Wonder-Full: Britain’s Olympic Opening Ceremony

I have never liked those over-blown, kitsch and propaganda-ridden Olympic opening ceremonies and so I approached Britain’s own 2012 ceremony with a lot of doubt and an element of dread at such a potentially naff blot on the nation’s reputation for doing ceremonial well. For a moment I worried about the sentimental imagery of pastoral Britain with its real turf, sheep and wholesome country girls doing their thing to the music of Elgar’s Nimrod but my doubts evaporated very quickly. At first I thought it was Elgar, he always gets to my tear ducts but, no, I was being drawn into an event of amazing daring, warm-heartedness, inclusiveness, humour and the most delightful form of self-mockery.

Film director Danny Boyle, an inspired choice for this most poisoned of poisoned chalices, created something truly original whilst also celebrating and at times sending up all those cliches about this funny place we call Great Britain. We are now too used to hearing pompous politicians and sneering pundets telling us what is distinctive about our nation but it took a man of breath-taking impertinence
and refreshing lack of bull-shit to orchestrate the phenomenal national pageant that played to the World last night.

When the charmingly ordinary Bradley Wiggins, the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France, sounded that great bell at the ceremony’s opening, something special about Britain was revealed – to ourselves if not to anyone else.

It continued through the evening to the rousingly matey Paul McCartney leading the nation in the chorus of Hey Jude. Luckily with some voice again after his Diamond  Jubilee disaster, but he and Bradley Wiggins were there as bookends showing that Brits just normal human beings whose achievements are nothing to do with those too often quoted “British” characteristics such as snobbery, pomposity and the stiff upper lip.

Danny Boyle played games with many of the images of British heretage too, from may-pole dancing milk maids and cricket on the village green, thatched cottages and William Blake’s nightmare vision of dark satanic mills.

For me, the event became electric when Kenneth Branagh performed
Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the guise of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the visionary engineer who designed so much of the architecture of those satanic mills.

The ceremony was showed the dark as well as the brightly optimistic. No mere national propaganda here, there was poverty,  hardship and cruelty as well as the great inventions, wealth and guts that took Britain from a pastoral community to an industrial giant in two centuries.

Inspired too was the sequence when those Great British workmen forged the circles that became the Olympic symbol.

The five circles, lit up in the sky, representing the five continents linked in this most optimistic of ideals, was given extra weight when forged in William Blake’s vision of industrial Hell.

He was scrupulous in remembering the workers, the poor and all those who have died for good or for ill, over the centuries in defence of the nation…..

..or movingly and profoundly appropriately, in remembering all those killed in London by terrorists on the day after Britain’s nominated as the next Olympic host.

The dance choreographed in memory of those ordinary folk killed for no reason by fanatical fundamentalists was a small still moment beautifully focused.

There was also, outrageously, humour…nothing more surprizing, surreal or cheekily self-mocking as the unprecedented participation of the Queen in a filmed sequence welcoming James Bond to Buckingham Palace and then, apparently, parachuting from a helicopter into the Olympic stadium. Well done to her for entering into the spirit of the event with such dead-pan humour.

Then there was, of course, British music. Not just The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Queen, Pet Shop Boys and ELO but The Sex Pistols and an honorary line of other edgy and great bands and rappers who are such a distinctive part of our culture.

It was good to see the Arctic Monkeys in such a prominent role too – they were fluent, apparently nerve-free and very cool.

Brilliantly too was the homage paid to the other  great British institutions and organizations, the Suffragette movement, the Jarrow Marchers, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, CND and the National Health Service, with hundred of dancing nurses and children patients imaginatively mixed with character from well-known British children’s stories.

Humour,  pain, joy, darkness and light kept coming together with real love and energy and a tongue placed very consciously in Mr Boyle’s cheek.

There was a glorious coming together of good old English silliness when Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean joined forces with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra.

 London looked wonderful and full of wonder last night as David Beckham brought the Olympic torch on its final journey to the stadium.

Great too were, lest we forget, all those athletes, the best in the World, coming together from 204 countries, some cozy little paradises, others’ blood-soaked dictatorships, others’ still sites of disaster and extreme poverty.

Athletic energy, youthful hope, an elevated sense of fun and the celebration of physical prowess, combined to make this long procession unendingly uplifting.

As each group of processing nations entered the arena, the joyful enthusiasm on faces not always used to such elation was a profound message of hope amidst despair.

 This year every competing nation has women competitors for the first time – a huge move forward. Hopefully another step towards universal human rights.

Good luck to them all..

..whatever their nation….

…they are all welcome to London.

It was great that when the British team entered the area that instead of just self-glorification, every piece in the paper confetti representing one individual in the World’s population. Another example of how this ceremony consistently got the tone of these things right.

as was inviting the ailing but still inspirational Mohammad Ali to join in the Olympic flag ceremony.

Also, just right, was giving the torch to senior British Olympiad, rower Steve Redgrave but then having him pass it on to seven young hopefuls nominated by seven British Olympians from times past.

It was their honour to light the 204 copper containers that were to come together to form the Olympic cauldron – another final coup du theatre.

I was amazed, delighted, moved and surprized by just how a potentially banale event could become something to significant and memorable. I hope the World might understand us just a little bit better after Mr Danny Boyle ‘s great leap of imagination.


  1. Ahem!

    "Be not afeard" is Caliban (the monster) not Prospero (the magician). I think it's nice to give the spotlight to Caliban for once.

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