I didn’t think it was possible to watch scepticism melt in real time, hissing and bubbling like an ice cube on a hot baking tray until the last drops screamed themselves into nothing. But following last night’s the opening ceremony via Twitter, this image was, amongst the jokes, the overriding reality.
Before it began I was one of millions of sceptical ice cubes. I was ready to experience embarrassment, exasperation and discomfort at the display that was about to unfold.
It’s probably useful to explain the reasons for this:
I value little the sporting talents which the Olympics celebrate, though appreciate the passions that they stir in others. I dislike the entanglement of the five rings with corporate capitalism which denies the people of ultimate ownership of the games. I am cautious about patriotism of any kind, as celebrating the successes of one nation so often comes at the expense of another thanks to the stranglehold of historical context. And boy do we Brits have some history.
With hindsight, it seems that director Danny Boyle had similar feelings, but rather than shrink away from the task, he set out to deliberately challenge them and, by opposing, end them.
This is evidenced in the green and pleasant pastoral scene which greeted stadium spectators and the billion TV viewers as the warm up acts and final rehearsals took place. It looked like a recreation of Hobbiton from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and for us sceptics seemed to spell disaster. Would this be a twee, mawkish celebration of a Britain that never really existed; idealised, imaginary and irrelevant in a modern world, serving only to reinforce stereotypes?
Perhaps it should have been more obvious to me when former Million Dead front man Frank Turner appeared as part of the preliminary part of the show, decrying soulless corporate circus tops while playing at the world’s largest example of this, that perhaps everything was not as it seemed on the surface.
The dismantling of the livestock-strewn setting to make way for the industrial era, with Kenneth Branagh shifting from a commanding Shakespearean dryad-worshiper to an awe-struck Brunelian figure to tie the two ages together, was where things got really interesting. But the moments of spectacle, the most memorable of which is surely the forging of the Olympic rings, were always secondary to the message being conveyed.
Boyle’s decision to celebrate the NHS was a masterstroke, particularly at a time when many are worried about its ongoing dismantlement. Sporting events are so often inextricably linked to shows of militaristic sentiment, the problems of which are so eloquently outlined by Propagandhi in the song Coach’s Corner. This means that the other defining elements of our national experience are rarely celebrated. Which made recognising the thousands of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who make us well, along with the fact that as a country we provide for everyone irrespective of their circumstances, such a refreshing change.
The ceremony was not without its nods to the armed forces, but these were minor notes in an event that focused on the less regularly acknowledged areas of British culture. Popular music, cinema, theatre and some movements, like punk, which might contradict the ideals of the Olympics were included.
It also did an excellent job of injecting moments of genuine humour, another oft overlooked element in these kinds of undertakings. James Bond, as portrayed by a pouty, strutting Daniel Craig, striding past some unaware Corgis to take Queen Liz (now more worthy of this ‘fun’ abbreviation) on a helicopter ride/skydiving lesson, was an unexpected highlight for many.
Meanwhile the appearance of Rowan Atkinson, channelling Mr Bean during what initially looked to be a straight-faced rendition of the Chariots of Fire theme, presumably caused his millions of international fans to collectively lost their shit. The balloon of pomp was pricked by the spiny, self-aware satire of the British character.
The ceremony was not without its flaws, no matter how unavoidable they might have been. The spectre of Paul McCartney loomed large for anyone at all interested in predicting who would be rolled out to participate in the show. When he finally turned up at the end, leading the crowd in the chorus of na na nas that defines Hey Jude, there was a definite collective cringe. Or if not a cringe, then a sense that this was the most obvious and predictable element of what had otherwise been a wholly surprising experience.
Online, fun was to be had because for once people on the left of the political spectrum were given a reason to feel pride in their country, while those on the right were getting huffy about a patriotism with which they could not associated fully.
A tweet from Tory MP Aidan Burley complained of the emphasis on ‘multi-cultural crap’ which he perceived in the show, earning him plenty of criticism, which he eventually countered with a hollow semi-apology. This was one of the many comments which showed that Boyle’s work had succeeded in doing something truly different. It defined Britishness in a way that involved the masses and upset the elite. Which ironically will secure him a place in a future honours list, should he choose to accept it.
It is unlikely that subsequent host nations will be able to muster the same kind of diversity for their opening ceremonies. Boyle plundered Britain’s history without glorifying our imperial past. And Churchill was referenced only fleetingly, depicted as a kind of jolly living statue during the intro video.
The £27 million it cost to produce, which is less than a fifth of the budget of Avatar and only marginally more than is spent on a typical Hollywood romcom, was entirely justified, if only because it gave those of us who treat sport with indifference something to be proud of.