I watched the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics with a mixture of trepidation and awe. It certainly was spectacular, what with the thousands of volunteers making the night memorable as part of the show for the privileged who got a seat. It was an impressive collection of star power, with Rowan Atkinson donning his Mr. Bean role as part of the London Symphony Orchestra playing Chariots of Fire, Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the Internet,) the royal family, and yes, the queen parachuting in with Daniel Craig as James Bond.
Music performers included Sir Paul McCartney, Mike Oldfield, Dizzee Rascal, and Emeli Sande. There were also nods to the UK’s vast musical legacy, which included everything from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols, from pop to punk.
The set began with idyllic countryside, with actual grassy hills and country cottages eventually giving way to massive factory chimneys belching smoke. The industrial revolution paved paradise and put up a parking lot of sorts–a sprawling city with soot-faced workers and rich businessmen in top hats, which after the birth of capitalism and world wars, was ready to come into its own.
No one can question the literary powerhouse that is the UK. Indeed, the show began with Kenneth Branagh quoting Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the guise of Isambard Kingdom Brunel:
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.
–Caliban, The Tempest, Act 3, Scene 2
History played a massive part, and Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame, directed the spectacle, conveying different aspects of Britain’s success well. Ian Dunt on politics.co.uk recognized the complexity of trying to define Britain, as “downcast but always joking, traditional but forward-looking, arrogant but self-deprecating, inward-looking but open, the birthplace of capitalism and the NHS.” By showing this complexity, Boyle shone.
Particularly striking was the tribute to the National Health Service (NHS) that had nurses and sick children in a massive performance complete with glowing beds. The UK is proud of their health service. The proceeds of J.M. Barrie’s children’s book Peter Pan was donated entirely to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which was such a massive act of philanthropy at the time that it’s hard to fathom an author (such as JK Rowling who in a rare public appearance read a quote from it) doing that today. After seeing the children dancing around in their pajamas at bedtime and the nurses putting them to bed, the baddies came out, looking someting like Jawas from Star Wars with dark hoods and glowing eyes. Who else could rescue the children from the bad guys (including a giant Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter, spewing sparks from his magic wand,) than Mary Poppins. Yes, the loveable nannies, like a painting by Rene Magritte, flew in on their umbrellas to save the day.
This was a show all about the kids, after all, and in the end it was 7 promising young athletes who got to light the Olympic cauldron. It was an impressive blending of myth and fact, and I think Danny Boyle, despite the trappings of telling such a vast story, had his heart in the right place.
The Olympic Games: a short animated history – video
Polly Toynbee: Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony history is only a partial truth