possible.
While the specter of trying to beat the monumental ceremony of the Beijing Olympics looms, Boyle said his goal would be to compare favorably to those who staged another Olympics — the 2000 Sydney Games. They were fun. Personal.
Then he looked at his assets. London's Olympic Stadium was not spectacular on the outside, unlike Beijing's Bird's Nest, but the inside is another story, a gorgeous "porcelain bowl" that seats the same number as China's nest, he said. It's a place where spectators can see the faces of those opposite them and a connection can be made.
"We didn't want to slavishly be bossed about by the TV audience, which is a billion people," he said. "We wanted the 80,000 people who are lucky enough to be in there to be the conduit through which you feel this experience really."
Even the land beneath the stadium figured in his thinking. The soil was once a toxic waste dump, poisoned by Britain's industrial past. Boyle liked the notion that the land had been recovered and a new legacy created.
He talked of his experiments, and noted that his play "Frankenstein" was a "dry run" for elements of the show.
Boyle returned to live theater after years directing movies with "Frankenstein" at Britain's National Theatre in 2011. The show won wide praise for its visual verve and the way it drew the audience into the action — shrouding the theater walls in bandages and running a clanging steampunk-style steam train on tracks through the auditorium. It also featured the work of Boyle's frequent musical collaborators Underworld, who will also work on the ceremony.
He then weaved in the history of the British Isles. Boyle ordered up a 27-ton bell from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to ring in the games. Founded in 1570 and officially Britain's oldest manufacturing company, Whitechapel made London's Big Ben and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell.
Boyle loved that ringing a bell to begin a performance was customary at the time of Shakespeare. The bell cast Friday will be inscribed with a line from "The Tempest," in which Caliban says "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises."
"We want people to be able to hear those noises," Boyle said.
The opening ceremony of the Olympics is nothing if not a huge extravaganza. It includes a massive parade of athletes and lots of protocol — and is often criticized for being too long. Finishing before the next day is part of the challenge.
The pre-ceremony show starts at 8:12 p.m. local time, or 2012 in military time. The full televised program begins 9 p.m. BST; 2000 GMT (4 p.m. EDT), and is supposed to end at midnight.
"That's an insane ambition," Boyle said. "Insane ambitions are where all good things come from."
While Boyle's films and plays have tremendous energy and visual flair, the creation of a spectacle to appeal to an audience in the billions from around the world is daunting.
The executive producer of the four ceremonies, Stephen Daldry — a stage and film director whose "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is nominated for an Oscar — compared the task to producing 165 West End musicals simultaneously.
But they seem like they're having fun ahead of the games that start July 27 and end Aug. 12. For the opening, they've brought in hundreds of children and volunteers who offered energy and passion. Some of the kids will feature in a segment that improbably includes nurses from the health service.
Boyle said it would capture what he described as Britain's sense of humor. More on that later:
"We've got this idea," he said as his face broke into a beatific smile. "Can't tell you exactly what it is."
Associated Press Writers Jill Lawless and Stephen Wilson contributed to this story.