The Greatest Show on Earth

9 August 2012

Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was mad, self-indulgent, occasionally brilliant and very, very British.

With the London Olympics almost at an end and memories of the Danny Boyle-directed Opening Ceremony soon to fade from view as we limber up for Sunday’s Closing Ceremony, this blog post feels a little too late on the uptake to be relevant, and very much like last week’s conversation. Nonethless, the Olympics has provided a fascinating insight into how Britain, my adopted country of residence, sees itself on the world stage, what cultural qualities it considers to be its best selling points, and how surprisingly powerful its competitive streak and need for world domination still is.

With an audience of billions, watched from all over the world, the Opening Ceremony was one of the biggest theatrical events of the modern era. Olympic opening ceremonies, like the rock concerts and music videos on which they’re based, have become progressively more spectacular with the passing of each four-year period, and now come laden with expectations that they will reflect something profound and meaningful (and hopefully entertaining) about the host city of the Games. In the lead-up to this year’s ceremony, Boyle and the London Games organisers commented repeatedly on the scarily high standards set by the 2008 Beijing Games, described by many as an impossible act to follow. In her review of the London ceremony, The New York Times critic Sarah Lyall noted:

As is the case almost every Olympics, much of the speculation around it centered on how Britain could possibly surpass the previous summer host, China. In 2008, Beijing used its awe-inspiring opening extravaganza to proclaim in no uncertain terms that it was here, it was rich, and the world better get used to it.

Another New York Times writer, Alessandra Stanley, also reviewing the London ceremony, contrasted the Beijing ceremony thus:

The Chinese government had so much to prove. The 2008 extravaganza, with all those waves of drill teams, dancers and drummers, thousands of anonymous performers synchronized to represent the invention of movable type printing, was a paean to regimentation, discipline and collective self-effacement that was magnificent, awe-inspiring and unenviable.

Much too was made in the build-up to the Games of the impossible balancing act that Boyle, his co-director Stephen Daldry and the ceremony organisers were charged with performing: launching the Games with a ceremony of suitable gravitas and exuberance but without being needlessly extravagant, especially in an age of economic recession, government cuts to public spending, a depressed housing market, rising unemployment and (latterly) a non-existent British summer.

The result was entertaining, self-parodic, often very silly, and had a few genuinely wow-inducing theatrical set pieces, but was, for a non-British audience anyway, largely incomprehensible. Beginning with an idealised depiction of the English pastoral – suspiciously mud-free milkmaids in gingham aprons and bonnets, sheep gambolling over astroturf pastures, children dancing around maypoles, an Arthurian oak tree on Glastonbury Tor, with William Blake’s secular hymn Jerusalem sung by choirs in the background. It’s the kind of pre-industrialised fantasy of the countryside that the British love to recreate endlessly in costume dramas like Cranford, or recalled endlessly in musical form at the Last Night of the Proms. It’s doubtful that England was ever like this, but still the myth persists in Britain’s now almost entirely urban cultural consciousness: it’s The Way We Never Were.

Smashing through the idyll was Kenneth Branagh (standing in for Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance, who had a family bereavement) playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a Victorian engineer and industrialist, reciting – bizarrely, the monster Caliban’s “isles of wonder” speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (which was, apparently) Boyle’s launching pad for the opening scene of the ceremony). Cue the ripping up of the astroturf and the sudden removal of the sheep (where they went to exactly I’m not sure, but I’m hoping they didn’t end up as kebabs in the Olympic Village food stores), and the forging of the “dark Satanic mills” mentioned in Blake’s poem. The speed and violence of the set change made for a suitably striking set piece, and underscored the first of Boyle’s many leftie political statements. As the mighty smoke-belching chimneys rose and rose, Branagh and his top-hatted cronies rubbed their money-making hands with glee, and the sweaty-faced, coal smeared workers looked suitably alienated and exploited, forced to forge five steel rings to form the Olympic ensignia, we realised we were in an accelerated musical version of Marxist dialectic. The Victorian-era movement from an agrarian community to an industrial economy made Britain great, but was brutalising for common people, sowing the seeds of another century’s worth of social protest. Cue the entrance of suffragettes, striking miners, Caribbean immigrants and soldiers (mixed rather confusingly with Sgt Pepper-era Beatles lookalikes) steaming onto the stage to observe a brief silence in commemmoration of the First World War. So far, so baffling.

This section (named “Pandemonium”, after the poet Milton’s name for Hell in Paradise Lost) managed to be both over-obvious and almost incomprehensible, relying on a narrative from a TV broadcaster to make any sense at all. Depending on your point of view, this was a massive failure on Boyle’s part to convey a coherent narrative and a sloppy tendency to play fast and loose with the historical record, or a sign of supreme confidence that whimsy, theatrical pytotechnics and a few period sheep would be a satisfying spectacle in itself. The New York Times critics opted for the latter: Stanley surmised that “Britain offered a display of humour and humbleness that can only stem from a deep-rooted sense of superiority”, identifying cannily that the ceremony didn’t make sense because its British organisers simply didn’t think it needed to.

