A mad, brave, leftfield portrayal of the nation

An Olympics volunteer marvels at how the opening ceremony managed to be both jawdropping and moving.

Ollie M Picks

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After so much advance hype/condemnation of the London 2012 opening ceremony, I settled down to watch it with friends with some trepidation. I have been openly excited about London hosting the Games, so I felt I had a vested interest in the opening ceremony not being complete rubbish.

With the opening video of a journey down the Thames, followed by a scene of pastoral England, I slightly panicked. And then there were the embarrassing dancing Victorians in stovepipe hats, with lots of other vignettes I couldn’t quite compute. I started to wonder if perhaps the advance critics were right.

Yet once those industrial chimneys, complete with cordite smoke, started rising from the rural scene (which I read as a positive recognition of Britain’s role as the birthplace of industry rather than as an eco-paean to the past), I was being won over. It was magnificent staging if nothing else. And then, as most commentators, both pro- and anti-, have argued, it all went a bit gloriously mad.

You will all know the moments by now – the most jawdropping for me was the queen deigning to take part in a scene with the fictional James Bond, pretending to jump out of a helicopter with him. But, in no particular order of madness, there were also the NHS beds, the big monster puppet thing, Mary Poppi (or whatever the plural of Poppins is), Tim Berners-Lee under a cardboard house, glowing ultra-violet cycling doves, and a video snippet of that lesbian kiss from Brookside.

Some have been critical of this hotchpotch of obscure, or certainly not international, cultural references. They say it was all too complex, too disjointed. But others have pointed out, rightly in my view, that if it was meant to be a history of these isles, then such references were selective at best and just bad history at worst. Others still have suggested that the ceremony should have been a universal celebration of humanity, reflecting the nations of the world coming together in shared human endeavour, and to make it so resolutely British was a failure of the ceremony’s role.

I don’t agree. I think Danny Boyle, as the overarching creative director, actually pulled off something good, a lovely mess of a thing where some parts were really great and others were cringeworthy and laughable. He produced a positive, humorous celebration of what Britain was and is. On the role of opening ceremonies, which others have better documented and discussed than I can here, I disagree that they are ‘meant’ to reflect the universal; once upon a time, perhaps, but in my living memory opening ceremonies have always been a showcase for the host nation, rightly or wrongly. Beijing 2008, for example, with its drums and mass choreographed dancing lotus flowers, was very much an expression of Chinese eminence.

Britain is no longer pre-eminent. So, yes, we have a millennium and more of culture and history that Boyle might have delved into. But I think Boyle took a brave, eclectic and leftfield stab at reflecting a tiny part of that. So there was Shakespeare and Blake, Elgar and Monk, but also TV and film, Dizzee Rascal and Arctic Monkeys. And if some find that falsely analogous, well I think this just reflects the complexity of British culture and history, and the elusive question of what exactly post-Empire, postwar Britain means or represents today.

Of course, we can be critical of things without having all the answers ourselves – yet it is striking that when I have asked friends critical of the ceremony what they would have done instead, they don’t really know how to answer. Neither do I. Some would have had more of the past (do we only have the past to look back on?), and others more of the non-youth orientated present. But what it means to be British, how one would present what we are today, remains elusive.

Boyle calls himself a storyteller, and I rather enjoyed his story. The final part of the ceremony, where future athletes lit the flame, was just brilliant and I was struggling not to cry in front of my fellow viewers. The Thomas Heatherwick-designed cauldron was inspired, symbolically representing all the nations coming together in one magnificent flame, and the decision to look to the future by having young athletes light it spoke more positively of hope and aspiration than the rest of the ceremony put together.

Perhaps it was all a British mug of Horlicks rather than a battle cry, but I think Boyle captured the zeitgeist well. If we don’t like what that is, it’s ours to change.

Paul McCartney absolutely must be retired though.

Ollie M Picks is the pseudonym of a London 2012 Games Maker.

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