The one in which Neil qualifies for the Olympics…
As a film and television sound professional who has been fortunate to achieve a certain longevity in this most capricious of businesses, it would be difficult for me to single out any one job that has been either the most amazing, the most exciting or the most satisfying: but three right off the bat would have to include meeting the Dalai Lama (which was amazing: he literally radiated happiness); spending a year recording, rather obviously, a ‘year-in-the-life’ documentary with the RAF Red Arrows (which was exciting: who wouldn’t want to spend weeks and weeks hanging-out with fast-jet pilots on various air bases?); and recording replacement dialogue (known as ADR) for a Steven Spielberg feature film (which was satisfying: I am incredibly proud that my name, and my studio’s name, is in the credits for Lincoln, a film that won two Academy Awards).
There are plenty of other highlights (and obviously a few lowlights) and even jobs that were both ‘the best of times and the worst of times’ simultaneously… The ITV series Notes from a Small Island, for instance, (where this blog unashamedly derives its name from) was fantastic because I got to travel around the British Isles with one of my all-time heroes: the brilliantly funny author Bill Bryson; someone I had admired from afar before we met and became an even bigger fan of by the time we’d finished filming. The downside was it was 6 weeks straight of relentless psychological abuse and physical stress meted out to me by a narcissistic Producer and Director team, who contravened every health and safety measure and disregarded every contractual clause the crew had signed, imposing an unrealistic and dangerously punishing shooting schedule.
Every production has a fall-guy (or girl) and I’d seen it in action before; but I somehow never expected to ever be put in that position myself. The experience was insidious, and it was cowardly. My wife and I at the time had just moved house and we had taken on a massive mortgage; I had three young children who depended on me; and I was freelance. It was despicable conduct on the part of the production team, and to this day I am watchful of it happening to someone else on a programme I am involved with. My commitment towards Bill kept me there – along with the desperate need for the money we were banking on as a family; but to protect what became my fragile self-respect, I should have walked away. Instead, I stayed and felt ashamed of myself. That is how abusers make you feel: as if it is your conduct rather than their behaviour that is at fault. But I vowed that I would never again allow myself to be treated in such a way. The series might have been billed as a comedy-documentary, but there weren’t many laughs as we made it. #MeToo.
You’ve got to have the lows to appreciate the highs.
There is, however, one recurring broadcast project that somehow manages to tick the ‘amazing’, ‘exciting’, and ‘satisfying’ boxes all in one fell swoop: and that is the Olympic Games. It has been my privilege to be a member of the Olympic technical family – the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) – since London 2012, where I covered commentary and communications at Beach Volleyball for the main games; and Track and Field, mixing audio in an Outside Broadcast truck, at the Olympic stadium for the Paralympics.
I was subsequently asked back to work on Beach Volleyball at the Rio 2016 games (where else but Copacabana beach would you want to work on Beach Volleyball?) and in 2021, I was contracted for the belated Tokyo 2020 games; once more a part of the team that looks after commentators and broadcaster communications, but this time at the beautiful dual venue of outdoor Mountain Biking and indoor Cycling, in Izu, about 3 hours south west of Tokyo, and within sight of Mount Fuji. I was also booked to reprise this role at the main Olympic stadium for the Paralympics.
The Olympics is one of life’s timeline touchstones, that I have been aware of since I was young. As kids, the kind of summer’s play we got up to in the street, or on the playing fields nearby, was always dictated by which major sporting event was currently taking place: each year for instance, the FA Cup final was replayed over and over between boys aligning themselves to one or the other of that year’s finalists; Wimbledon fortnight would bring out the tennis rackets (and then two weeks later they would go away again); and then there were the special events: those once-every-four-years competitions… The football World Cups, of which every self-respecting schoolboy could name the host countries and winners within their own lifetime; and ditto for the Olympics.
