Poor Wee Wenlock

Policeman Wenlock Figurine.

Some people saw it as symbol of a military state’s collusion with the corrupt forces of international sport. To me it looked very much like a penis dressed as a policeman. When I read in this Guardian article that the heavy weight of oppositional satire was being brought to bare on a wee Wenlock doll, dressed as a policeman my heart went out to it for the first time. Certainly I had not warmed to the pair of scrotal cyclopses that had been chosen to represent London until that point but when you read him being attacked by rabid killjoys like Games Monitor guy who sees in it a symbol of our violent police state, my heart leaped to his defence. Perhaps there was something to like about this clear attempt to get us to think of policemen and sexual organs at the same time.

(One word about that article, which reads largely like Games Monitor itself. Qualifying the budget of the Games, Stephen Graham writes: “Major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, speeded up for the Games, are factored in, the figure may be as high as £24bn”. Crossrail will be completed in 2018.) But placing budgets aside and thinking about poor priapic Wenlock as he stands before me, I’m driven instead to be more sympathetic to him and wonder instead: how did we end up with a cock dressed as a cop representing our city?

With the Olympics it is always worth comparing the present with your favourite from the past. In 1988, Disney produced a special broadcast called Mickey’s 60th Birthday. One of the guests who appeared was Misha the Bear – the mascot for the 1980 Moscow Olympics – a recognition by the best known animation studio in the world of the enduring impact of a character created to represent a sporting event. It was the animation version of Henry Kissinger turning up to one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s charity galas. It was the cartoon form of two grizzled campaigners of the Cold War smiling across old battle lines and a few drinks and magical testimony to the way Misha had transcended the Games.

Misha the Bear

This little bear is delivered in the classic style of high Soviet sentimentalism, but then he is meant to be. Created by Victor Chizhikov, a children’s illustrator twenty years, to me is not simply an act of propaganda that makes it so successful but because it is a successful piece of mascot making that touched people way outside Soviet borders. Commerically it did well in Soviet Russia. Over two million Misha dolls were sold, more than the Waldi at Munich in 1972. The latter was designed by the German graphic design great Otl Aicher and was the first official mascot. Far from being a completely commercial decision it was an attempt to soften the rigorous high modernism of Aicher’s graphic treatment for the Games. It was partially successful. It mediates Aicher’s remorseless use of Univers and provides a bit of light entertainment, much in the same way a sadistic uncle might occasionally do a conjuring trick. It has all the fun of the responsible wooden toys sold in Habitat in the 1980s that you were forced to play with while your parents looked at beds they couldn’t afford.

Waldi, Olympic Mascot 1972

Why was Misha able to develop a life of his own? Because he emerged from a narrative rather than simply graphic culture; first from Russian folklore and then through the sentimental animation of the Soviet Union. Like all good elements of Olympic design, it related to a cultural tradition beyond the Olympics as well as the Olympic tradition itself. Furthermore Chizhikov wasn’t commissioned to create a graphic device but a narrative. In the closing ceremony in 1980 a giant inflatable Misha was carried into the Luzhniki Stadium carrying balloons. Another figure of the mascot was created in the stands by the crowd holding placards above their heads. At the appropriate moment, certain members flipped over their placards thereby animating their Misha and making it cry. The inflatable figure was then allowed to drift off into the sky. TV footage shows grown men and women sobbing. Misha did the job of a mascot by turning everyone into children. Seb Coe still looks slightly dappy when Misha’s name is mentioned.

(Indeed the international success of Misha – its cross Cold War appeal in particular – has not been lost on the organisers of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 who have completely ripped it off. )

What makes Misha so powerful is the sheer schmaltz of it that even Reaganite America failed to match 4 years later. Unexpectedly the Los Angeles organisers  went for Sam, the bald eagle. It could have been so much better, because it was designed by a Walt Disney cartoonist. Yet it was such a flagrant image of American chest puffing even though it was in a cartoon. Every one outside the united states was instantly switched off byan eagle dressed in stars and stripes, called Sam. The kind of thing that Nancy Reagan might see printed on her husbands underpants before she climbed into bed with him.

Sam The Eagle, Los Angeles 1984 Olympics.

This was something of a propaganda defeat to the Americans. A shame because animation was in fact one of the cultural ways in which Russians and Americans managed to communicate with each other at the height of the Cold War. Despite the boycott of Soviet and Eastern Bloc countries of the 1984 Los Angeles games, a group of pioneering animators created a miniature festival of animation within the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. Tale of Tales was chosen as the best animation film of all time. Directed by one of the most famous Russian animators, Yuriy Norshteyn who also made the astounding Little Hedgehog in the Fog, Tale of Tales is a complex story of hope and endurance with a little wolf in it. Americans bowing down before the superiority of Soviet sentimentality.

