It’s been something of a busy year for your average Union Flag-wielding, proud Brit. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee brought about the kind of outpouring of national pride not previousy witnessed in quite some time. Let’s face it, being British and being blatantly patriotic is a combination as ill-fitting as a pair of Simon Cowell’s favourite trousers.
As a nation, we just don’t do the kind of chest-pounding, flag-saluting jingoism which some other countries perceive as everyday ritual. It was altogether appropriate, therefore, that last night’s opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games reflected all that is truly great about Britain.
Beijing threw all but the kitchen sink at its opening showcase in 2008. While technically impressive, it reeked of money and lacked sincerity in what was essentially a sterile exercise in ‘Look at us, we have lots of cash’. Of course, we are now operating in different times altogether, the global financial crisis having hit Britain just as hard as any other part of the world. It was therefore always going to be a tall order for Danny Boyle to ‘top’ the Chinese spectacle. In the end, though, he did. What’s more, he did so in the most British way possible.
What Boyle and his army of 7,500 volunteers managed to portray to the world with ‘The Isles of Wonder’ was a sense of pride in Britishness mixed with a healthy helping of humour and modesty. Fundamentally, the two are inextricably linked and mutually reliant. We like to make fun of ourselves and the fact that we are able to do it so spectacularly makes us proud in turn. It wasn’t an over-polished ceremony; it felt human.
Beginning with a fabulously quirky depiction of rural life in Britain, complete with livestock, real grass and gorgeous national hymns from all four parts of the UK, we were then treated to an extraordinarily moving portrayal of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Boyle succeeded in revelling in the achievements of famous industrialists like Brunel while honouring the toil of those working people who physically powered the entire enterprise. Critics may argue that the ceremony ignored huge chunks of our national history. Ultimately, in a United Kingdom comprised of four nations with massively divergent histories, it would prove impossible to set one’s sights more widely without appearing tokenistic.
The first genuinely breathtaking moment came as five huge rings were ‘forged’ by the workers on the set, before they floated up into the air to form the iconic Olympic logo over the stadium. The next 60 minutes of the ceremony were deliciously eccentric. Rowan Atkinson resurrected his world-famous Mr Bean persona and performed a hilarious parody of Chariots of Fire, there was an an appearance by JK Rowling, as well as a fitting tribute to the NHS. We found ourselves slightly perturbed by the emergence of the childcatcher and Voldemort as the young ‘patients’ slept in their hospital beds. Then again, that ability to blend the light with the dark is another typical trait of this island nation.
A highlight of proceedings came in the form of HM The Queen’s cameo alongside Daniel Craig’s Bond, the two apparently travelling together to Olympic Park by helicopter before being parachuted into the stadium. It was witty, clever and ever-so-slightly insane. This royal revelation was somewhat undermined later in the evening as various shots appeared to show the Queen looking, at best, distracted. Indeed, in what was a moment of very unfortunate timing, the camera panned to the monarch inspecting her nails at the very moment Team GB entered the stadium to rapturous applause.
There were numerous heartwrenching moments in the evening, from the quiet, dignified dedication to the dead of the two World Wars and the performance of the national anthem by a deaf and hearing children’s choir to Emeli Sande’s incredibly poignant performance of ‘Abide With Me’ in tribute to the victims of the 7/7 bombings. In actual fact, it was the seamless interlocking of the deeply evocative and the eminently jocular which made the whole event such a riproarer.
A noticeable emphasis was placed on Britain’s amazing musical exports over the course of the evening. The diversity of what was showcased was startling; from Mud to Elgar to Dizzee Rascal, there was a real sense that the event’s organisers were very consciously declaring the country’s sonic pre-eminence. That, combined with a giant cube in the middle of the arena which displayed scenes from a variety of iconic British films, stirred the crowd into a veritable frenzy.
Following the athletes’ parade, raising of the Olympic flag and various speeches, possibly the most highly-anticipated moment of the evening did not disappoint. The Olympic flame was transported by speedboat from Tower Bridge by David Beckham, before being passed to legendary Olympian Steve Redgrave who brought it into the stadium. The torch was then given to a group of seven teenage athletes, selected to reflect the games’ slogan ‘Inspire a Generation’. After exchaging torches with a group of other famous British Olympians of yesteryear, the young sportspeople then proceeded to light the ‘cauldron’ in the centre of the stadium. Each country’s athletes had been accompanied on the parade by a child carrying a copper petal, which had been gradually added to the end of a series of long spokes. After lighting the petals, the fire spread round the structure before each individual spoke rose and met in a vertical position to form a stunning giant flame.
It then remained for Paul McCartney to ‘sing out’ the show. Sadly, after a flawless evening of entertainment, McCartney proved to be the real anti-climax of the ceremony. It has become something of a ‘tradition’ for the ex-Beatle to make an appearance at such events of national importance. However, his rendition of ‘Hey Jude’, intended as a sing-a-long finale, instead sounded desperate, McCartney, as has become standard, audibly struggling to carry the tune. At one point, the singer appeared to have lost the rhythm of the song and was forced to miss out some of the famous lyrics in order to catch up with the melody. Nevertheless, the athletes and crowd gleefully joined in with the ‘na na na’ refrain, which at least served to detract slightly from McCartney’s tuneless wailing.
Overall, only the iciest of hearts could have failed to be moved by the glorious spectacle presented to the world on behalf of Great Britain last night. Sheep, cricket, nurses, Mr Bean, a parachuting sovereign, a lesbian kiss, Dizzee Rascal; you name it, it was all in the pan. What emerged was a casserole of marvelously quirky, in parts delectably insane audiovisual depictions of Britishness. It was immensely honest, preferring not to present a sanitised view of our nation and its history but rather a warts-and-all like-it-or-lump-it image of the essence of Britain, whatever that may be. We loved it. Apart from McCartney.