I was born in the year of the Rome Olympics. I know this in the same way that some people remember what animal signifies their year of birth in the Chinese calendar; but it was the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 that I first remember, albeit vaguely, with its time-shifted results and the other-worldly, and surely the most atmospheric of Olympic theme tunes, ‘Good Morning Tokyo’.
To prove my credentials, here are the rest of the Games from memory: Mexico City was ’68, it was Munich in ’72, then there was Montreal ’76, Moscow ’80, Los Angeles ’84, Seoul ’88, Barcelona ’92 (that was another good theme tune), Atlanta ’96, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012, Rio 2016 and now Tokyo 2020. In 2021. I can’t name them all from 1896, but I’ll bet that there are a few people who can; and they are exactly the kind of people you want in your team at the pub quiz: ‘Apart from 2012, London hosted the Olympic Games in which other years?’ (I know you know it, but just in case, the answer is 1908 and 1948.)
It is Baron Pierre de Coubertin we must thank for founding the International Olympic Committee (IOC), way back in 1894, and this led to the first modern Games being held in Athens in 1896. I know you know this too, but it is worth reflecting on the history of them being inspired by the ancient Olympic Games, which were held in Olympia, Greece from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. (And here’s another useful factoid for the pub quiz: the four years in-between successive Games is known as an Olympiad; Tokyo 2020 is officially called the Games of the XXXII Olympiad.)
The modern Games now include Winter sports, and of course, the Paralympics: a fantastic celebration of ability over disability, and surely the most uplifting and inspiring sporting occasion to be a part of. My first Paralympics, at London 2012, was memorable for so many reasons, including being in the stadium and experiencing the phenomenon of the air pressure exerted by the 80,000 strong crowd bearing down heavily on my chest, as they literally roared Britain’s David Weir on to his third Gold medal in the 800 metres wheelchair race. Then there was being trackside watching the ill-fated, four-time Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius in action – nick-named ‘Blade Runner’ due to the high-tech metal legs that catapulted him to fame – and so close to his tragic fall from grace (he was convicted and imprisoned for murdering his girlfriend in 2013); and by sheer chance, to be staying in the same hotel as the parents of the winner of the Men’s 100 metres sprint, Jonnie Peacock, on the night he took Gold, beating Pistorius in the process.
Seeing us in the hotel bar in our OBS Paralympic uniforms, Jonnie’s Mum came across to us in tears, to thank us for using our skills to bring her son’s achievement to the attention of the world; and for also enabling every other Paralympic athlete’s presence at the games to be seen on television screens around the world. Well, she was crying, then we started to get a bit emotional from her heartfelt sincerity about what we do; and now I’m filling-up as I remember and retell the tale. The Paralympics has the ability to do that to you; and often does.
I have always thought that should I ever write an autobiography of my life in film and television, I would entitle it No One Ever Says Thank You; but that night Mrs. Peacock proved to be an exception to the rule.
‘I’m headed out west with my headphones on…’
It was a strange thing to be heading west and north to get to Japan, but that’s how it is when you travel from down-under. Admittedly, the route was also a bit around the houses – the first leg took me from a locked-up and deserted Brisbane airport (just three flights on the departures board) to Changi, Singapore, before flying in almost the opposite direction to Tokyo’s Narita airport.
The initial check-in process was torturous too, involving much more paperwork than I have ever needed to provide before. Along with my passport and tickets, I was required to show a permit to leave the country, two certificates of negative Covid tests at 96 and 72 hours prior to take-off, an invitation to enter Japan and my Olympic accreditation; all presented to a pair of check-in operatives who took great pride in the disconcerting thoroughness of their questioning, including a tense phone call to the Australian immigration department to cross-check my exit permit and my Resident Return visa. Apparently, it was suspicious to them that I was working for the Olympics, yet travelling in economy class… As I said at the time ‘You’ve not checked anyone in before then who works for the Olympic Broadcasting Services?’
