Friday, July 20, 2012

'Eddie Izzard, the De Coubertin Lecture' at Toynbee Hall, 20th July 2012

As you may have noticed, there is a large sports event taking place in East London this year. To complement the sports taking place, the organisers have promised a festival of culture; free arts, music and theatre throughout the country.  It's hard to find too much to disagree with here, surely in the time of austerity giving funding to top artists to realise projects that the public has free access to is definitively a good thing? 

This lecture is the third De Coubertin Lecture, and the first to concentrate on culture rather than sports.  The first lecture was given by Christophe Dubi, Olympic Games Deputy Executive Director at the IOC, and the second by Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, these sound, from what I have read, a little dry.  So having tonight's lecture delivered by Eddie Izzard is a bit of a departure, he's a nice pick though, neatly straddling the line between culture and sports.  Also in attendance was Alan Yentob, Creative Director of the BBC and Ruth MacKenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad.
Eddie Izzard, running,
Filing into Boothroyd Hall you're confronted by the omnipresent '2012' logo.  It's projected on the walls, it's plastered to the front of the lecturn, it's on the screen, it's on badges pinned to the volunteers chests - despite having had a few years to get acclimatised to it, it's still a remarkably unfriendly piece of graphic design.  Tucked down below it are two more logos, those of BP and BT.

We begin with a rather poorly thought section where Izzard runs around the Olympic Park while being asked questions about it by Yentob.  The video and sound link is a little patchy, and the feed frequently cuts out leaving Yentob stranded awkwardly on stage with either an awkwardly frozen Izzard in front of him, or a silent black screen.  In principle I guess this sounded like a good idea, but in practice it just barely hangs together - the only reason it works at all is the infinite charisma of Eddie Izzard.  Perhaps the strangest point is when Izzard notices a truck coming up behind him, he turns around saying "what's that?" at which point the video cuts out completely, leaving us to wonder if he's just been flattened by some poorly trained G4S minion.

If this segment was intended to showcase to us the glory and wonder of the Olympic Park then it completely failed.  We Izzard running around a desolate concrete wasteland, to a backdrop of a forbiddingly overcast sky.  Huge empty spaces loom all around him, he cuts quite a lonely figure as he trudges through it, gamely trying to entertain us.  I accept that the place won't truly come to life until it's packed with throngs of happy spectators, but in its current abandoned state it has an air of the bleak to it.  

Alan Yentob.
The park is cold and unfriendly, with Izzard the only spot of humanity in the middle of it. As he runs after the truck Yentob pops bizarre questions at him.  "Do you know how many species of plants there are in the Olympic Park?"  "Do you know how many nails were used in the construction of the velodrome track?"  "Do you know how many trees were planted here?" and so on.  If anyone can give these spectacularly dull queries a funny answer it's Izzard, but even he struggles, generally answering "between 3 and 3 billion?" bemusedly.  If this is some kind of advertisement for how great the Olympic Park is then it misses the mark by quite a huge margin.  Who cares how many damn nails are used in the velodrome?  What possible reaction do they want from us?  Are we supposed to be impressed?  How the hell do we know what a large amount of nails for Velodrome track construction is.  "Oh, 300,000 - huh.  That's a lot of nails."  The nadir comes when Yentob mentions an oak tree that's been planted in honour of De Coubertin, but apart this knows absolutely nothing about it.  "Well, where is it?" asks Izzard.  Yentob doesn't know.  Yentob only seems to know what's on his hastily printed sheaf of papers. He and Izzard are entirely adrift in a sea of pointless, mind-numbing facts.  

After this, Izzard hops on the back of a motorbike and speeds through the streets of London towards us.  I can't help but wonder if he's allowed to use the Olympic Lanes.  I'd guess so, but regardless he ends up taking a while to get here.

