Me Old China – 13th May 2020
I have been most fortunate in having been invited to light some fantastic events over the years not least of which was my invitation to light the 2012 ‘Handover to London’ during the closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing.
My appointed task here was to illuminate the eight minute handover sequence which formed part of the closing ceremonies using the stadium lighting rig designed by my Chinese colleague Mr Sha Xiao Lin.
The system available to me consisted of some 2,500 Martin, Clay Paky and Vari#Lite moving heads and twenty four follow spots.
It was fortunate that at this time I was working on a water show in Shenzen with the late great Mark Fisher and whilst Jennie and I were in China we had the opportunity to stop off in Beijing.
These internal flights were remarkable in that instead of the Fokker 70s that fly from Manchester to London perhaps twice a day for example, their version involved a dozen daily flights in Jumbo jets!
In order to circumnavigate the inevitable politics of staging our London event on Chinese territory these stop offs in Beijing during the year before the ceremonies allowed us to form a relationship with the Chinese Lighting Designer and to offer my advice through my experience on Olympic Events.
This picture of myself and Mr Sha demonstrates the art of allowing our hosts to save face by inviting him to stand one step up for the photo, I am over six feet tall, he is not!
He did prove to be a great friend and a very talented lighting designer as those of us who witnessed the opening and closing ceremonies in 2008 will most surely agree.
I was also able to help his team with my knowledge of WYSIWYG as having connected all 2,5000 fixtures they were having a little trouble seeing quite what was coming from where in the ensuing whiteout.
Although we had established a good working relationship with the lighting department the rest of the UK production team suffered from lack of information and time to achieve the necessary work to the professional level to which they aspired and were accustomed.
The Chinese wanted to keep everything as confidential as possible, which one could understand, but dovetailing our show into theirs obviously relied on a certain level of knowledge as to what they were up to.
They also seemed to have been upset with London as, it was rumoured, we had searched their Olympic Torch bodyguards at Heathrow and someone high in the British Olympic committee had branded the guards as ‘Thugs’, a word which apparently does not translate very well in Mandarin.
Anyway to prepare our lighting for the closing ceremony of the able bodied games we were given a two hour lighting session in which to create our cues and I prepared a minimal list of eight cues and a series of renderings of the different looks in WYSIWYG.
The object was to illuminate the London Bus as it travelled around the Stadium, dramatise the transformation of the bus and ensure that the images of the stars performing in our sequence were shown in the best light to the world’s press.
It is often unrecognised that as Lighting Designers we are the Directors of Photography not only for billions of TV viewers but for every image seen in newspapers or on the web around the globe, therefore it pays to get the lighting of the ‘money’ perfect at least!
The next challenge I was presented with was quite a surprise, and unique to stadium events.
After the inevitable changes to our show in rehearsals, which were being held at the only private airfield in China (closed as no-one was allowed to over fly Beijing during the Olympics) we requested a return to the Stadium to update the lighting programme.
We were invited to the stadium at 11pm on the Saturday before the closing ceremony and given 1 hour to work with the programmers, unfortunately they were preparing the pitch for the soccer final and we were not allowed to turn off the stadium lighting.
This became an exercise in intuitive lighting design as if you took control of all 2,500 moving lights and moved the fader up and down there was no visible effect on the pitch!
The show was very well received by my client and attracted a great deal of interest, mostly positive, in the UK press. We then had a weeks rest and returned to prepare the London Bus part 2 for the Paralympics handover.
Again we negotiated one and a half hours programming time to make a few alterations to the original lighting states and arrived with more prints of cue lists and pictures of the spot cues required for our show.
Unfortunately the Chinese programmers had ‘tidied up’ their desks, and wiped all our previous cues! I started at 10:30pm to recreate everything from scratch before our midnight deadline when they were to Dress Rehearse their own Opening ceremony.
Imagine the pressure here with every single Chinese creative and the whole ensemble of thousands of performers waiting a little impatiently for the London lighting bloke to leave them in peace.
We did have some very interesting political games with our Chinese friends who sometimes seemed to handle the whole process as a competition as to who would look the best around the globe.
It was also known at the time that the Chinese were seeding rain clouds with silver nitrate a few days before the Olympic events to clear the air. I seemed to be alone in my suspicions that this had also caused both our dress rehearsals at the airfield to be abandoned due to heavy rain storms.
During our final Production meeting it became my turn to comment on the forthcoming Paralympic Closing ceremony and our last performance.
“Once again our bums are firmly in the hands of our Chinese friends and it remains to be seen whether there will be a final parting of the cheeks before our final parting of the ways.”
Paranoia? Judge for yourselves.
During the Dress Rehearsal of the Chinese Closing ceremony prior to our sequence there came down the track five young ladies scattering handfuls of plastic autumnal leaves from baskets, how lovely and a few hundred leaves caused us no problems.
During the actual show we experienced a FOUR MINUTE drop of over five million leaves all around the stadium which completely covered everything including the bus track and our performance area.
You can clearly see the tracks of the bus as it ploughed through the leaf drift and the area where our stage management had desperately brushed away as many shiny plastic leaves as possible as to dance on them and do head spins was like performing on ice. Obviously this was not a real bus but had been built in the UK by Stage One and very fortunately the air intakes for the engine were not completely clogged.
We also discovered afterwards that the leaves were not flame proof, imagine performing that particular trick, prior to setting off many tons of fireworks immediately overhead, here in the UK?
We walked away from our final performance with a huge sigh of relief and the feeling of a job well done. We had introduced into a very impressive though extremely regimented Chinese display an element of fun and youthful energy and I for one thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and surreality of working in this amazing country with these, in the main, entertaining and hospitable people.
At the airport when Jennie and I checked in our luggage we had gotten into the habit of moving around in China with our Olympic accreditation in clear view. At the check-in a very straight faced lady pointed at the copy of the China News which I was carrying and which showed a picture of the London bus, then pointed at us.
We nodded in confirmation that we had indeed played our part in the event and she promptly tore the VIP labels off our luggage that we had been afforded on the way out. Perhaps the rivalry still continued?
But No! We were presented with VVIP labels and instead of the VIP bus which drove to the plane ten minutes before the other passengers we had a limo which delivered us to the plane an hour before anyone else.
I recall having sat fiddling our thumbs for quite some time that the passengers finally boarded and the safety announcement began. Firstly in Mandarin of course and then for their two VVIPs in English.
“Lady and Gentleman, please fasten seat belts, put chair and table straight and turn off telephones and electrical devices including remote control helicopters.”
Quite what previous Brits had got up to during take off is anybody’s guess!
All the opinions and suspicions relayed in this tale are my own and were not necessarily shared by my colleagues, well not at the time anyway….For more details of the event and those involved please go to
Stay alert? Lions with no PPE led by donkeys with no clue, stay Safe.