The ceremony was a complete triumph for Danny Boyle, his team, the performers and participants and everyone in the UK. Well done to all. This was a moment of pride in a time of worry and concern.
The negatives: carpers and critics have pointed out a Utopian view of Britain, a socialist agenda and a paean to multiculturalism. All this may be true. Yes, the ceremony did not tell us about the problems with the NHS, the railways, housing or social unrest. Please tell me any Olympic ceremony in the past which dwelt on the negatives.
The Olympics is not just a big athletics meeting as Peter Hitchens has written in his inimitable lugubrious and Scrooge-like style. It is a festival of the human family. Flawed, yes, nevertheless it aspires to show us the best of ourselves and to make us feel good about who we are and what we can be. We all know the negative aspects of human behaviour and these are very much on show at the Olympics. So what’s the harm in trying to inject some inspiration, some honest sentiment, national pride?
Israel: I have already written about the IOC’s refusal to remember the 40th anniversary of the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches and a German policeman at the Munich Olympics in 1972. This omission was highlighted by a brief silence for the dead of all conflicts and a fitting tribute to the victims of the 7/7 London bombings which occurred the day after the Olympic bid was won.
One view is that if this had been commemorated it could have resulted in the walk out of Arab and Muslim states and protests at the ceremony itself. So best not to highlight Israel’s isolation. I don’t agree: if there are still people on this planet who believe that kidnapping, hostage-taking and murder and the desecration of the Olympic ideal are not a heinous crime, whatever the excuse or motivation, then the countries that those people represent should be banned from competition.
The Lebanese judo players requested a barrier be placed between them and the Israeli team at their practice venue before the games. A Tunisian competitor who was scheduled to compete against an Israeli has developed a mystery affliction and withdrawn. Indeed, I expect the Israelis to find that many Muslim and Arab competitors are afflicted not by a mystery disease but an ancient and, apparently, incurable one – Jew Hatred. What other country now or in the past has had to put up with this nonsense. The IOC should act against countries which will not compete with Israelis or anyone else on political grounds. I seem to recall that the two Koreas once played a World Cup match and so did the two Germanies before reunification. Iraq played Iran, too, at football.
Only Israel is so monstrous a nation that to even make eye contact with its nationals is enough to afflict your immune system.
But back to the ceremony.
What I really loved about it was that it catered more for the Brits than outsiders. It was full of references and in-jokes which would have completely baffled all but the most serious Anglophiles (or should that be Brittanophiles?). It was the quirky, British TV comedy aspect of it and the fact that we ‘got it’ and others wouldn’t that made it special.
They said Bejing could not be bettered. What Boyle did was not to try to compete with what was essentially a high-tech extravaganza. He completely changed the paradigm; indeed, he subverted the whole accepted notion of what an opening ceremony should be.
For me the highlight came early. Sir Kenneth Branagh emerged from a horse-driven London omnibus as Isambard (which the BBC commentator strangely pronounced ‘Eisembard’) Kingdom Brunel (what a glorious unBritish name that is) replete with signature cigar and stovepipe hat. The look on Branagh’s face was a mixture of pride, self-esteem and wonder. He proceeded to the grass mound at centre of the stadium and declaimed in the best traditions of British Shakespearean theatre:
‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again’
Branagh’s rendition, especially those last nine words, was spine-tingling. I’ve listened to it four times already and it never fails to send shivers down my spine.
Branagh’s choice as Brunel was masterful and his performance perfection. These are the words of Caliban in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. The conflation of Brunel as Caliban was strange, but worked. Better Caliban than the Taliban, you might say.
In this context it is a whimsical reference and welcome to the British Isles, even, perhaps its weather. It is, essentially, an invitation to behold a dream sequence, a journey of the imagination which we are about to encounter. And surely the Olympics contain that sense of awe and wonder, fear and trepidation which pass so quickly and become as if a dream of remembered common experience. This was a brilliant and deeply moving moment accompanied by the soaring music of Elgar (Nimrod from the Enigma Variations) – who else. Kitsch? Of course, but wonderful kitsch.
Perhaps, only those of us with a true British nervous system could be moved by this combustive association of Bard, engineer par excellence and imperial music-making.
Other highlights were the unique participation of the Queen in the humour of the opening. Arriving by parachute, apparently, with Daniel Craig in his James Bond persona. Rowan Atkinson and the Chariots of Fire sequence with an ageing Mr Bean hamming it up in true Brit fashion.
I can understand criticism of the NHS sequence where Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee seem to have taken over Great Ormond Street. A clever conflation again of the JM Barrie Peter Pan legacy, the world of children’s books (even JK Rowling put in an appearance) and those NHS antics. The NHS sequence would be anathema to Americans who can’t understand how or why the State should provide something for nothing. And there are many in this country who would agree. But the NHS is a major presence in the lives of the British, for better or for worse and a cornerstone of post War Socialist Britain which even the Tories have pledged to support. Yet, it does seem a little strange to make it part of an Olympic opening ceremony.
I could have done without Sir Paul McCartney. Love him as I do, he is now past his singing sell-by date as he demonstrated at the Diamond Jubilee.
I urge you to replay this ceremony and pause the action frequently to appreciate the richness of texture and the multitude of cultural references woven into the tapestry of the production:
Wind in the Willows, Eastenders, a glimpse of Olympic medallists of bygone years, Pink Floyd, Fawlty Towers and, gloriously, the Rugby Union national teams woven into the national songs of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom.
And then the gobsmackingly awesome forging of the Olympic rings and the Up Helly Aa finale of flame lighting adding a certain Niebelung feel to the occasion which is not inappropriate given the country’s Germanic, Celtic and pagan roots. Even the uprooting of the tree on the replica Glastonbury Tor had a whiff of Yggdrasil about it. It all came perilously close to Nuernberg in the 1930s but kept enough distance to keep such thoughts in the background.
Now then. Shami Chakrabarti. WTF! Never mind, the surreal experience of Shami, Ban Ki Moon and Muhammad Ali in the same shot made it all worthwhile.
I love the atmosphere at these games. I love the Benny Hill music amid the soft porn sand pit that is the Beach Volleyball arena on the hallowed ground of Horse Guards Parade. I love waking up to see archery at my old stamping ground of Lords Cricket Ground and I love the sheer incongruity of an Olympic cycle race through West London. I love the Americans not understanding it all and insisting on renaming things such as The Tower Bridge.
It’s bonkers, it’s charming it’s the Olympics as an end of pier show but it’s British and it makes you proud.