An Olympic-sized retirement home?

How will London 2012 follow Beijing’s stunning opening ceremony? With sheep, rain, nurses and mosh pits.

Patrick Hayes

Topics UK

Where were you when you saw the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics? It’s a question many would likely be able to answer. The unforgettable booming drums. The thousands of martial artists. The astronauts. It was planned as China’s entrance on to the world’s stage and, boy, did they pull it off. The bar was raised so high, it would be an Olympian feat to top it. So how does Britain plan to rise to the occasion when the eyes of the world fall on London next month?

Erm, with three cows, three sheepdogs, 10 chickens, 10 ducks and 70 sheep wandering around a scale model of Glastonbury Tor. Alongside people playing cricket, picnicking and dancing round maypoles as fake rain falls on them. In announcing plans for the opening ceremony of London 2012, the artistic director, filmmaker Danny Boyle, doesn’t so much manage expectations as he does nuke them out of existence.

Sure, the exact details of the ceremony remain under wraps, so Boyle must be given a certain benefit of the doubt. But the omens are not good. At the heart of the opening ceremony in Beijing were a whopping 2,008 drummers, working in tight unison with tremendous skill, power and dexterity. At the heart of the London 2012 ceremony there will be a meadow. With mosh-pits to either side for members of the public to express themselves spontaneously, and various things emblematic of the British countryside (except Morris Men, which Boyle seems to take exception to). Bizarrely, a cohort of NHS nurses looks set to make an appearance at some point, too.

It seems we have China to blame. Speaking of Beijing, Boyle says: ‘I think it was the opening ceremony to end all opening ceremonies – of a certain kind.’ You simply can’t match the ambition and scale of Beijing apparently, and so Boyle plans what he calls a ‘fresh start’, symbolised by the meadow (you can imagine the brainstorming-by-committee exercise that came up with that). It may lack the spectacle, but apparently it will be ‘a bit warmer, and more inclusive and involving’.

In 2008, the Chinese celebrated their rise as an economic powerhouse, exhibiting their galactic ambition, but Britain will instead be showing they’ve gotten over all that stuff and nonsense. In showcasing Britain’s ‘green and pleasant’ lands, the ceremony will apparently be about a land ‘recovering from its industrial legacy’. Rather than being future-oriented and dynamic, Britain will look to the nostalgia of an idealised past before such terrible afflictions as the industrial revolution took place. In Beijing the opening ceremony said much about the escape from what Karl Marx dubbed the ‘idiocy of rural life’; Britain looks set to idealise such idiocy.

Brits have tried this before and failed miserably. During the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, countries were bending over backwards to showcase their ambition. People queued for hours to enter the grand structures of the US, German, Japanese and Chinese pavilions and be wowed by vast hi-tech exhibitions inside. Britain’s tiny pavilion, by contrast, contained a ‘seed cathedral’ and maps of British cities with the buildings removed because: ‘The best way to show how green British cities really are is to “erase” all the buildings and streets, leaving only the green spaces.’ The pavilion itself resembled a dandelion-seed head but, alas, wasn’t designed to be dispersed by the wind so as to save visiting Britons, myself included, the embarrassment of being associated with it.

Where there’s a dearth of ideas about how to explain what Britain represents to the wider world, it seems there is a tendency to play the nature card. Danny Boyle’s vision of a green and pleasant land seems more representative of Tolkien’s Middle Earth – or at least Midsomer Murders – than twenty-first-century Britain, where over 90 per cent of people live in urban areas. It’s an elitist, middle-class wet dream of what Britain should be like.

On 27 July, over a billion people across the world will tune in for the opening ceremony. It will be, as the London 2012 website states, ‘a celebration showcasing the best of the Host Nation’. All the signs suggest the event will show Britain as unable to compete with up-and-coming nations; celebrating nature and idiosyncrasies at the expense of the country’s industrial, scientific and artistic contributions to humanity; and looking wistfully towards the past, rather than being oriented to the future. With its opening ceremony, China showed it aspired to greatness – Britain’s aspiration seems to be the world’s greatest retirement home (complete with NHS nurses). Will Paul McCartney top it off by playing ‘When I’m 64’? Seriously, though, is this really the best we have to offer?

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today