Football will return tomorrow!
If you know me personally, you may have recognised and noticed me in the Mr. Bean skit in the Olympic ceremony. Now that I can legally talk about it, this is a little ‘behind the scenes’ article about what it was like to film it, which will hopefully interest you even if you don’t know me.
Back in early April this year, an advert went out through the sports centre of the University of St Andrews, where until very recently I was a student. ‘Wanted, 25 athletic men for BBC promo’. As students at Scotland’s first university, we’re supposed to be intelligent, but it wouldn’t take the sharpest tool in the box to put two and two together. 2012, 25 athletic men (runners?), and west sands beach- surely it had to be something Chariots of Fire themed for the Olympics. It didn’t take me much to apply. I might be getting paid to run, and for anyone with a mild love of their sport, that isn’t to be turned down.
To apply, we just had to turn up at the sports centre. There was a group of us numbering somewhere in the thirties all in athletic gear, most of whom I knew, many through running. The casting people vaguely told us they were looking for people with a ‘period look’. How period? 1924 Olympics period? For those of us sitting together after being picked, we joked that the only similarity amongst us was that we all had oddly pronounced noses. Later, a few non-students were also casted and added to the group of runners.
And then it happened. We were each given a LOCOG non-disclosure form, and from then on in we could tell no-one about it. It was a Chariots of Fire piece, it was for the Olympic Opening Ceremony- and it was to be directed by Danny Boyle.
Meeting Danny Boyle for the first time was odd. Not in the least because I accidentally went and waited in the wrong room and missed his introduction speech, but caught up as we went down to the beach to film some shots to prepare for main production. Danny Boyle is a man whose films I love- I prefer Slumdog Millionaire to Trainspotting- but he was the exception to the rule that you should never meet your heroes. Although he probably has had to meet and talk to hundreds of people acting, dancing and performing as part of the opening ceremony, he was always ebullient with gratitude for us, the ‘actors’, for our part of his grand piece.
We later had a fitting session, and in due course the day before the two day shoot we turned up to a marquee erected backing on to west sands to have our hair cut into a uniform style, and then collect our costumes. Not for us Nikidas‘Aerobreath’ or ‘Zonifoam’. We were to be wearing 1924 grade athletic kit, seemingly mainly cotton. The simple white kit with a union flag on the left breast is a far cry from the Stella McCartney designed kit for 2012. Although I understand that we weren’t allowed to keep the kit so as to keep the surprise of the opening ceremony in tact, I still wish I had got to keep that shirt.
Amongst our kit we were also given tracksuit tops and bottoms, trainers and neoprene boots. We were grimly unaware at that time how desperately we would come to savour every second spent in those fleece-lined layers. As a student at the time I have to conform to stereotypes and say that the catering throughout was superb. And so it needed to be, for all the calories we were about to lose in body heat.
Once down on the beach we were told there were going to be two actors taking part in the sketch with us. One turned out to be Stephen Moore, most famous forThe History Boys. The other was codenamed, I seem to remember, – Trevor. Trevor, it turned out, was Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean. This was pretty exciting. We were all beginning to think, and literally feel, how cold and physically shattering these two says were going to be, so it was nice to know we’d be spending two days filming with Mr. Bean. So whatever it was we were going to film must be a fairly big part of the show, and as it was guaranteed to be a comic piece, it would probably be a laugh to film. Rowan was not the only thing that was codenamed- every label on every piece of production kit was labelled extremely obliquely- and it needed to be. Throughout the two days there were various rumblings on Twitter, Facebook and in the press about what was going on with the marquee, cameras and all- the most common being that it was Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman shooting a film. People did ocassionally gather around the filming, although they were discouraged. I am still amazed that no-one found out what it was really all about, especially considering this piece on St Andrews online news source The Stand, who seemed far more distracted by Firth (whose presence was possibly rumour) to investigate what was right there in front of their eyes.
