It all started in the summer of 2011 when, by chance, I heard a snippet on the radio saying that LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) would be using 10,000 volunteer performers in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. “Yes,” I thought, “I want to do that. It’s a chance of a lifetime.” I checked on the 2012 website regularly until at last a ‘How to get involved’ page was put on giving application details. I duly applied and eventually my audition notice came through and I reported to 3 Mills Film Studios on 12 November.
We had to take ID with us to the first audition and on arrival were photographed and measured everywhere (even down to glove size). We were given an introduction to the Ceremonies by Steve Boyd and then asked to move to co-ordinates marked on the studio floor (B4, D-6 etc). It was explained that using co-ordinates would be the basis for mass movement positioning during the performances. We then had to learn a short dramatic/mime sequence, a modern-stage-type dance sequence and then carnival parade around the studio, following a dance captain, winding in and out so that the observers in the middle could see us all. The audition was quite tiring. I hadn’t realised how exhausting it would be spending two hours ‘selling’ myself and thinking “Look at me! Have you seen me?!” all the time!
I got a recall notice for a second audition on 23 November, so the Ceremonies people had worked fast. In the studio there were rows of chairs set out – six across and about eight rows deep. We were taught a routine to Madness’s ‘Our House’ by a dance captain. The dance had us sitting on the chairs as well as moving round them. Kim Gavin, the Closing Ceremony director (choreographer of Take That arena tours etc) was there, scrutinising everyone very carefully as each row was moved forward to take their turn in the front. I heard him say, ‘Well, we’ve got to have her!’ while looking in my direction and just hoped he meant me and not the lady in front!
In the middle of January the email finally came through – I had been chosen as an “amazing character role in a themed sequence” in the Closing Ceremony. My husband immediately said that I’d be wearing a monkey suit, but I said I didn’t care, I was happy just to be involved.
Our first rehearsal was at 3 Mills Studios in May. We were given unique pink Oyster cards to pay for our travel, our photo ID cast passes and an identifying bib – mine was TPB 228. Kim Gavin showed us a video mock up of the opening section of the Closing Ceremony and told us we would be performing for about 20 minutes on the back of trucks; hence TP stood for truck party. We were told that in total there would be ten trucks, each a different colour, carrying 25 people, but there were only five truck loads there for this first rehearsal which made 125 people present.
We were then given our roles. I wasn’t particularly happy to be told I was ‘Granny’, but bit my lip. I was glad I did. When the five grannies (one on each truck) were sent to a dance captain to learn our moves; one of the ladies objected to the role. She was sent out, never to be seen again!
We were to recreate a street party on the back of the truck and everybody had a character. Everyone learned their individual moves with dance captains to “Our House”, and then we put them all together to make a whole dance on each truck. The moves interlinked between the characters, an example of the meticulous planning that had started long before we were chosen.
At the second rehearsal we learned moves to Blur’s “Park Life” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls”. During breaks we could catch glimpses of other sections rehearsing in the other studios. It was only with hindsight that you could work out where each section fitted in. Other parts of the Ceremonies were never explained to us. We were forbidden to take any photographs and were sworn to secrecy about our part.
For the third rehearsal, the other five trucks were present making 250 people in all. We learnt the flash mob moves to One Direction’s “What makes you beautiful”. Even though everyone was a volunteer, in the breaks everyone was practising to make sure they had the routines right. Everyone wanted it to be perfect. At the next rehearsal, the children were brought along – 5 boys and 5 girls for each truck, making a total of 350 people.
As the Closing Ceremony was unable to get into the Stadium until the actual day, rehearsals moved to the 1:1 at Dagenham – on the old Ford plant. A yellow and blue circus tent had been put up to house the performers while not rehearsing and for practising the routines. Two fields of play equivalent to the size of the Stadium were marked either side of this tent. Kim Gavin oversaw the rehearsals from a Colditz-like control tower built three storeys above the field of play.
Finally we there was room for the trucks. Ours, Truck 10 Turquoise, was driven by a lovely lady called Gina. More performers were gradually introduced as the rehearsals went on. First those performing on the ground in between the trucks joined us. Then the circus performers on the London landmarks in the centre, the children dancing the river, Spellbound acrobatic dance troupe and Stomp were put into place.