But whether you liked it or loathed it, the opening section was the most dramatically satisfying and coherent part of the ceremony, which after that point, exploded into a messy, chaotic series of tableaux, again and again featuring an irritating wink to British audiences in the know that would have been incomprehensible to anyone else. A giant smiley face spelt out “GOSH”, the initials of the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the start of a bewilderingly random tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, featuring dancing nurses and children on giant neon-lit hospital beds, culminating in the delivery of a creepy-looking giant baby.

“Does Britain think it’s the only country in the world that has a national health service?”, my friend Chris asked via text message after the ceremony. Of course it does – but the solopsism of the moment was lost on most of the British media, who enthusiastically applauded Boyle’s pro-NHS stance, especially in the light of the Conservative government’s latest round of cuts to public services. (The next day, the London Evening Standard wondered whether Boyle’s paean to the NHS had “saved” the service for another 10 or 20 years). But wait – there’s more! Boyle made another hairpin transition from Great Ormond Street Hospital into a tribute to children’s literature: GOSH was the main beneficiary of the will of J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, so Boyle dutifully sent in flying multiple versions of heroes and villains from a century’s worth of British children’s books: Tinkerbell, Mary Poppins, the Child Catcher and Lord Voltemort all featured, with more retrograde (ie., racist) characters like Big Ears the golliwog from Enid Blyton’s Noddy books noticeably absent. Again, what it lacked in perspective or coherence (or even relevance, given that we were here to mark the opening of a sporting event), it made up for in dazzling stagecraft and exuberence, but Boyle’s reluctance to explain his narrative was once again puzzling and frustrating.

The last section of the ceremony was a nostalgia-heavy romp through 60 years of post-WWII youth and pop culture, which the New York Times‘ Stanley noted was “a [confident] celebration of individuality, idiosyncrasy and even lunacy…. favour[ing] pop music, movies, make believe and Britain’s top export: celebrities”. It certainly started with a bang: Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean character performed an amusing visual comedy routine, boring himself to death as he played the low staccato note of Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire theme (perhaps a sign of the relentless boredom to come as the theme was played endlessly before every medal ceremony at the Games). And in the ceremony’s wittiest moment, a video clip of the Queen greeting a suited Daniel Craig with a self-amused “Good evening, Mr Bond” segued to a real-life aerial display where Queeny and Bond appeared to parachute into the stadium (performed, of course, by stunt doubles). The real-life Queen, in the same outfit but looking considerably grumpier than her video counterpart, and took her seat with that lock-jawed expression of determination that she assumes when she knows she’s supposed to look interested but would rather be at home with her feet on a couple of servants and knocking back a gin and tonic. The BBC coverage featured a few brilliantly timed cutaways to HRH, at one point looking more interested in what was underneath her fingernails than in listening to deaf children signing the words to “God Save the Queen”.

Alas, the wit and subversion – if it was ever there before – went downhill quickly. The final musical montage was linked by an insubstantial and seemingly endless narrative of a boy and a girl texting each other on a night out in Manchester, as dancers shimmied their way through music hits from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and Naughties – including a prominent moment for Underworld, who scored several of Boyle’s films including Trainspotting. It was fun, brash and feel-good, but its weightlessless and lack of critical sentiment made it feel better suited to a TV ad for wireless broadband. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was singled out for a round of applause, which felt touching but completely random. And in what became an inevitable Baby Boomer-friendly finale, former Beatle Paul McCartney, fresh from an underwhelming performance at the Queen’s Jubilee Concert, was wheeled out to lead a stadium-wide singalong of Hey Jude.

Predictably, the show attracted adjectives like “quirky”, “silly”, “eccentric”, “feel-good” and “insane” (or the British equivalent, “bonkers”), though Stanley in the New York Times commented more archly that “the cheesy, kaleidoscopic history lesson… was like a Bollywood version of a sixth-grade play.” But mostly the critics were impressed: Lyall’s review for the New York Times concludes that “Britain present itself to the world Friday night as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.”

