It’s not often I see a presentation of the United Kingdom actually represents the country I live in, but last night’s Opening Ceremony was close. True, there was a little too much texting and scones but I still recognised the place being portrayed.
The beginning, which incorporated the Thames, the tube, some clash and a pan out to London so we could get the Eastenders ‘doofers’ set the tone perfectly. A bit silly, but at it’s heart the certainties of geography with Father Thames flowing through a city that has changed so much and so little over the last 2,000 years.
The first bit didn’t speak to me particularly. I am quite comfortably a city dweller and all bucolic, pretty countrysidey stuff makes me think that someone will shortly be ritually murdered and morris-danced on. I also find that the whole Betjeman/Major ‘shady girls bicycling through sleepy lanes’ type of nostalgia is cloying and a bit vacant. That said, filling a stadium with shire horses and geese and that is a beautifully daft thing to do.
Our countrysidey bit didn’t last long though, soon a smug Kenneth Brannagh in sculptured sideboards signalled the industrial revolution. Grey workers skulked out from under the big oak tree like freddies under a rock and belching factory towers thrust forth from the ground and there are lots of drums. The drums are lead by a deaf drummer with wild hair and they make lots of noise, people bustle and hammer and such. Eventually the chaos erupts with a Thames on fire and the smelting of a last ring that is hoisted up to make the Olympic symbol. This is the first part where I am confronted by more than just spectacle. Although we are presented with the traditional ‘dark satanic mills’ image, the pandemonium is not just smoke and smell and chaos, it’s creativity. It argues that the industrial revolution was a creative act and that art comes from chaos and individuality. We also had a march of Jarrow Workers, Suffragettes and others, implying that the chaos also created moves in individual freedoms and that something like the industrial revolution was necessary. Of course a huge ceremony is not the place to discuss the repercussions of the upheavals of the nineteenth century, but I found it at least a little more nuanced than the usual fairy tale, taking in the practical benefits as well as the downside.
Is it at this point that James Bond and the Queen parachuted into the stadium? I can’t remember. I liked that bit, it was a silly bit of grandstanding which gave the Queen a decent entrance without pomp and a big cheeky wink. That’s almost like the public face of Britain, the act of suave urbanity and daredevil lack of deference.
Then there was the whole NHS/clean your whites whiter than white/Mary Poppins vs Voldemort bit. As a premature child with very little chance of survival and not rich parents, I do not find myself being very cynical when it comes to the NHS. I thought it very apt to celebrate the NHS as representative of modern England and the social experiments and advances that have happened post war. It is a way of celebrating Britain’s more modern successes, a success that doesn’t rely on war or jingoism. I also liked the link to children’s literature via Great Ormond Street. I particularly liked the choice of children’s literature, as that allowed us to ignore the issues of cannon or rely on our cliched greats and pick literature that is accessible, well known, produced by both sexes and still going strong today. Like the NHS element, it allowed celebration of modern Britain, not harking back to old glories but also not imagining some non-existent yoof renaissance. It also allowed for some fun as flocks of Mary Poppi repelled Voldemort, Captain Hook and Cruella DeVille. It managed to celebrate our social successes and culture without being at all pompous or cliched.
And if it approached pompous, there was always the LSO/Rowan Atkinson sketch to debunk it.
Next was the bit with the music. This did veer a little towards a Channel 4 ‘Yoof Season’ ident but was saved by three things. The first was that the music was a full 30 odd years of pop-picking Gold, we didn’t get the old story of today’s youth, we got the music to provide a throughline to youth of the past years. The story was cute, the kiss was lovely and the couple were nice together - it seemed quite lovely to have a little romance scene in the middle of it all. Finally, the link between music and technology with the reveal of Berners-Lee sitting at his white boxes. If the last section was about the past, than this was about the future. A future that managed to be optimistic without being utopian, namely that we’ve had good music in the past and will probably get more to come and that things will get increasingly digitally connected.
Then was the parade of peoples, apparently Fiji came out to the Beejees, but I didn’t pick up on that.
And at the end the extremely beautiful olympic flame thing, the use of young athletes to light the flame and the wheeling on of some old codgers to hang around, and in one case, sing.
Not the perfect ceremony, some of it was muddled and much of it was odd, but as a presentation of this country as it is now, with very little sentiment and a nice bundle of funny stuff, I don’t think it could have been any more appropriate.
For a completely different but very interesting reading of the ceremony click here.