on the outside, looking in: the Olympics Opening Ceremony

I’ve seen a lot of reactions to the Olympic Opening Ceremony this weekend: most of them British, and ranging from offers of knighthoods and marriage proposals to Danny Boyle, to people wishing to disown their Englishness so as not to be associated with it.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the most positive reactions came from either Britons themselves, or Americans (whose Anglophilia can be ardent, if a little unrealistic). People felt proud of themselves, of their country’s history, of the spectacle, art, and music involved – and rightly so. Boyle’s production was a history lesson disguised in performance art, a tribute to the Everyman and Everywoman wrapped in a big sparkly bow.

From the outside, it was a fantastic show to watch. The clear promotion of equality, working-class values, and left-wing politics shown was a  good reminder of the things that – in the eyes of a lot of the world – are the very best of the United Kingdom. For a ceremony associated with the biggest sporting festival in the world, the emphasis was very far from sport. Shakespeare, Barrie, Rowling, Travers, Blake, and Lewis all took their places on a stage that owed more to Tolkien than anyone else. Kenneth Branagh’s powerful, warm turn as Isambard Kingdom Brunel announced the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee played the role of spiritual godchild, sitting at his computer and live-tweeting ‘THIS IS FOR EVERYONE’.

And it was.  Between the lesbian kiss in the rom-com montage, the amount of people of colour in starring roles, and the celebration of the public health system, the message was equality and inclusion. To quote from Boyle’s own introductory text:

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state,  through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

I can’t really say what I expected from the ceremony before it began. I’m quite a big fan of Danny Boyle’s work, especially his visuals (Sunshine, in particular, is one of the most visually striking films I’ve ever seen). It was always going to be spectacular, in the truest sense of the word – a blinding, deafening, all-inclusive, overwhelming spectacle. Not for Boyle the stereotypical image of England as a refined, under-emotional nation: from the very beginning, a young boy singing Jerusalem solo and unaccompanied, emotion – in fact, a pure and unanticipated depth of feeling – was centre-stage. The tribute to the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks, set to traditional hymn Abide With Me, was brilliantly moving; the surreal battle of characters from beloved children’s books provoked a deep and filling joy.
Britain’s history is not all rosy – as an Irishwoman I’m in a pretty good position to judge that – but its contribution to the world in the fields of film, art, literature, technology, music, and yes, sport, is inestimable. Perhaps the Opening Ceremony weighed a little heavy on what Jem at Quite Irregular calls ‘export product’:

In fact, James Bond, J.R.R Tolkien, Shakespeare, the NHS, J.K. Rowling, Churchill and Mr. Bean all have one thing in common: they’re export product.  Each of them are represent Britain more to the outside world than they necessarily do to most British people.

but much of it played a double role, in any case: provoking British national pride, and intimating to the rest of us that London  will consider its third Olympics an achievement to match any past event. The societal tropes are easy to read and recall, but I think what made the Opening Ceremony so enjoyable to watch was the sly sense of humour with which Boyle dissected things that could have played as stuffy and clichéd. James Bond appears, but he’s not drinking cocktails and seducing pretty girls; he’s accompanying the Queen to parachute out of a helicopter (sadly, leaving the Corgis behind). We get a bit of Notting Hill, but we also get a kiss from Shrek; Jerusalem and Chariots of Fire, but also the Sex Pistols, Rolling Stones, The Who, and a live turn from the Arctic Monkeys, including a Beatles cover.

I’ll interrupt myself here to say that one of the few bum notes all evening was Paul McCartney’s somewhat rambling version of Hey Jude. It’s definitely a good sing-along song for a multi-national gathering – who doesn’t at least know the chorus? – but I would have preferred Macca to leave it with ‘and in the end, the love you take//is equal to the love you make‘.

All in all, Boyle’s show was enjoyable  and grand, and he will deserve any award he earns for it. Much of this ceremony showed the very best side of Britain, and I think any country would be proud to have acquitted itself so well.

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One thought on “on the outside, looking in: the Olympics Opening Ceremony

  1. Pingback: berks to the left of me, wankers to the right « Eppur Si Muove

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