Four years ago today, Jenny Sealey and I took our seats in the Stadium control room as the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games began. Professor Stephen Hawking’s opening words from “A Brief History of Time” invited the world to reflect on what “breathes fire into equations”, as a theatrical Big Bang was enacted with a mass volunteer cast of 600 carrying illuminated umbrellas. It was a seismic occasion, launching the most successful Paralympic Games ever held, and watched by a record breaking national TV audience of 11 million people on Channel 4. With the overarching theme of “Enlightenment” the Ceremony placed Paralympians and disabled artists centre stage, culminating in a joyous reinvention of Jerry Herman’s “I am What I am”.
This week, as the world’s attention turns towards Rio for the fifteenth Paralympic Games, GDF is finalising plans for the 2016 Paralympic Heritage Flame Ceremony, which will be shown on Channel 4 News on 2 September. Supported by a range of partners including Arts Council England and Aylesbury Vale District Council, the Ceremony will tell the story of Stoke Mandeville, the spiritual home of the Paralympic movement.
It was here that in 1948, the Stoke Mandeville Games were first held, thanks to the inspiration of Ludwig Guttmann, a refugee doctor from Nazi Germany, who established a radical programme of rehabilitation for patients with spinal injuries, encompassing, amongst other things, sport. The original 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games took the form of an archery competition between two teams of disabled athletes, but year by year the Games gradually expanded, introducing new sports, international competition and in 1960 evolving into the modern Paralympic Games, which were first held in Rome.
Whilst the Torch Relay for the Olympic Games has always begun with a Ceremony at Mount Olympus, until recently, nothing similar has been in place for the Paralympics. So following the success of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the International Paralympic Committee decided that for all future Paralympic Games there would be an iteration of the Paralympic Torch Relay at Stoke Mandeville: the place from which the Games originated, providing global recognition that this is the home of the Paralympic movement.
Devised and directed by Bradley Hemmings, the Ceremony is entitled “The Seeds of Diversity” and will reunite many of those who were part of the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony and Cultural Olympiad: Choreography is by Laura Jones from StopGAP Dance company, swaypole performers are from Graeae Theatre Company, visual content has been created by artist Rachel Gadsden working with film makers Draw and Code; and design is by Rebecca Brower, who also designed GDIF’s opening night production this year, “The House”. Music is by BAFTA award winning composer Dan Jones, with narration performed by Nicola Miles Wildin, who played the role of Miranda, alongside Sir Ian McKellen in the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony.
“The Seeds of Diversity” also continues in the spirit of 2012 by bringing together a large volunteer cast of disabled and non-disabled people, who have given up their time to be part of the occasion. Volunteers were very much part of the unforgettable, celebratory atmosphere of 2012, so it’s been truly inspiring to be in rehearsals with volunteers once again, bringing together old friends who were cast members from 2012 with new faces from Buckinghamshire and beyond.
And the inspiration for all this hard work and creativity has been growth, seeds and gardens. The Ceremony imagines that back in 1948 a seed was planted at Stoke Mandeville, which has subsequently gone on to be disseminated across the world. Whilst science was at the heart of the 2012 Ceremony, this time plants and seeds provide the inspiration, reflecting the way in which the Paralympic Games took root from its early post-war beginnings at Stoke Mandeville, to become a global movement, championing enlightening ideas about human diversity and potential.
So, on 29 August, a day to look back and look forward, here’s to everyone who was part of that phenomenal night back in 2012 and looking forward, a special wish to all our cast members and creative team for a fantastic 2016 Ceremony!
Bradley Hemmings 29 August 2016