To fill the time Yentob talks to Ruth MacKenzie about the events of the Cultural Olympiad.  Now, I'm sure MacKenzie is a very nice, intelligent and charming woman, but what we see on stage seems to be a wind up PR spewing machine.  On the face of it she seems enthusiastic, but after 10 minutes or so this seems slightly fake.  Her effortlessness in dispensing vast amounts of information about, for example Stockhausen operas in Birmingham or arts projects in Bexhill seems almost robotic, like she has spoken about this many, many times in the last few weeks.  It's an autopilot performance, a well-oiled PR machine doing its job and becomes a bit creepy after a bit.

Ruth MacKenzie
As Izzard shows no signs of turning up anytime soon the floor is opened to questions. I manage to get one in, asking Yentob and McKenzie about the pre-emptive arrests of street artists in London.  Over the last few days, prominent street artists, (some who'd even done work for Team GB) have been rounded up by the police, their equipment confiscated including their phones and laptops.  The arresting police confirmed that the artists were being picked up in relation to the Olympics - a pre-emptive strike against anyone who'd have the nerve to protest the games.  They were taken to a police station, and informed that they're banned from the tube, DLR or National Rail, and not allowed within a mile of any Olympic venue.  All this for crimes that the police have decided that the 'suspects' might decide to commit, but haven't yet.  I wanted to know how this squares with the ethos of the Cultural Olympiad.  They do, after all state on their website "As part of the Cultural Olympiad, artists have been encouraged to use the UK as a blank canvas."

So I asked it, half suspecting that I was about to be dog-piled by a group of burly men in hot pink polo shirts and dragged into a white BMW.  I had even figured out to scream as I was dragged away and a bag (presumably Adidas branded) popped over my head.  "Don't forget me!  Tell my story!" I'd scream desperately.  In the end they just ignored the question, MacKenzie launching into a pre-programmed spiel about the opportunities they're giving graffiti artists.  I don't really know what I expected for an answer, but being responded to with a wave of passionless PR bumph was pretty dispiriting. 

Eventually Eddie Izzard arrived to give his speech, considered the high point of the night.  In honour of De Coubertin he delivered it in both English and French at the same time, which is laudable in terms of cultural inclusivity, but occasionally got in the way of the humour.  Eddie Izzard is one of those rare people who is preternaturally incapable of being funny.  His completely fearless nature serves him best when he goes off on a tangent - something which, by necessity, this lecture prevents him from doing.  He admits at the start that he doesn't usually read from notes - it shows.  He seems almost straining at the leash to explore more surreal elements while telling the story of the formation of the Olympics, and indeed, the funniest moments are when he's not talking about De Coubertin.  There's a great bit about how all wild animals are fit, it's a glimpse of the Izzard we know and love.  I can see how the format and constrictions of the Olympic ethos restrain the performance - he tries his absolute best not to swear, and throughout there is a slight air of self-censorship.

Where he does succeed is explaining why the traditional Olympic ethos is valuable and positive.  As a man who has run 43 marathons in 51 days he knows more than most what a person can get out of their body when they apply themselves.  It's this correlation between physical fitness and mental well-being and positivity that strikes the most genuine note of the evening.  For a second I can almost believe in the Olympic ideal as created by De Coubertin, enthusiastically and convincingly explained by the impossibly charismatic man on stage.  Then I remember the roof-mounted missile launchers, the hordes of 'brand police' and the VIP Olympic lanes snaking their way around the city - the illusion sours.  I would like to believe that the Olympics is about sportsmanship, education and culture, but it's not.  It's about exploiting these noble principles to let companies like McDonalds, Adidas and Coca Cola make a quick buck.  It's about twisting the laws of the host country to protect corporations that have insidiously wound their tendrils into the purest and most honourable of intentions.  

The evening sputters out in a bizarrely misconceived question and answer session in which Yentob interviews Izzard.  Izzard tries gamely to make a silk purse out these sow's ear questions, but when faced with questions like "Did you become a transvestite for the attention?"  What's he to do?  

I don't know exactly what I was expecting out of last night, but I got an effective demonstration of how De Coubertin's noble intentions and fine ideals can be corrupted and degraded into a sinister, hot pink spectre, and how three highly intelligent cultural titans can be seduced.

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