Meet the real stars of the Olympic opening ceremony, a cow called Gabriella (who's a bit of a diva) and a goose called Gordon...


Charlie Cooper
Wednesday 01 August 2012 19:15 BST
Independent reporter Charlie Cooper interviews Sophie the sheep, one of the animal stars of the Olympic opening ceremony
Independent reporter Charlie Cooper interviews Sophie the sheep, one of the animal stars of the Olympic opening ceremony

Forget James Bond, Kenneth Branagh and the Queen – the real stars of Danny Boyle's Olympic Opening Ceremony were a cow called Gabriella and a goose called Gordon, not to mention 40 sheep, two billy goats and a sheepdog.

Today The Independent tracked down the animal actors from the ceremony's bucolic opening scenes to a secret countryside location where they are enjoying a well-earned rest and reflecting on their new-found fame.

But have any of them let it go their head? “Gabriella,” a one-year-old Bedford cow with a lovely temperament but a weakness for the camera, “is a bit of a diva,” said trainer Jill Clark. “She's been in Le Mis.”

Jill and her team at 1st Choice Animals, one of the industry's leading providers of animals for film and TV performances, spent a year preparing the animals for the ceremony and were with them every step of the way – right up until the big night itself, when they dressed up as 18th century farmers and took to the Olympic arena to supervise the animals. After the show, they had to muck out the stables in the Olympic Park, while the animals themselves were whisked away to their homes before the ceremony had even finished.

Some of the animal actors were veterans of the screen who took the demands of fussy directors in their stride. Gordon the goose, for instance, has been directed by Steven Spielberg in War Horse, so Danny Boyle must have been a pushover. For some, including the sheep, who appeared at the Olympic Stadium under the watchful eye of their sheepdog Jess and farmer Chris Tucker, it was a debut performance.

As with all actors, egos came into the equation. An early plan to include pigs in the ceremony was scrapped when their trainers revealed that, for mysterious reasons, pigs and horses – which would also feature prominently in the show – simply do not get on. Meanwhile one unfortunate chicken, Speckle, missed out on her chance at stardom because the other hens picked on her and it was deemed unsafe for her to be kept with them. Only the animals most adept at dealing with the pressures of performance were allowed to take part.

“In any animal, there is such a thing as charisma,” said Jill. “Temperament is the key thing. If we had an animal that was shy and cowering in a corner, we wouldn't use them. They wouldn't like it.”

The animals' trainers and owners alike were mortified when animal rights charities raised concerns about the animals' welfare ahead of the ceremony. Their current location is being kept secret because of fears that activisits might stage demonstrations. Trainers have given assurances that none of the animals will now go to slaughter.

“These animals are very well looked after,” said farmer Chris. “Now that it is all over they will all live out their natural lives. Once we were informed about what Danny wanted to do, we knew it was workable – just for them to be in the arena, walking from field to field with no stress. We had no problems whatsoever. Some of the sheep fell asleep in one the dress rehearsals in front of 40,000 people they were so relaxed.”

The RSPCA supervised the entire training and rehearsal programme, springing surprise inspections on Jill, Chris and her team. They were completely satisfied with the animal's welfare. However, the number of sheep planned for the show was cut because of concerns about space in the stadium, and a scene featuring shire horses during the industrial revolution phase of the show were scrapped because the floor was deemed to slipper for them.

Most of the animals will carry on acting as long as the work is there, while living happily and peacefully on their farm - freed by stardom from the threat of the slaughterhouse. Gabriella's starring role in the film of Les Miserables will be coming to a cinema near you soon.

Not fans of the fencing...

Gabriella the cow

A photogenic Bedford cross with a charming temperament, Gabriella enjoys posing for the camera and will soon be seen starring in the film version of Les Miserables.

Jess the sheepdog

7-year-old working sheepdog Jess outperformed her kennel-mate Kim to be the only sheepdog to feature in the opening ceremony. Now the ceremony is over she will return to the day job herding sheep.

Gordon the goose

The Olympic opening ceremony was a breeze for Gordon and his flock, who earned their acting stripes under the direction of Steven Spielberg in the film War Horse last year.

Speckle the chicken

The sad tale of Speckle rivals any Olympic disappointment: promised a role in the opening ceremony she was withdrawn at the last minute when her fellow chickens started picking on her.

Dot the sheep

An inspiration to the forty-strong cast of ovine actors, Dot is the leader of the flock and very comfortable in front of the camera. She has now returned to the farm but will act again as and when the jobs come up.

Bill and Ben the goats

Drafted in late to replace the pigs after their segment of the ceremony was scrapped, consummate professionals Bill and Ben have performing in their blood. Ben's mother had a role in War Horse.

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