Bill Morris. Senior Advisor/Chair/NED/Trustee for Global Events Organisers, Event Companies, Culture, Sport and Media bodies.
BA Geography. Class of 1980.

Behind the Scenes of the Olympics Opening Ceremony

Alumnus Bill Morris was one of the key figures responsible for bringing the London 2012 ceremony to life

With a team of 20,000 and some of the biggest names in film and theatre, including Danny Boyle and Steven Daldry, this was a project on an epic scale. But how do you keep track of all the moving parts? And what does it take to get the Queen to jump out of a helicopter? We get the inside scoop on the planning, the risks, and the unforgettable moments that defined the games.

How did you end up at Swansea University?

I guess, like many school students at the time I did the tour around the country to places that I thought had good courses in geography, but just as important to me was to find somewhere that I really wanted to spend time. When I came down to Swansea, I just loved the place. I was lucky enough to have 3 or 4 different offers from universities, and all the courses looked pretty good, but I really thought Swansea was going to be a great place to spend 3 or 4 years, and so it turned out to be.

Did you have a plan for after graduation?

Well, yes, I got a lot out of my geography course, and indeed we may explore later the fact that I've just gone back to university to do something which is related to geography. So, I don't want to give the impression that geography didn't matter, but the reality is that from pretty early on I got this idea that I would love to work in broadcasting in the media, particularly in the BBC. I probably threw myself into student journalism, the student radio station, and the student newspaper, with more enthusiasm and energy than I did in my geography. I really enjoyed the course, particularly human geography. The course was good, the teaching was great, and the people I was on the course with were fantastic. However, the thing I will forever be grateful to Swansea for is the opportunity, I suppose to get involved in student media. In those days there wasn't a media course, I combined the two and thoroughly enjoyed all the opportunities that the media work gave me.

"...the thing I will forever be grateful to Swansea for is the opportunity..."

Did you have a journalism speciality at the BBC?

After I did my degree at Swansea because I’d done so much work in student newspapers and radio stations and things, there was a new opportunity to do a Sabbatical year as the Students Unions Press Officer. That meant I was effectively running the radio station and the newspaper for a year, giving me some fantastic opportunities, including a remarkable student delegation to Lebanon. All of which, in terms of getting a career in journalism, was extraordinary. That opened the door for me to do a postgrad course in journalism at City University in London, and from there, I moved into the BBC. Initially, in local radio. When I was leaving City University, the Falklands war was happening and the BBC was putting its first 24-hour news channel together, which drew lots of experienced journalists in, and greenhorns like me got to back-fill behind them. So, I feel a degree of guilt that I got a career leg up from the war. There I eventually moved on to Radio 4 and worked on lots of their factual programs and a little bit on the Today program, but mostly on things like “You and Yours”, “Woman's Hour” and documentary programs. Then I moved around many different bits of BBC Radio, then into BBC Television in factual areas before moving into big event production at the BBC.

How did you get into events production?

At the BBC, I’d done lots and lots of journalism and then I moved into more general program-making and then into management. I suppose, when I was in management, I slightly missed the thrill of the show that you get when you're producing a radio or television program. But you reach a certain level where you had to move into management. But there was the chance, then, to oversee the BBC's own live events. So, I got involved in things like the BBC Proms, did music festivals, and state occasions like the Golden Jubilee concerts at Buckingham Palace for The Queen, and doing events is a bit like a drug. I'm afraid once you start, you do little ones then you want to do bigger ones and bigger ones. And so, when the opportunity came for London 2012 it was too good an opportunity to miss, and so I moved across from the BBC to become the Director of Ceremonies Culture, Education and Live sites for the London 2012 Organizing Committee. Ultimately the Olympic games is the biggest event there is so, I was extremely lucky that it happened to turn up in my city when I was around doing that kind of thing.

The Olympic games are a hugely complex, so how do you keep track of all the moving parts?

The honest answer is you bring the right people together - you're right it becomes a huge project. Even in just the ceremonies sector, we ended up with a team of 20,000 including cast, crew, volunteers, and full-time staff. The trick is choosing the right people who are experts in their field. We are incredibly lucky in the UK to have a fantastic, cultural, creative and event sector that we are genuinely world-class at. Sometimes people get depressed that there are things we aren’t good at, but goodness me, the creative industries and events show the UK is right up there.

How long does it take to create an opening ceremony?