If you’ve seen Chariots of Fire, or even if you haven’t, you know the scene. A group of twenty-five runners, Great Britain’s team for the 1924 Olympics, run along a beach on a training run which is supposed to be on the south coast but is actually St Andrews. In the film it is the start of the main story, a representation of an idyllic time of hopeful youth. That said, it is hard to get romantic and teary eyed about that when you have run along the beach with the little camera quad bike whizzing alongside for one shot upwards of five times. Any behind the scenes footage will always tell you that every minute of screentime represents hours of shooting time, the days of filming were very long, having to be on site before seven and leaving just before six. Once we reset for the next take we would have to wait for the right amount of cloud cover, and then we may have to reset again as the tide kept continually coming in and out, as it does. This meant we were standing around on cold, wet sand for most of the time, and if not, running on a cold, wet uneven surface. The principal actors got whisked off inbetween shots to keep themselves warm, and we were handed out trackies. Nevertheless, I don’t think I have ever said “JC it’s cold” with such frequency in a 48 hour period. Despite this, when we got home after the first day and turned up for the next, we were all horrendously sunburnt. Not only that but all of our bodies were slowly falling apart from the day of pounding our legs across the beach, Rowan quicker than most. Before long most of us were having legs taped up and deep heat sprayed liberally. My girlfriend did vaguely know about the filming, just so she knew where I was, and after each day of filming I immediately texted her to ask for a basin of hot water to put my fit in to be ready by the time I got home.
This isn’t to say it was awful. Yes, we were ruddy cold, and I’m not sure it did my legs any favours, contributing to all the niggles I had before the Edinburgh Marathon. But it was very British. We were this bunch of Scots, English, and Americans, running on a beach in Scotland that was supposed to be a beach in England. As a bunch of students do, we made rude jokes and carried on. The colder we got the more we would laugh at anything anyone said, but the thing that really kept us going was knowing what it was all for. Inbetween shots we chatted with the real actors- Stephen Moore’s stuntman for the trip part of the sketch (although contrary to what you’re normally told, Stephen did it all himself, and on one take I accidentally kicked him in the head trying to jump around him), Stephen Moore himself, and Rowan, although less and less as time went by and legs were shredded. And yes, I did chat to Rowan, asking him if filming on west sands was colder than filming the first Blackadder at Alnwick Castle.
Rowan Atkinson is a phenomenaly talented performer. He has a reputation for being grumpy, which is admittedly deserved but understandable, but as soon as the camera started rolling he was on fire. Every single performance was one of perfectly pitched comedic brilliance. On the second day we realised we could see the shot of the take by heading over to one of the pick-ups straight after cut was called. We gathered round and watched the take of Rowan coming in from the side of shot, then tripping Stephen. Uniformly, we laughed out loud at the scene, something which I guess was duplicated in households up and down the country. This shot has actually been made into a gif (with me in it!), number #23.
Over the two days we took various shots, mirroring ones from the original film. My favourite was one that wasn’t in the original film, the side on shot of the group running along before the car overtakes us. As Danny told us, it was fantastic as the image of the group was reflected off the wet sand, something which artistically the original film didn’t do. In fact Danny told us that the original film had all of the footage from that sequence ruined, and they had to come back to film it on a horrible day in St Andrews.
And that was it. We finished filming and I didn’t get to see the finished film until the opening ceremony aired. I couldn’t talk about it until it aired, although of course I hinted to friends and family that they should watch the ceremony, with a bit of a nudge and a wink. I watched it myself for the first time with friends at an opening ceremony party. I was initally worried you wouldn’t see us, as the first frame had Rowan edited in to the original film footage, but after that there was lots of us students, and I was pretty happy that you could see lots of me in it. I was soon inundated with texts, tweets and facebook posts. And wasn’t the whole thing fantastic? I bounced to work the next day, humming the Chariots of Fire theme, and feeling positively proud to be British.
I’m running the Dublin Marathon in October to raise awareness for Anthony Nolan and to encourage people to join their blood stem cell donor register- all they need for you to join is a bit of your spit, and you could save a life! I’m hoping at least one of you will join for every mile of the race, so please join here and send me an e-mail to say you’ve done so at email@example.com.