Time was when these people just weighed your bags, gave you a boarding pass and said ‘have a nice flight’; but next I had to hand over my mobile phone for them to examine the status of the four ‘security and health monitoring’ apps I was required to have loaded and running, and to check that the apps were satisfactorily populated with my personal data.
Now I don’t want to appear as if I’m getting onto a soapbox here, but I feel compelled to take a moment to reflect on this whole dispiriting experience, and share my thoughts on what I believe the ramifications are for all of us.
Unless you have travelled internationally recently, and of course many of us have not been allowed to, I cannot begin to tell you in how many ways the freedom we have all blithely taken for granted for more than three generations has been roundly taken away from us; and I am genuinely alarmed that that liberty is not coming back any time soon. If I’m honest, I don’t believe that it ever will. Let me be clear: I passionately believe that what we have lost is the freedom that our grandparents’ generation fought to preserve for us, at massive personal cost.
The total control and monitoring of us as individuals is now as unbelievable as it is inescapable, and we are so far down the quasi-consensual, citizen-surveillance path, that I can’t see the way back for us as a society. If you make a list of the things that you can’t do now and had two years ago suggested that they would not be possible to do in the very near future, people would have looked at you as if you were stark raving mad. Or called David Icke.
Over a few decades as a location sound recordist, I have travelled extensively and journeyed through oppressive countries run by despot regimes; I’ve even taken kit on an El Al flight to Israel – once seen as my industry’s high-water mark for security way beyond thorough. But now, the measures that those countries took towards travellers seems like a walk in the park; or a bit of free entertainment for the journey.
From what I’ve observed, the current state of personal liberty in ‘the free world’ is desperately depressing, utterly predictable, and as edifying as watching a car crash in slow-motion. From the moment I started to see the way newspapers and the BBC, ITN and Sky (in the UK) and other media outlets (world-wide) were covering the so-called Corona-virus crisis, with graphics showing ever increasing yet totally questionable statistics, I felt certain that there was an underlying agenda to pump-prime our subconscious minds to prepare for a latter-day Armageddon.
But to what end? I don’t get it. Who ultimately benefits from this widespread control and subjugation of billions of compliant human beings? Quite how this has even been coordinated beats me because my experience of government – any flavour of government – is that with the best will in the world, you wouldn’t trust them to run a school tuck shop or organize a bottle party in a brewery. The speed and comprehensive way that this management of our every movement has been introduced, refined and explained away as emergency Covid measures, is nothing less than sinister; and all of this we’ve allowed to happen whilst begging our governments to do something to protect us from an invisible monster: a bogey man for grown-ups, the one that we’re repeatedly told about just before our bedtime, on the 10 o’clock News.
The free hand that ostensibly democratic governments have incredulously found themselves able to act with, has in my opinion, resulted from us being relentlessly conditioned by an orchestrated ‘Project Fear’; a campaign designed to fundamentally scare the masses to death, and vigorously promoted by every mainstream news outlet you might care to mention.
I’m not a ‘denier’ of the danger of the Coronavirus disease, by the way. Not at all. Whilst I’m not medically or scientifically trained, I do think that I’ve understood enough of the presented information to accept that Covid-19 can be a killer or leave a residue of long-term ill health – but only as can countless other viral-based infections that humans might be unlucky enough to acquire. We do our best to prevent or contain them, but we don’t close whole countries down for them, do we?
Google ‘Covid World Health Organisation’, read what is there on the ‘WHO’ website, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Covid is just something a tad inconvenient to catch:
‘Most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.’
[https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus, accessed 30/07/2021]
Forgive me, but I can’t see a thing there to support the level of widespread hysteria we have been, and continue to be, subjected to by the media, regarding the nature of Covid. Meanwhile, our fundamental freedom has been neatly taken away by our governments in plain sight. For what it’s worth, I work in the media, and I can tell you, I don’t trust it one bit. Not newspaper, television, radio or online News reporting. Not one bit.