I joined the Organizing Committee in 2006, 6 years ahead of the games, and I started work on the opening ceremony the day I arrived. In fact, before I arrived. That's very different to the detail that comes much later, but I shall never forget about 2 weeks after I joined the organizing committee, at 24-hour notice, I was pulled into a meeting with a whole bunch of architects, planners and engineers who were putting together the plans for the stadium; they said to me ‘we're glad you've been appointed to this role because you can tell us how we should design a stadium for your ceremonies, what do you need and where?’. I hadn’t got the first idea, it was about 3 years too early to get into that level of detail but to their great credit they gave me a couple of more weeks and I got some experts who were able to advise on things like the size of the entrances, where to put the cable runs, and how to build lighting towers. That saved us a lot of money later because we were able to build them into the architecture of the stadium. So that sort of thing, starting 6 years out, was immensely valuable. Later, Martin Green (my Head of Ceremonies) and I appointed the creative team; people like Danny Boyle, and Steven Daldry about 3 and a half years out and they came in waves, that's when most of the creative work started, and it really got going in terms of detail, about 2 years before.

2012 Olympic Ceremony

What are the initial steps to creating the ceremony 6 years ahead?

At that stage it's very much scoping. It's about the scale of what's required, and hence those conversations about the stadium, what sort of facilities should we build into the stadium, and crucially, what can we afford? One of the biggest challenges we faced in those early years was the 2008 global financial crisis hit us. We all went out to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic games, which were extraordinary in so many ways, but the scale and resources applied to those games were completely out of anything that had been seen before. It was very clear to us that London would not be able to match China on the scale. That wasn't our mentality anyway, but we were seeing the enormity and the grandeur, and the perfection of what China achieved in its games, and its ceremonies in particular. We were thinking that this is a world away from what we can do. And then the financial crisis hit so, we knew that money was going to be extremely tight, and the UK would not consider spending that kind of money. So, we had to think long and hard about what strengths we could play to instead, and what was going to be special and unique for us? What was going to be reflecting the UK in 2012 that felt right?

Inevitably money was an issue and we had to struggle to find the budget we wanted, but the next stage after that was to go out and ask the UK what it wanted, not what the show should be, but how should we reflect the country? So Martin Green led a project that took meetings all around the country, where we went to meet creative groups, students, people in tourism, in sport, and many different sectors. We ran day-long workshops, asking, what's the UK about? What should we tell the world about the UK? What kind of things do we feel need to be said? What do we feel pride in? A number of important messages came across; they didn't just want a reflection of history, but they didn't want us to airbrush history, either. One of the things I remember very clearly was that people said we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously. We're famous for our sense of humour, and we should utilise that.

"Danny disappeared for about 3 months with a small creative team, and the ceremony that he created and brought back to us was very much in response, not just to his own brilliance, but to the views and the ideas and the expressions we've heard from those people all around the country."

 There ended up being a number of really important moments when, frankly, we had a laugh. The Queen jumping out of a helicopter is amazing and pretty funny, too. There was Rowan Atkinson with Mr Bean, which I think many people will always remember. So, we took a lot out of those initial consultations for what the UK felt it should be represented by. We created a dossier of all that information and then, a few months later, we appointed Danny Boyle and his team and gave them all this research work. We said, ‘this is the response, not from what people say you should put in your ceremony, but how they felt about the country’. Then Danny disappeared for about 3 months with a small creative team, and the ceremony that he created and brought back to us was very much in response, not just to his own brilliance, but to the views and the ideas and the expressions we've heard from those people all around the country.

Does anything ever go wrong? Have there been moments when you've been panicking?

Yes. Thankfully, if you're lucky, not too much goes wrong that is obvious to viewers, but behind the scenes, of course, you're rushing around like nobody's business. I love sport, don't get me wrong. I'm a huge sports fan but not a sports specialist, I was there for the ceremonies, the culture, education, the big screen live sites, that kind of thing. The torch relay was another of my projects, which I absolutely adore. But what unifies many of those things, whether it's the sport or the ceremony, is that you only get one chance at it. It's live. If it goes wrong, you can't say, ‘we'll do a better one tomorrow’. It it's not like making a movie where you can take it into an edit suite and play around with it or go and reshoot something and work it up until it's perfect. It's not even like a show in the West End, where if you have a bad night, there's a better one coming tomorrow. The opening ceremony, in particular, has the biggest audience of any event in the world. It's live, and you've got the world watching, so it’s a high-risk proposition in the first place. We had a particular pressure that we were following China, and frankly, the British media and some of the public were preparing for a night of shame. There was, at the very least a nervousness as to whether we could pull something off that would make the country be proud.

