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The Olympics Opening Ceremony – Danny Boyle gives us wonders and wonder





The Olympics Opening Ceremony – Danny Boyle + Cast of Thousands

“Your Majesty, your Majesties, your Royal Highnesses, President Rogge, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.” In an excellent speech Seb Coe made one serious ‘kick-yourself-afterwards’ omission: his hierarchical list missed out just one group – but the most important to the wonderful spirit of a memorable evening – the children. The thousands of children in the crowd and major contributors to Danny Boyle’s inspirational army of unpaid volunteers, deserved a separate mention in the formal litany of class now universally accepted as the inviolate rule of courtesy on such occasions. Indeed this iron-clad rule of propriety is so quintessentially British in its mixture of polite respect and deference – it was oddly apposite for the occasion.

This is how it is done. Especially with perhaps the largest gathering in one place of people of historically genuine Royal Blood the world will ever see.

No political or ideological moan here dear reader: merely a philosophical observation about the animal instinct which all life, human or not, appears to share – the need and desire for hierarchy. As much part of our innate make up as is the drive to eternally surpass each other by running, jumping and swimming ever faster, longer and higher.

Anything truly capturing something of what it is to be British will be, must be, paradoxical. Danny Boyle’s brilliantly realised vision was aspirational, inspirational, proud, ironic – and with the confidence born of a nation that has both learned how to desire and acquire power, and how to to suspect it – irreducibly human and personal in spirit. The warmth, generosity of commitment and spirit of willing, un-coerced citizens uniting in a peaceful common cause exploded across the Stadium and the world last night in a palpable, irresistible way that made one not only proud to be British – but absolutely justified in feeling so.

As delicious counterpoint to the formal hierarchy of convention was the wonderful way eminent figures like Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim committed themselves with grace and rare good humour to the spirit of proceedings. Rattle was brilliantly unperturbed when his leadership of the London Philharmonic in a rendition of Chariots of Fire, had its viscerally stirring tone utterly sabotaged ad absurdum by Rowan Atkinson’s ineffably droll Mr Bean. Not just British – but sublimely so. No nation on earth….one was tempted to think: not in the humour, but in its cherishable self-mockery that leaves nothing reduced or demeaned. And at last something to rival Andre Previn and Morecombe and Wise.

It was also impressive and heartening to see one of the world’s great musicians give witness to his untiring commitment to peace with Daniel Barenboim’s dash from a sold out concert hall to help carry a flag in London’s East End. So too with UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon.

If Danny-Boy is, as he will now be called, a genius; that lies not in the outrageously inventive realisation of his vision before a billion people around the world – but in persuading the Queen to participate in a slyly seductive Bond-spoof that had her accompanied by 007 apparently arriving at the stadium by parachute. Superb casting too: if you want a never-crack-up, dead-pan foil for this resonant visual joke – the Queen’s your girl. Never in 60 devoted public years has a wayward grin or uncontrolled smile escaped that resolute, sometimes stony-seeming face. When one sees pictures of the young princesses Margaret and Elizabeth laughing and giggling naturally together and knowing of Margaret’s wicked sense of humour; one’s frustration that this extraordinary lady can’t crack a smile even for a billion watchers takes on the air of one of life’s many small tragedies.

No slouch himself in the unsmiling contest, though definitely silver to the Queen’s Gold, IOC Chief Jacques Rogge was generous to Britain’s Olympic and especially sporting history as perhaps only a Belgian can be, echoing as he did, the words of French founder of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin. Indeed the organisers showed an apparent subtle sensibility towards the losing applicants for the 2012 Games with all live announcements made first in French. One wonders what the real reason was. But in making the rejection of drugs and especially highlighting the first Games with every national team including women, Rogge’s heart if not his charisma was in the right place.

Boyle’s dramatic physical representation of the Britain’s rapid transition from agricultural to the first truly industrial society was darkly powerful and should have resonated with those people in modern China able to see it, as they undergo the same uncontrolled process and its human price, 2 centuries later. More pastiche than historically literal, Kenneth Branagh’s Brunel was physically impressive but oddly saddled with one of Shakespeare’s more Delphic quotes whose connection with the impressively staged tableaux needed more explanation than the BBC’s pedestrian Huw Edwards saw fit to give us. The likeable Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who scripted the show, apparently provided a commentary on events but Edwards didn’t seem to make much use of it.