Dagenham became known as “Lake Dagenham” – I’ve never seen rain like it. Dancers were rehearsing in Wellington boots as the outside areas flooded and you had to paddle through water inches deep to get to the toilets or coffee tent. The rehearsals were long now – from 10am to 8pm – and involved a lot of waiting about while other sections were fine tuned. We were given packed meal bags for lunch and dinner. The sandwiches and fruit were great, but there was a lot of good natured moaning about Pringle’s and Nature Valley Bars as they were in every bag.
All the cast had to go to UDAC (the Uniform and Accreditation Centre) at Star Lane, East London to collect our A5 sized accreditation pass without which we couldn’t get into the Olympic Park. This pass was in addition to our cast pass. What with that and our radio receiver hanging round our necks, we positively clattered as we danced! We had in-ears radio for the rehearsals and performance. The dancers were on one channel, the vehicles on another – that way we could all keep together.
Travelling to UDAC was a friendly experience. It was obvious where most of the passengers on the DLR were heading and a common purpose meant that conversations soon began: “What are you doing?” It was if we all belonged to one big family as everyone was friendly: Games Makers, dancers, volunteers.
One of the perks of being a volunteer performer was getting a ticket to see a technical rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony. This was the only time too, prior to our performance that we had a chance to see inside the Stadium. I know the Opening was amazing to watch on TV, but it was electrifying live. There was so much to see and you could actually feel the drumming at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution section. Again, the audience were asked to “Save the Secret” and 60,000 spectators did as Danny Boyle asked and didn’t leak the content of the Ceremony and spoil the surprise.
Finally 12 August arrived. Our call was for 11am but there was a delay in building the sets (transported from Dagenham), so we didn’t begin a run through until 4pm. The technical team only had about 17 hours in which to prepare the Stadium for the Closing Ceremony and the run through was still going on as the audience began to take their seats. So we waited around for 5 hours, ate another of our packed meal bags and all the Grannies had stocking bases put on our pinned up hair in preparation for our wigs later – not a good look!
It was very exciting sitting on our truck waiting for the run through. We were parked just behind the trucks carrying Madness and One Direction. After the run through, we went back to our pre-fab changing rooms behind the Stadium and had to get into costume, have our wigs put on by professional hairdressers and have our make up done, again by professionals.
While we were on the truck waiting for the Ceremony to start, Ed Sheerhan walked by, wished each truck good luck and told us that we were his favourite – shades of Bruce Forsythe! All the celebrities were really friendly.
It’s really hard to express the amazing atmosphere of the performance. We were covered up in the trucks as they drove in. We could just catch a glimpse of Prince Harry on the screens through a chink in the roof. Then came our cue – Michael Caine’s voice: “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” The sides were pulled down; we could see the massive audience and went into our routine. We’d rehearsed so hard beforehand, that, although we were nervous, we did exactly as we had been taught.
We had to exit through the audience which was an incredibly emotional experience. We were cheered; people were taking photos and were standing to high five us as we ran through. We had to leave the Stadium after we’d finished as there was nowhere for us to stay. We went back into the changing rooms and I asked the wardrobe lady what we did with our costumes. “You keep them,” she said. “The idea is that you travel home on the tube in them.” So our truck all stayed in their costumes and we left together through Westfield shopping centre. It was like being a film star – we had to keep stopping for people to take our photo. We eventually made our way to a local hostelry and I even got stopped as I came out of the ladies – “Can I take your photo?” It was the best and most amazing day ever.
For souvenirs, we were given a copy of the large and glossy official programme which had every volunteer’s name in, a Ceremonies t-shirt and a certificate in addition to keeping our costumes. Immediately the Ceremony finished, we all got a thank you text from the Producer, and a few days later we got a thank you email from Kim Gavin. Even later everyone got a letter of thanks from David Cameron, which I thought was a nice touch. We’d have done it anyway for the thrill of the occasion, but it was nice to be officially appreciated.
Reproduced with very kind thanks from Mary Cox, volunteer performer and “Nana” from the Street Party plus associated sections of the Olympic Closing Ceremony