As a sporting non-enthusiast and great Olympic cynic, I had been dubious about the Opening Ceremony. I do not follow any sports consistently and have very little sense of patriotism; and so to me, the claim that ‘we’ might win a world cup or premiership or gold medal holds very little resonance. As a result, I struggle to engage with what is persistently and irritatingly dubbed the ‘Olympic spirit’. This, combined with rumours of animals and dancing vegetables being involved, meant that I approached the event with some apprehension.
I remained dubious and a little aghast as BBC coverage began, with the Isle of Wonder’s idyllic country scenes of thatched roofs and Morris dancers. My immediate response – much like, I’m sure, many other people’s – was to wonder how Danny Boyle could have failed so spectacularly to represent contemporary Britain.
My cynicism proved to be unfounded, however, as a cinematic history of the country unfolded, with the five rings of the Olympic flag being forged from scenes of the Industrial Revolution. Two things quickly became apparent: that the Ceremony was to be a celebration of Britain’s rich and varied history; and that its organisers had been determined not to fall into the trap of taking ‘our great nation’ all too seriously. It made a noticeable change from the 2008 Beijing Ceremony; the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who renounced his affiliations with the Beijing Olympics, summed this up well in a Guardian article by saying that “this was about Great Britain; it didn’t pretend it was trying to have global appeal.”
This is quite true. The Ceremony was engineered to make Britons feel warm inside as they reminisced about the best things their country has given them: from great social reforms to the characters of our favourite childhood stories. Some of the most well-known figures including Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and Harry Potter all got a well-deserved mention, with the one notable absentee being Doctor Who. This was surprising, given its almost 50-year history, and (in my opinion) a wasted opportunity for David Tennant to carry the Olympic Torch.
Parts of the ceremony were so obscurely British that it was quite difficult to see how some of the humour would translate. The appearance of Rowan Atkinson in character as Mr Bean during a stirring rendition of Chariots of Fire was nothing short of irreverent. Arguably one of the best moments of the show was the appearance of the Queen alongside Daniel Craig in the BBC’s ‘Happy and Glorious’, before appearing to parachute into the stadium. The corgis were a nice touch:
Of course, not everyone was entirely impressed by the proceedings. The Tory MP Aidan Burley caused a stir by calling the ceremony “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!”
While Burley may have a problem with the politics of the Opening Ceremony, for many of the rest of us, its celebration of multiculturalism and the welfare state was one of the best and most stirring parts of the whole event. It is this that makes it possible to say that Boyle truly did represent the best of Britain. With the NHS being one of the greatest political and social achievements of our history, it is fitting that such a large portion of the ceremony was dedicated to it.
Burley’s politically-incorrect pontificating aside, there are valid criticisms to be made of the event. I was somewhat saddened by the seemingly frivolous representation of contemporary Britain which followed the grand spectacle of the past. The boy-meets-girl narrative and over-emphasis on social networking seemed a bit of a put-down – a tired misunderstanding of The Youth. The superficial love story and incessant photo-taking were a bit tedious and reductive, and seemed an odd contrast which served to show Britain today in a less-than-flattering light.
The musical soundtrack to modern urban life was also lacking; while it was undoubtedly popular at the time of its release, the Sugababes’ ‘Push the Button’ was a somewhat cringe-inducing contrast to the likes of Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, David Bowie and Blur. Many of the tracks chosen stood as testament to some great British musicians, and showed a great diversity of genres – in what other event is Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ heard alongside ‘In Dulci Jubilo’? I was shocked not to see an appearance from Elton John, among others, but I wonder if the organisers are holding something back for the Closing Ceremony.
This aside, the 3-hour-long event was an incredible spectacle. Credit must be given to Boyle for balancing all of the different elements of the Ceremony so well; it was an achievement to be able to flit between imposing industrial scenes to comedy to a tribute to the victims of the 7/7 bombings without seeming flippant. This, in particular, was very moving, as was the appearance of Muhammad Ali during the presentation of the Olympic flag.
All-in-all, the Opening Ceremony felt like Britain was having a huge and wonderful in-joke with itself. It was quintessentially British, grand and hilarious in equal measure, and left me wondering whether any other nation would have taken the same approach. Ai famously said of Beijing in 2008 that “the Olympics did not bring joy to the people”; this year, the reaction could not be more different.
Does all of this mean that I have been caught up in the ‘Olympic spirit’? I’m afraid not. But I am pleased to have been able to join in with some of the joy of the event, despite my aversion to sport and political scepticism. For now, I shall go back to ignoring the proceedings, with the exception of a passing interest in one or two events; but I am now convinced that the Closing Ceremony will be one not to miss.
Image: Nick J Webb on Flickr