I’ll end this alarmist trip off-piste with one thought: it will only seem alarmist and far-fetched if you’ve never been to Berlin and visited the Stasi Museum.
Anyway, in the end, I was relieved just to be able to get on the plane, let alone reach Japan, such had been the shenanigans we’d gone through, back in Australia. We’d been subjected to 14 days of quarantine and testing in Sydney on arrival from the UK, and then a further 14 days of unexpected and spontaneously imposed isolation in Brisbane, because we’d had the temerity to travel between New South Wales and Queensland (and we had to do more testing).
With me having to test for Covid every day in Japan, and soft quarantine for another 14 days (I was allowed to leave the hotel to work with my immediate colleagues in Commentary, but then we had to return each night to the confines of our hotel rooms), by the end of that third round of restrictions, it would mean that in my previous 45 days, I had spent 42 of them in hard quarantine, isolation or soft quarantine: three terms that mean exactly the same thing – my personal freedom was all but completely taken away from me; and for 4 of those 6 weeks, security guards were posted to ensure our compliance.
Time and Space Oddity.
There’s a suggestion that altering your watch to your destination’s time zone can go a long way to alleviating the effects of jet lag. But with only one hour time difference between Tokyo and Brisbane, the same as that between London and Paris, how much jet lag was I likely to get? Not very much I thought as I boarded the plane; and happily, that was the case. But instead, I managed to lose track of time; even though I now possessed a ‘GMT watch’, which I had purchased with some considerable excitement before we left the UK.
The original GMT watch was made by luxury watch-maker Rolex, for Pan-American pilots and navigators in the mid-1950s, when the first regular trans-Atlantic flights began. With two linked ‘hour’ hands, able to be offset by the time difference between home and abroad, and a moveable 24-hour bezel around the face of the watch, the wearer could keep track of time in both locations. I love the provenance of this, and indeed mechanical watches in general, so even though I eventually thought better of selling one of my children to buy a Rolex GMT II, I was pleased with my purchase of a pretty good compromise: the Swiss-made Christopher Ward Trident C65 GMT watch (web link inserted in the rather desperate hope that at some point I might be able to attract sponsorship for this journal…)
In Australia, the watch worked really well. It remained fantastically accurate, and I could see both the local time and keep track of when folk were waking up or going to bed back in the UK. But as I got on the plane for Japan, I started to get confused. It was 23:00 in Brisbane, 22:00 in Tokyo, but 21:00 in Singapore. I had a 4 hour lay-over at Changi airport, so surely, using the ‘adjust your watch for your destination’ method, I should keep Singapore time on the watch, so I didn’t lose track of time for my connection to Tokyo. But my actual destination was Tokyo, of course.
Inevitably, I fell asleep on the night flight; and then I couldn’t remember what time I’d set the watch to. Had I even moved the hands? In the enveloping dark of the aircraft, stretched out across three seats in an almost empty cabin, I eventually gave up thinking about it and promptly went back to sleep.
When we arrived at Singapore for the 4-hour pit-stop, I started the mental arithmetic again… So, we left at 23:00. I know that it’s a 7-hour flight, and it was now 04:55, local time. So that was really 07:00-ish at home in Brisbane, wasn’t it? But now I’m an hour out in my calculations for both Singapore and Tokyo, according to my watch’s ‘accurate to the second, but I’m not so sure about the hour’s’ SW330 movement. Then there’s the 8-hour time difference between Japan and the UK to factor in… Does that help or hinder me in making sense of what the watch is showing me? I am seemingly floating untethered in time and space, like a land-locked ‘Major Tom’.
This, I glumly reflected, is how ancient mariners managed to get lost at sea, or to discover new continents by crashing into them. Until John Harrison finally perfected his sea-going chronometer, the H4, in 1759, sailors couldn’t accurately tell the elapsed time between their daily high-noon sun-sightings, which they needed to do to plot their longitude position accurately. (Being able to do this was therefore a big deal for marine insurance companies and a Captain’s no claims bonus, back in the day.)
