Last Night's Television: Building The Olympic Dream
Ford's Dagenham Dream, BBC4
Thursday 05 March 2009
"It's not about money or dividends or palpable stuff," said Martin Green, the head of ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics. "It's about intangible things like pride and inspiration." Virtues that, it should be remembered, often have to be paid for with money and dividends and palpable stuff. For example, Martin's budget for the eight-minute handover ceremony in Beijing – you remember, the tactful one with the exploding bus and Leona Lewis on a stick – was £2m. I work that out at just north of £4,166 for every second of national embarrassment, which seems eye-wateringly palpable to me. The first part of Building the Olympic Dream, a three-part series about preparations for the 2012 Olympics, followed the organisers and performers as they worked their guts out preparing the British anticlimax to accompany the Chinese closing ceremonies.
I don't want to sound too cynical about this. Anything other than an anticlimax would have been a miracle. The Chinese had what looked like 20 battalions of the Red Army and more pyrotechnics than the first night of the Gulf War. The British, by contrast, had a double-decker lined with AstroTurf, a modest handful of dancers, and David Beckham, a man capable of producing screaming adulation in the relative confines of a stadium corridor, it's true, but just a very famous ant in the middle of the stadium itself. What's more, Martin and his event producer, Stephen Powell, could not be faulted for lack of effort. They had a lot of problems to solve before their somewhat surreal celebration of queuing for a bus in the rain could do its bit to boost visitor numbers in 2012. They had to worry about whether everybody inside would suffocate while waiting for the big reveal (would they need breathing apparatus?). They had to make sure that Leona Lewis didn't embarrassingly topple to her death from her telescopic tower. They had to ensure that the hip-hop dancers didn't tread on the prima ballerina's point shoes and fall over the wheelchair pirouettists.
That was before they got to China, as well, where they discovered that a love of bureaucracy painstakingly acquired over three millennia had to be added to the equation. By now, Stephen Powell looked as if he was wishing they had fitted oxygen masks to the bus ("I do not want to have some mediocre gang show in front of everybody in the world"), and Martin Green's attempt to give up smoking had rather conspicuously failed. There was also a worrying amount of ping-pong reassurance. "It's going to be fabulous," one man would say, a little uncertainly. "It's really good," the other would reply. "They look fantastic," the first would bat back, conviction mounting with each stroke until you could almost believe that they really believed it. It all went off without a hitch, anyway, or at least as they had planned, which isn't quite the same thing. And it was touching to learn that for Martin Green at least, this was the fruition of a childhood dream. "When I was six years old, I used to build Olympic stadiums out of my Lego, and with the little people, I used to re-create ceremonies for Olympic games," he confessed, "so there is something psychopathic about me being here." I think "psychopathic" is a little harsh, Martin. Let's just say uniquely qualified.
Ford's Dagenham Dream was about a time when they built cars in east London, rather than white elephants. If this programme had been a car, I think you might wonder whether it had been welded together from the remnants of two write- offs, since it spliced together an oral history of working in the Dagenham plant, at one time the biggest factory in Europe, with a nostalgic celebration of some of the cars that rolled off the production line. But I don't think you'd have refused to travel in it, because though there were some odd bumps along the way, and though Alan Ford's geezer narration didn't quite come off, it was a thoroughly enjoyable spin out. Obliquely, it turned out to be a portrait of British innocence, a country so starved of style and streamlining after the war that even a Ford Prefect could strike the eye as the epitome of transatlantic glamour. That was Ford's offer to the British public: a bit of scaled-down Yank flash, and once they'd overcome prejudices about the tinniness of the product, it proved hugely popular, with cars such as the Cortina and the Capri selling millions. It helped that Ford had a canny way with publicity, ensuring, among other things, that the good guys in The Sweeney always went in tyre-smoking pursuit in a Ford. Personally, I'd have ordered the option package that ditched the nostalgic first-car reveries in favour of a few more memories of what it was actually like to work the line, moving inexorably at 18 foot a minute and never, ever changing. But I'm sure there was no shortage of customers who liked this model just fine.
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