The Americans learned no lessons from this episode. The worst mascot ever made was the terrifying Izzy which was created for Atlanta 1996. This wasn’t an anthropomorphised animal, but an animated ‘thing’ which reminded many people of a really angry blackcurrant. Its name is supposed to have evolved from the question, ‘what is he?’.

Izzy, Mascot for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Of course, creative teams are looking at an ever shrinking stock of wildlife to choose from, but the recourse to indeterminate ‘things’ is generally ill-advised. The gormless club-footed twins, Athena and Phevos for Athens 2004 were particularly annoying. Although they were meant to refer to ancient Greek dolls they are just avant-garde graphic artist art scribbles – first pioneered by Javier Marischal with Cobi but less successful.

But while Cobi at least had a personality, it strikes the wrong note when compared with Misha. Marischal suggested that his Catalan Sheepdog designed for the Barcelona Games was inspired by Picasso’s interpretations of Velazquez, 58 pictures inspired by Las Meninas currently held in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. This is a claim that one must take at face value, although having seen Las Meninas I was struck more by the rigorous way Picasso had used Velazquez as a testing ground for the synthesis of multiple viewpoints in the high modernist fashion rather than creating handy source material for a cartoon dog.

Las Meninas. After Velazquez by Picasso

Cobi was relatively successful in terms of the way it made claims for Barcelona as a centre for European culture that – during Franco’s reign – it had been kept cruelly apart from. Yet  fictitious characters become memorable because they emerge from narrative drawing cultures. They have to be produced by this to gain independence from it. Misha was the epitome the way Russian folk stories were used to appeal to a new mass audience through motion pictures. The sheer charm of Misha offered a way into a cultural understanding rather than simply a way of generating revenue for licensee sales. These revenue streams are a vital component for the new global games.  Using the value of the dollar in 2000 as a constant  the Olympics scholar Holger Preuss estimates that the money coming into the organising committee of the Munich Games was $5million. For the Athens Games in 2004 it was $85million. But then given that a huge purpose of the Games is also to offer an insight into the host city or nation, a generated cartoon form is not going to tell anyone anything other than here is a place that doesn’t understand story-telling.

Go Wenlock. Go Mandeville. Go on.

For whilst London has done the hard-edged stuff well – the urban masterplanning, the landscaping for the park, the secondary stadiums such as the Handball arena and the Velodrome – but it has failed to do the soft stuff. Wenlock and Mandeville are nothing but animated ball-bags.  Yes, a certain history has been forced on them. Their names refer to the Shropshire village where an early version of the Games was heldand a hospital which pioneered work with paraplegics. Michael Morpurgo was charged with giving them a back story in which the mascots are fashioned from globs of metal by a retired steel worker from Bolton called George. It is a bonkers post- rationalisation of design-by- committee. The online game on the 2012 website, in which you can dress your Wenlock and Mandeville in clothes of your choice, says more. Give these figures some personality, some life.

The reason for this failure is in my opinion, due to a failure of nerve in the face of youth. From Seb Coe down, the Olympic delivery agencies are in constant thrall to the idea of ensuring the Games are attractive to the young people, particularly those of the East End who they have mythologised as the ultimate beneficaries of the London 2012 Games. However, – and here we should look to that bloody logo again, they seem to think that these young people have wildly different values to their own and must therefore be ambushed with bright colours and angular forms or scrotal sacks on legs.

Some of the graphic uses to which Mandeville and Wenlock have been put do have a certain manic attraction. One might expect this though if you were to animate a one-eyed drop of steel but they emerge from no illustrative tradition or even a recognisable design vocabulary. At least the five figures of the Beijing Games in 2008 were legible as manga-esque readings of Chinese mythical figures.   The Chinese figures – which upped the permissable number of mascots to astonishing 5 – was not just a canny act of marketing it also gave the impression that there are an awful lot more Chinese than Greeks or Australians or anyone else for that matter.

But little Mandeville and Wenlock, who manage to be both phallic and sexless, are not even legible within the tradition of gaming. The stout characters of Mario and Sonic were wrought from the limitations of technology during the 1980s and grew as characters as bitrates quickened. Conjuring up an image that looks a bit like it could be a computer character is not quite the same.

I don’t see little Wenlock dressed as a cop as a deeply ironic comment on the militarisation of a city. Before the G4S debacle, the militarisation of London was more about showing off the military at a time when the current government was cutting spending on the armed forces rather than an attempt to subjugate a vassal population. (Indeed Londoners were already pretty acquiescent despite the moaning). The increase in police presence too is more about showing a presence despite the reality of cuts. The fact that little willy Wenlock is dressed up as a policeman is indeed more about cloaking a strange phallus that we arrived at by committee in something familiar. Giving him a cop uniform is a more an attempt to make him recognisable than anything.

If the mascot is a chance for a city to show its soft side to the world, then it is perhaps no wonder I feel sorry for poor little Wenlock. That penis-shaped policeman? He’s us, man. He’s us.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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