30 Aug 2012

What an opening!

One of the most amazing group experiences ever – Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who commentated on the Paralympics opening ceremony for Channel 4, gives his verdict.

At the peak of the opening ceremony, 11.2 million viewers tuned in. That tells us something about the appetite for the Paralympics. For me, it was one of the most amazing group experiences ever. The spectacle was extraordinary, the colours, lights, dancing and music just marvellous. And the looks on the faces of the athletes as they processed into the stadium truly memorable. Uplifting is a very overused word at the moment – but judging from how crashingly drained I felt this morning when I woke up, it is the apt word for last night.

There’s no doubt that Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey’s artistic vision was ambitious. Loads of ideas, modern and classical, crashed together could have gone badly wrong. There was a risk, amid last minute additions and re-writes, that the audience just wouldn’t get it.

But in the end they produced something special. I loved the classical references throughout, and the way they were lifted out of their Shakespearean context. The Miranda and Prospero double act of Ian McKellen and Nicola Miles-Wildin, the storm of ideas, the Renaissance Masque dance were all so clever. When I saw David Toole’s dance to the singing of Birdy in rehearsals it stopped me in my tracks and my mouth fell open in awe. On the night it was even more moving. And when Elin Managhan Thomas, the Welsh soprano, sang Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine, the whole stadium felt still – utterly captured. But my favourite part was perhaps the rendition of Spasticus Autisticus – that was the song some were most nervous about, worried it would be misunderstood. I never felt that was a risk – the protest in the song is so clear and the re-appropriation of abusive language so obvious I struggle to understand why the BBC banned it from family viewing hours when Ian Dury released it, even if it was three decades ago.

Even though the Athletes Parade is the focus of the opening ceremony, many athletes choose to avoid them. As my co-commentator last night, Jeff Adams, explained a ceremony like that can really exhaust you emotionally and physically. That explains why we didn’t see some stars like David Weir or Ellie Simmonds. In fact, some athletes were actually told by their bosses not to go. But there were still many famous faces – and faces that will be famous within a matter of days. What I enjoyed most was the look of awe and surprise on so many of them as they entered the stadium. No matter how much you think you know what it is going to be like it must still be shock when you actually see it, and hear the cheers. The noise is still ringing in my ears today.

I know there has been some argument over ad breaks. I won’t provoke it further – it’s all way beyond my pay grade anyway. But I would ask critics to bear in mind that Channel 4 is an entirely commercially funded public service broadcaster that has to sell advertising to fund everything it does from the Paralympics to Channel 4 News. And taking nights off from balancing the books is the surest way to end up being unable to fund things like that or the amazing poster and video campaign that has already raised the profile of the Paralympics brilliantly.

My favourite moment? Well in truth it was actually just after the whole thing was over, while we were trying to get out of the stadium. The tension of four hours of live commentary starting to drain out and elation kicking in, somehow we found ourselves backstage amid all the performers and athletes and the looks on their faces were ones I will savour.

They knew – and it was obvious from their expressions and jumps – that they had been part of something big, special and important. I wandered through taking mental photographs in my head – wishing I had my camera with me but resisting the temptation to start clicking with my phone knowing it just wouldn’t capture the moment. I bumped into Jenny Sealey who had clearly been in tears of joy half the night.

“Just fantastic,” I said, giving her a squeeze. There are often times in this job where I am aware I have had privileged access to something.

This was one that will stay with me.

Follow @krishgm on Twitter.