About 10 days before the ceremony, we did the last dress rehearsals before we had a crowd in. We were beginning to put all the different pieces of the ceremony together, but it wasn't quite complete. To cut a long story short, the rehearsal did not go well. That was not a good night, I went back to my little apartment in the Docklands and I couldn't sleep because, frankly, at that stage there's little you can do to change a big show like that except make it work. I turned the television on at about 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, and that was the period when London 2012 was having a crisis with its security. A lot of security guards who'd been booked from one of the big security companies, were not turning up for work. A decision had just been taken to bring in the military, which was a great decision. It worked well but, at that precise moment, the chief executive of the security company had been brought into the House of Commons to have a grilling by the select committee, and it just so happened that as I turned the TV on, they were re-running that interview. You've never seen someone being torn to shreds by the MPs in the way that he was, for letting down the country at this moment of its great need. I could think of nothing other than the fact that in 3 months' time, that would be me! I would probably be dragged into the same committee and torn to shreds for an abysmal opening ceremony under my watch. Thankfully it didn't work that way. The show came good, and a lot of people liked it.

2012 Olympic Torch Relay

Danny Boyle was known for being a filmmaker. So how did you end up getting him involved in something that's sort of way outside what he would normally be doing?

I think that’s an interesting example of us taking a calculated risk to mitigate a risk. It's something that I've ended up doing talks on to business folk because it comes back to the issues I was talking about earlier – that the UK could never be China. We had to play to our strengths, not to try and ape the ones that had gone before. There are a number of really talented production companies that go around the world designing Olympic ceremonies, and they do very good work, but if we had gone to one of them, we would simply have ended up with the lower-budget version of what has happened elsewhere. So, we took the decision that we would have to go in a different direction. We'd have to do something that was uniquely British. Therefore, we looked for creative talent that was kind of quirky and understood the UK. They had to have understanding of British sensitivities, humour, and life's realities in the UK. They had to be used to working at scale and filmmakers are - you know if you make a feature film it is partly about moving armies around. You need to understand TV, because most people - billions around the world - watch this on TV. And actually, it is a live one-off show. So, if you've got experience in live theatre, that's great as well. Now, as it happens, Danny's done all those. He also has this special understanding of British culture; he gets it and has a great sense of pride in many aspects of ordinary British life and wanted to share those. So, yes it was a risk, because he'd never done an Olympic opening ceremony, and he's never produced a live event on that scale, but we took the decision to go with him. We could put some of those other skills around him in the production team. We pulled in people who had done all that stuff before, but we wanted the very special creative sensibilities that he and his team could bring.

How on earth did you get the Queen to agree to jump out of a helicopter? How did that conversation go?

It's a long story, I won't give you the whole thing, but the idea came from Danny and his creative team entirely, and they brought it to myself and Martin Green probably about a year before we did the ceremony. They’d made a computer animation to demonstrate what they had in mind which was remarkably similar to what eventually happened and when I saw it, I knew this was an absolute winner. But I locked the memory stick away in my desk and thought, that's the very best thing I'll ever see that will never actually happen! I couldn't work out how we were going to get this to take place, because, at that stage, The Queen's reputation was really very high. She had nothing to prove and didn't need to take any kind of risks. This project was clearly full of risk, not the physical risk to her, but the risk of how she would be viewed, and how we would present it. Would she look stupid? Eventually, you have to have 2 stunt parachutists jumping out of a helicopter, live in front of billions of people watching around the world over a very busy stadium. Even though you have the best people in the world doing that, there is an element of risk in that. Because I’d worked on the Golden Jubilee and things like that before, we approached different people and The Queen's private secretary was extremely helpful and very wise in his advice. They waited long before finding the right moment to share this idea with The Queen. To our huge excitement and amazement, she said yes; it was her personal decision, and she kept it very secret. She didn't tell the rest of the family. We had no idea, incidentally, that she was going to become an actress. We were busy thinking about whom we’ll get to play the queen, and it was very late on when we were discussing costume that it became apparent from the requests at the palace for information about what she should wear that the queen herself actually wanted to be in the film. She was far more supportive of the whole project of bringing London 2012 to life than I think people realised, and she went a long way out of her way to make all that happen for us. I think that is one of the things the country should be immensely grateful for because that moment was one of the things that defined the games. And she made that happen.

"She was far more supportive of the whole project of bringing London 2012 to life than I think people realised, and she went a long way out of her way to make all that happen for us."

Have there been any particular projects or ceremonies that you've worked on that have been your favourite?

I think any event producer will tell you that the nature of events is that you need people who spend their life tying down details, getting all these moving objects into the right place at the right time, and yet going to bed every single night knowing you haven't quite cracked it. That's just the nature of events. You live with uncertainties but spend your life trying to turn them into certainties. I was running a little conference for a Cultural Organization yesterday, and even doing a small conference like that; you have exactly the same feelings. I think the reality is I'll never have a project like the London 2012 ceremony again because they're the biggest you get, and nothing else will quite match that for me. But I've been lucky enough to work on many other Olympic and state events since then.

Have there been any countries that you've been to that standout?