Much music inevitably: the Arctic Monkeys offered I thought a fairly ordinary 2 song set that didn’t really connect with proceedings very much. Scotland’s Emili Sande’s rendition of Abide with Me was powerful and affecting accompaniment to some resonantly dramatic dancing in the arena. I thought the segment paying tribute to Britain’s contribution to music was too cluttered and lacked variety in pace and tone. But I accept there’s nothing more personal than taste in pop music.

The celebration of the NHS through focus on Great Ormond Street was paradoxically full of life and exuberant good health. And rightly so. It’s a shame that the ethical and social spirit of the NHS was not explicitly explained to a world where much medical treatment is left to market forces. But the wonderfully pumped 100s of delightful kids trampolining on their beds would have warmed the coldest heart. The segue from NHS into children’s literature introduced by J.K Rowling worked well with the dark side of good children’s books nicely manifested by a scary, giant Lord Voldemort.

Boyle was apparently impressed with the quote “The world does not lack wonders, it lacks wonder.” Well he provided both in this cleverly conceived and brilliantly realised show: from flying Mary Poppins’ to beautiful luminescent cycling, circling representations of doves. But we watched, truly in wonder, at the iconic sequence of the forging of the first of 5 Olympic rings seemingly impossibly linked up in the sky above the stadium. One of those things we witness that fill us up emotionally and brings a tear we can’t categorize in any way other than wonder, to the eye.

If the forging of the rings was the highlight of the first half, after the dramatic hiatus of the entry of the athletes, tension built up again to the arrival of the Olympic flame and lighting of the cauldron. One momentarily feared this might be the cock-up of the Games: we’d all, literally, seen the torches and the flames but “shh, don’t tell anyone, someone’s forgotten the bloody cauldron” – “oh sh*t I thought you were doing the cauldron”. In all the fuss about who was going to light the bloody thing it was beginning to look as if there was no bloody thing to light.

When in doubt drag Beckham out. Looking like James Bond’s better-looking younger brother Becks got to race the torch by speedboat the length of the Thames to be appropriately accepted by our greatest Olympian Steven Redgrave. (We accepted without demur the choreography of this for if he’d kept going from when he started to when he delivered the torch he could have reached Belgium). But then in a beautifully conceived and choreographed ceremony the torch was handed on from the older generation of Olympians to aspiring young athletes: 7 torches were used to light up the 200+ vessels carried in to the stadium by each country and assembled at its heart. When first lit, this created a circle of fire that seemed to extend almost to the edges of the arena. A passing thought that this was likely to cause a few problems for the spear-chuckers and egg-and-spoon carriers was soon dispelled when our underused wonder-buds were again sated with the absolutely extraordinary and deeply symbolic sight of this most beautiful functional sculpture, built up from elements provided by every competing nation, converging into a breath-taking cauldron of fire to preside over the serious sporting business of the next two weeks. Magnifique! Magnificent.

Nearly there and mercifully no Sir Cliff in sight (sorry that was bit mean). How to end? After the wondrous rings and cauldron, a dramatic crescendo was a non-starter. So in the only bad judgement of the night they wheeled out dear old Paul with the turgid dirge of Hey Jude, perhaps the worst song he ever wrote with gibberish lyrics and nowadays distinctly wobbly pitch even without the intro-cock-up where either Sir Paul had to catch up with the band or vice versa. Frankly Jude isn’t a show-stopper it’s a mind-number. If we wanted an anthemic, sentimental, harmlessly anodyne sing-a-long why not All You Need Is Love, that after all was premiered live for the first world-wide satellite broadcast years ago.

Given the magnificence of what went before the ending could be nothing but bathetic; it’s just a pity than on a night of aspiration, innovation, flair and confidence in the future either Sir Paul, or someone could not have done better than this clunky old dirge.

Mind you – if she hears it any more the Queen will soon know the words. Then we can at least dispense with the only dirgier tune in music – the national anthem.

Well done Danny – the Knighthood’s in the post. And the Queens agent says to give him a call. She’s got the bug.

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