I was thinking all of this as we walked in total silence from the plane through Changi airport, escorted by guides, for what seemed like miles. We finally arrived at what I would describe as a holding pen; but the airport authority grandly calls the international transit lounge. And when I say lounge, what I mean is a large hall with random tables and chairs, a toilet block and… Well, nothing else, as it happens. Eventually, an Aunt Bessie-style decorated handcart for coffee and cookies got opened, and this served as the total in-transit refreshment opportunity.
For those who have previously travelled through Changi and experienced the orgy of consumerism that this usually entails, here was a stark contrast. The other thing I noticed was the subdued, sombre, and joyless disposition of every other fellow traveller. The fun of travel seems to have evaporated for everyone; and it was strangely comforting to see that it wasn’t just me that felt miserable by being herded and rounded-up.
I decided to buy a couple of bottles of water as I was parched from the first flight – Singapore Airlines are obviously recovering some of their losses by adopting a noticeably mean in-flight service (that’s the sponsorship opportunity from that airline, gone) – and the first bottle of water disappeared quickly. But not as quickly as the second one, which I’d kept in reserve for the next flight, but was of course thrown away full, because you can’t take liquids through security before you get on a plane. Stupidly, and I regretted it instantly, I didn’t promptly take it back off the security person and drop out of line to drink it there and then. Instead, like we all do, I meekly complied and watched it go straight into the bin unopened. Ridiculous really, but when you’re tired, and in a queue, and there’s pressure to get through the body scanner, you don’t want to be the person that’s holding the rest of the flock of sheeple up.
‘Yōkoso!’ (Welcome!) … And oh, what a Yōkoso!
The least said, the soonest mended, I suppose; but I’ll give you a one-line summary of me arriving and clearing immigration at Narita airport, Japan. It took 6 hours. Yes, six, never-going-to-get-them-back-again hours of waiting in line, of inching towards the immigration desk, then to the testing booths, to finally receive my (negative) Covid test result and pass through the Arrivals doors to the outside world.
We had landed at 5:30pm; and I got into my hotel room in Izu, a 3-hour drive from Tokyo, at 2:30am. My driver was obviously a patient man; he may very well have been waiting for me since the plane landed. An email I picked up in the car on the way to the hotel told me that a vehicle would be waiting for me outside the hotel at 6:45am, to take me back to Tokyo for a Manager’s briefing at the Olympic Broadcasting Services International Broadcast Centre (IBC). Luckily, I sleep easily in cars.
A Facebook friend, seeing me post that I’d arrived in Tokyo to cover the games, asked rather pointedly ‘What’s it like to be part of the most hated games ever?’
Ouch! Tough crowd… I took my time to reply, but I think I took a fair, but robust, attitude with my reply a few days later:
‘It is impossible to be here, watching the opening ceremony on my hotel room telly (because my colleagues and I are not allowed to meet outside of work, and to ensure we stay put, security guards are in place in our hotel lobbies) and not feel a stirring of excitement that the Olympics, albeit one year late, has finally got under way.
But please could I ask one thing, as someone who is proud to be playing a tiny part in a huge team that continues to go to extraordinary lengths to deliver crystal-clear sound and vision to your living room from overseas? Please would you suspend, if you possibly can, the cynicism that with justifiable cause prevails in these dark days.
Instead, for the period of the games, could you find it in your heart to recognize and celebrate the epitome of human endeavour on display: the discipline, the training, the preparation, and the commitment that has culminated in each and every athlete being an Olympian; representing their country, their family and themselves. Could you emotionally engage and share their joy and empathize with their defeat? Because this is what it is to be human, writ large through play: it’s about courage, triumph, and disappointment; and it’s about maintaining hope.
Every competitor is here on merit; and every single competitor is here thanks to the long-term support of parents, teachers, coaches, friends, and mentors.