Well, I had been super lucky through this work in 2012, and I wanted to stay in the Olympic movement, so I became an advisor to the International Olympic Committee. As a result of that, they've taken me off to every single Olympic games and Paralympic games since London. I had a wonderful time in Rio; that's an extraordinary city and a wonderful culture. We moved on to Korea, which was a new space for me as I had never really worked there, and the culture was so different. Tokyo is such a remarkable city, as is Beijing. Before that, I really enjoyed spending time in Vancouver, where the 2010 winter Olympics were held, and I couldn't have found a warmer and more generous group of people.

Do you have to approach the Jubilee events differently from the Olympics?

There are more similarities than you might imagine; in both cases, you're dealing with institutions that have ways of doing things and protocols that you must not just abide by, but cherish. In an Olympic ceremony, it's the lighting of the cauldron moment, the speeches, the bits that must be there every time, and the same in a jubilee. Certain bits of the protocol are just built within the celebration of a jubilee that you must follow. Still, you must find a space in this rather regimented structure to let the creativity flow. In the case of the Jubilee concerts, it was to ensure the musicians could do what they do brilliantly. And in the case of an Olympic ceremony, it's almost half protocol because of the time it takes for the athlete's parade, but we also needed Danny Boy and his team to have as much creative freedom as we could offer them and the resources to do it. In the 2002 jubilee, the Queen made bold decisions to open her garden for the first time for public concerts. This was a real game changer; it was a sign that the Queen and the royal family opened themselves up in a way they hadn't done before, both to the public and to popular culture, and they took some risks doing that, but I think it worked. The public and the royal family seemed to enjoy it.

Tell us about your recent studies

I went back to university two years ago, during Lockdown; I absolutely loved it, and it reminded me of my time in Swansea. I did a master's course in sustainable urban development that linked back to the geography part of Swansea, but I could also relate it to Mega events. My dissertation was about how mega-events could help cities chart their way to a more sustainable future. I wanted to go back into Academia because when I was at Swansea, I think I was too caught up at the time with wanting to do student journalism to really relish the academic side. It now feels like a luxury to be able to go back to Academia and try and apply my mind to it. I'll be entirely honest with you, the first time I had to sit down and write an essay after nearly 40 years was a moment of deep trauma. I sat in front of this laptop for about an hour, and I just couldn't find the words to put on the page, and I’m a journalist! But the discipline of writing an academic essay, and thinking in a very structured way, is fantastic but it did not come easily. So, I look back on the Swansea experience with real warmth, and it was nice to go back into study later in life. I could focus on it properly; perhaps I was too young when I started and was too caught up in student journalism. Here I am in my mid-sixties, still learning and that is what you’ve got to do.

Do you think academic research is important in events?

One of the organizations I work with liaises closely with academics. We did a project last year called the UK National Inquiry into the social impact of events, and we worked with academics, event organisers, cities, community leaders and creatives. An event, by its nature, is an ephemeral one-off thing. It happens, and it's gone the next morning, and yet it's the most incredibly powerful catalyst. Things, people, organisations, and structures change in order to mount the event, or because of the impact of the event. So, particularly when you're spending a lot of public money on events like this, we have a massive responsibility to make, not just that firework moment of the event special, but to capture as much of the long-term benefit as we can. How do we utilise this firework going off, for as long as we can and do the right things? A lot of that comes down to being clear at the start that you're not just mounting an event but have a longer goal in mind. In the case of something like the Olympic games, many organizers will be looking at how this will impact their city for the next 20 or even 30 years. The scale of the investment that you can choose to apply, to restructure your city, or frankly, to restructure your society. How do you deal with things like climate change? How do you help your community reach net zero with a catalytic moment like that? The right events done in the right way, with all the right infrastructure around them, can have a massive impact in those spaces, but only if you plan it carefully. So, the other thing I’m now interested in is all the work in advance of and beyond, to bring the totality of the event to have the right impact rather than just the moment itself.

Tell us more your involvement with the paralympic ceremonies

The paralympic ceremonies are just as big a responsibility and, in some ways, almost more so. As it happens, yesterday I spent a lot of time with one of the creative directors for the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony, and she's a remarkable woman. There was a sense with those Paralympic ceremonies that we were just nudging the world in a slightly different direction, changing society and its attitudes to access, inclusion, and disability. The paralympic movement is extraordinary. The creative co-director, Jenny Sealey, has a disability herself and believes it moved the agenda significantly. The public response was outstanding. Certainly, within the paralympic movement, it was the first time they had seen full stadia and sports arenas for everything. Now I don't know if that's because of what we did or just the nature of the UK. Everyone wanted to be part of it; they all bought tickets and came along; it was a wonderful atmosphere. I think people were able to relate to the athletes in a different kind of way, perhaps because every athlete has a remarkable story, and everybody could relate to that. It was just as memorable as the Olympic games. No question.