London 2012: Tough Act to Follow

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Mike Hewitt / Getty

David Beckham kicks a football during the Closing Ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

Political bandwagons, like London buses, can get uncomfortably crowded, and the bandwagon that trundled into view during the finale of the Beijing Olympics was already overloaded with aspirations. Disguised as one of London's red double-deckers, the vehicle was the centerpiece of an eight-minute performance at the Bird's Nest Stadium showcasing the forthcoming London games.

British politicians of all stripes have been scrambling to get on board with the 2012 Games, believing the blockbuster event in their capital city will lift the national mood, the economy — and their poll ratings. That outcome depends on London delivering a successful Olympics — on time, on budget, thrilling, even awe-inspiring. And after Beijing, it has a tough act to follow.

Certainly, there's no shortage in the metropolis of the creative talent needed to put on a stunning show. Britain is famous for its acting talent, its visual artists, dancers, filmmakers, comedians and, in more somber moments, its pageantry. No other city puts on a better state wedding or funeral. But as anyone who visited a short-lived attraction called the Millennium Dome can bear witness, London's last attempt at spectacular mass-market entertainment was a big, fat turkey. Before its opening on Dec. 31, 1999, the inchoate millennium-themed park was trumpeted by then Prime Minister Tony Blair as the triumph of "excellence over mediocrity." It closed a year later after poor ticket sales and poorer reviews.

The Dome. These two words should be whispered into the ear of every hubristic politician proclaiming the inevitable excellence of the 2012 Olympics. Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, has promised for the opening ceremony "the biggest and best rock show the world has ever witnessed," a vision of actuarial optimism featuring such youthful artists as Elton John, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones. London's mayor, Boris Johnson, who at least proved he knows how to entertain Olympic audiences with his fumbled, tangled wave of the Olympic flag handed over to him in Beijing, swears that the London games will be "fantabulous."

Brown and Johnson sit on the Olympic Board alongside the Olympics minister Tessa Jowell and other "stakeholders," who will advise and oversee Olympics planning. Two further bodies, the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London 2012 Organizing Committee (LOCOG), have been given budgets of 9.3 billion pounds and 2 billion pounds, respectively, to build venues and infrastructure and for preparing and staging the event. A creative director will be appointed "in a year or so," says a spokeswoman for London 2012. "Obviously on any creative plans we'll want general agreement from stakeholders and everything will be signed off by LOCOG."

Yet the lesson from the Dome is clear: British politicians are like kryptonite to the cultural classes, draining their creative powers. Decision-making by committee is just as toxic. "If my Dome experience is anything to go by, it's not that interesting, creative, sophisticated ideas were ignored. They were actually energetically rejected," says Stephen Bayley, the Dome's original creative director, who resigned after clashes with various authorities including European Commissioner for Trade Peter Mandelson, who was then the Labour party minister in charge of the project. Mandelson was "unable to distinguish between volume of activity and quality of activity," says Bayley. The result, he says, is that "instead of having world-class art, world-class architecture, you got installations some of which looked as if they were designed by people whose last job had been to make a stand for British Gas at a trades fair in Antwerp."

After the relentless perfection of Beijing (snaggle-toothed Brits reacted with disgust when it was revealed that a 7-year-old singer with crooked teeth was exiled from the opening celebrations, in favor of a more orthodontically pleasing lip-syncer), some measure of hokey British amateurishness might seem positively appealing. London's theatrics during the Beijing closing ceremonies — in which dancers dressed as London commuters queued at a bus stop, flourishing umbrellas to ward off English showers — was "a mixed bag, but on the whole the best of the hand-over shows I can remember, interesting and a little quirky," says Adam Bezark, a veteran creative director in the U.S. who stages large-scale spectaculars. (Full disclosure: he is also this writer's cousin.) But he acknowledges the show's weak denouement, when the double-decker bus came to a halt and unfurled its top deck to reveal a cargo of celebrities, including guitarist Jimmy Page, TV talent-show winner Leona Lewis and soccer star David Beckham.

Bezark suggests that the creative team for the London games develop the strain of irreverence and gentle self-mockery hinted at in the handover show. "London needs to do something that is just smart-alecky enough — but you don't want to push it so far that it becomes disrespectful to the athletes or the Olympic tradition," he says.

How might that look? Mr. Bean, dressed as a pearly king, taking a pratfall as he reaches to light the Olympic torch? A phalanx of bowler-hatted dancers reprising John Cleese's repertoire of silly walks? Or perhaps a clutch of royal family look-a-likes to introduce their home city to the watching world? "London's chief cultural exports are pageantry, theater, music...and humor," says Bezark. "Somewhere in that mix there's a beautiful, loopy, iconoclastic opening and closing ceremony that will be pure, true London." We can but hope.