My teammates wish only that you witness, in unprecedented clarity, the greatest show on earth; and for a while, that you have the perfect opportunity to mute the cacophony of negativity that currently surrounds every media outlet.
And I have some very good news: the Paralympics will follow-on, after the Olympics.’
Clearly, something needs to be the catalyst for the world coming back to its senses; and you never know, it could just be something like the Olympic Games that crushes the current fashion for cynicism. If it is, I want to be a part of that movement back to positivity.
Staging these Olympics has been fraught, to say the least, mainly due to the concern that continues to surround the topic of Covid-19. Some said the Games would not take place, others said they could not take place and then there were those who said they should not take place.
Now I’m not going to start commenting on the various standpoints regarding the politics surrounding the Tokyo Olympics, because clearly, it is a complex issue, with many sensitivities and stakeholders to satisfy; but it does seem to me that there has been a tremendous amount of negativity, misinformation, and at times, downright distortions of ‘the truth on the ground’ being reported. However, I will stand up and be counted as saying that I believe passionately that the Games needed to go ahead for a variety of very good reasons – one of which includes showing the rest of the world that it is possible to re-establish a kind of normality, even if it is a ‘new normal’ that we are obligingly adapting to.
Before I even left the UK, several friends had contacted me, concerned that I intended to honour my re-issued contract with OBS. But I felt their genuine and touching concern was a worried reaction to the world’s media fanning the flames of controversy and choosing to paint a bleak picture along the lines of my Facebook correspondent. Some News reports I had read suggested that the political appetite of the Japanese people had swung so much against the Games, the country was on the point of revolution.
The reality I experienced on arriving in Japan (albeit a somewhat bleary and virtual reality following the extended journey) was that without exception, I was greeted with courtesy, and I received a genuine welcome. So too for those colleagues I compared notes with; the overwhelming impression we all got from the Japanese people we met was that they were pleased that we were here. So yet again, it appeared that those of us who had made it to Japan were able to observe at first-hand the journalist’s maxim of ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’.
At the IBC, old Commentary hands welcomed new colleagues; working relationships were re-established and new friendships were made. We truly are an Olympic family; and the combined experience of those in the room, from numerous previous games, was a little intimidating to me initially; particularly as this would be my first Games in a management role.
At our manager’s meeting – a serious affair after the good humour of us getting to know each other again, when we got down to the nitty-gritty of the task in hand – it was emphasised, again and again, the responsibility that each of us had in playing things strictly by the book this time round. We were to make no mistakes, people would be looking hard at us, and waiting for us to fail. The standard that OBS sets is uncompromising under normal circumstances; clearly then, this time they meant business.
But every one of us in the room was determined that nothing untoward was going to happen. Our colleagues in other meetings, working in other departments, were obviously being told the same thing by their bosses; and I knew that they would feel the same as we did. Every single member of the OBS technical team is hand-picked from around the world because they are recognized as being at the very top of their game. We were here to get the job done under extremely challenging local conditions; but we were all determined that we were going to deliver the Tokyo Olympics to the world.
After a brief lunch break, we covered the modifications that had taken place to the commentary systems since the last time we used them; and my thoughts turned from the IBC towards Izu and starting the preparations to make Mountain Biking and the Velodrome the most amazing, exciting, and satisfying experience for everyone concerned. I couldn’t wait to see the venue. Given all the hoops we’d had to go through to leave the UK – and then the challenges of entering and leaving Australia – just to be here, to be standing on Japanese soil, was a huge relief. Surely there was nothing else that could go wrong, was there?
In other news…
How my afternoon at the International Broadcast Centre went downhill rapidly; and my return journey to Izu was only possible after a painful 8-hour stay in a Tokyo hospital ER room, on an intravenous drip and hooked-up to an ECG heart machine.
Cover picture: the last rays of the day fall on Mount Fuji. The view from the Outside Broadcast compund of the Izu Velodrome. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2021
I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.]