On that point, I’d disagree. It was fun, certainly, and if nothing else it distinguished itself from the opening ceremonies of Beijing – or, indeed, of the Fascist spectacles of Berlin in 1936, the troubling legacy of the Olympics against which all future Games have attempted to steel themselves. And it was, in its way, a radical statement in that it avoided the more obvious forms of British nostalgia for Queen and Country, or sighed longingly over its past military victories and the good-old-bad-old days of the Empire, when a quarter of the world was coloured pink in the atlas, and instead tried to tell a history of the common people. But for me, Boyle missed an opportunity to tell the story of Britain as it is now. The ceremony themes were still focused on the past rather than the present, and still drawing largely from white middle-class cultural references. East London rapper Dizzee Rascal provided one of the few moments of recognition of urban black culture in modern Britain – though his choice of song, “Bonkers”, seemed an apt description of the ceremony itself. As a child of the former Empire myself, I was deeply troubled by the almost total lack of recognition of the Commonwealth (as we’re now more diplomatically known). I sensed a reticience in Boyle’s production to go near anything smacking of “traditional” British patriotism, or which might lead to cross words with the many former states of the Empire waiting to march into the stadium with their national flags – many still bearing the Union Jack but now very much independent from Britain. That being said, blanking the Empire and its past and continued contribution to modern Britain seemed like a strange move – short-sighted at best, and arrogant and cowardly at worst. Perhaps he knew that nothing he could devise theatrically would be as thrilling or moving a spectacle as the Parade of Nations – watching stunningly beautiful and fabulously dressed athletes from all over the world walking into the Olympic Stadium, their eyes lighting up as they saw an applauding audience of 80,000 people and the splendour and wealth of the developed world. Theatre is seldom as good as real life.

Still, if you want coherence about British history, read a textbook (just not anything by Niall Ferguson, who I’m sure would favour the return of the Raj and women being addressed by their coloured servants as “memsahib”). If you want fun spectacle, great pop tunes and nervous self-reflexive humour in place of self-awareness or seriousness, then call Danny Boyle, a director whose films continually demonstrate a bouyancy and positivity even the grimmest material (heroin addiction in Trainspotting, child trafficking and poverty in Slumdog Millionaire, self-amputation in 127 Hours). For two hours, anyway, he managed to unite the world in a collective sense of “What the f*ck…?” and the occasional smile. Given the grim state of the world right now, we might just let him get away with the Opening Ceremony as a fun but distracting one-night stand, where the fun lasts for an hour or so after the last orgasm. But let’s not pretend that this was anything like a satisfying reflection on British national identity, which is something that Britain still desperately needs – even if it won’t admit it.

I really did love the dancing nurses, though.


  1. Intelligent and rigorous. But why are you so desperate for the Brits to find a national identity? What I liked was that it gave us permission not to be coherent – we are a jumble that works even though it’s messy. If we are quirky and unclassifiable, that is how we like to be (although that is, of course, a classification of sorts) There is a place for sober reflection on the uglier parts of our history – but it would have been bad form to do it during what was supposed to be a celebration. I rather liked the point that the FT made – Charles Darwin didn’t get a mention. And was it REALLy left wing? There was nothing that Camerons would have been able to object to publicly – and the the industrialists produced the golden olympic rings – so they were heroes of a kind. I think the NHS point is an interesting one – the reason it is so totemic is that America doesn’t have one and seems to think that having one (like rational gun control laws) is a offence against personal liberty. : where definiing ourselves gets difficult is that we want to be different from America – but not yet part of Europe either. I think what Boyle cleverly achieved was a demonstration of a quirkiness that was so voluminous that it embraced the whole world at the same time as excluding it (most people would have picked up on some but not the majority of his allusions) just as it was an act of self deprecation that is really an assertion of superiority, aggression disguised as modesty. Or maybe it was all a bi pathetic – perhaps the rest of the world indulges the Brits in their delusions because they are more amusing that way? Whatever, I would compeltely disagree that real life – apart one’s own – is more interesting than theatre

    1. Thanks for your equally intelligent and rigorous response. I’m not sure that the desperation to find a national identity started with me – I think that started with Boyle & Co making bold statements about nationhood in the Ceremony itself. If they’re going to put their versions of Britishness out there, then it seems reasonable to respond in kind. I’m not sure that I like “quirkiness” as a national trope: we’re talking about a country, not a heart-warming indie film premiering at Sundance. Boyle was smart to use humour in the ceremony – belly laughs (and to a lesser extent, whimsy) are usually reliable communication tools, especially for a globally televised theatrical event where the audience won’t always speak the home language. The Mr Bean segment worked especially well, because his kind of physical comedy has a universal appeal, and Rowan Atkinson is (scarily) a global brand. But even then his sketch was an ironic in-joke for the British (“Look at how funny we are taking the mickey out of our beloved “Chariots of Fire” theme!”) which grated slightly. The rest was an incoherent jumble, which on one level created a fun circus-like atmosphere, but also suggests a deep-rooted anxiety about national identity that got pasted over with pop culture nostalgia. Still, maybe that IS Britain in the modern age: anxious, conflict-avoiding, and ready for a big boozy party at any moment. So in the end Boyle DID get it right.

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