Be not afeard / This isle is full of noises [The Tempest]
Etched onto the largest bell cast at the Whitechapel Foundry and overlooking a pastoral idyll of Britain – maypoles, shire horses and, naturally, cricket – Danny Boyle took from our great playwright a statement of intent that he then used to totally reimagine a way a country uses such events to present itself to the world.
Years in the planning but managing to remain one of the most well-kept secrets in this age of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, yesterday we finally got to find out what happens when you spend £27 million on a one-off show. The results were as thought-provoking as they were spectacular. It showcased a Britain that may finally becoming at ease with its history and its place in the world.
After 50 years of declining world influence, colonial guilt and compounded by the growing financial crisis that may yet see the balance of power transfer permanently to the emerging economies, there is an anxiety that undercuts our patriotism. Boyle does not deny our history and does not gloss over the seismic transformations that fractured Britain and then the world. It is an incredibly bold move and one that only a mature country confident in its heritage could countenance.
When Beijing hosted the Games in 2008 they put together a spectacular that no country in the world could hope to match. It was also exactly the sort of thing that a regime that only pays lip-service to democracy would put together – encompassing thousands of people but with no sense of communal spirit and full of gloss. Boyle strips all this away – it has long been recognised you could not hope to beat Beijing at its own game. At times it felt chaotic and unmanaged but it had heart and soul. It put the volunteers themselves front and centre rather than being units in a large structure.
Boyle’s Britain is at times a terrifying place. Given our history, our colonial past and the traumatic impacts of war and social-cultural revolutions it could never have been otherwise. Having been lucky enough to be in the Olympic Stadium during the technical rehearsal I can testify to the cauldron of noise created by the two thousand drummers. A faint rumble from the Olympic Park signifies the arrival of the industrial era, the growing wall of sound creating a pulsating beat as the green pastures of Britain is stripped away and out of the ground great towers begin to emerge and metal works creating molten rivers. The vibrations of technological chance ripple through the audience and a brutal landscape grows out of nothing. At times it is hard to tell whether we are being shown Britain or Tolkien’s Mordor.
Victorian industrialists, led by Kenneth Branagh as Brunel and given the task of delivering Prospero’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ speech in the absence of Mark Rylance, summon up the towers as if praying to some new deity. Boyle understands that these traumas are fundamental to our consciousness and to ignore them would be to hark back to ‘the green and pleasant land’ of William Blake’s Jerusalem whilst ignoring the all-important ‘dark satanic mills’.
The use of the set to deliver the Olympic Rings was visually magnificent. It had the all-important reveal and there were audible gasps as the audience began to realise how all the pieces fitted together. As the rings started to crackle and spark it was obvious why Boyle demanded a late start. The image of the Olympic Rings built out of British industry and burnt into the night sky will become one of the iconic images of the 2012 Games.
A sense of reminding the world, and Britain itself, of the innovations Britain has given it was at the heart of this show. Brand Britain was on display and Boyle (with an awful lot of help from his long-term collaborators, Underworld) displayed his usual mastery of the magpie approach – cherrypicking his way through our shared history. James Bond was an obvious touchstone and there was clearly a global thrill of showing him meeting the Queen but it is a shrewd move to include Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean. In this country we recognise Bean but perhaps don’t realise just what a valuable brand Bean has become worldwide. Rowan Atkinson has long-established a legacy as one of the most gifted physical comedians of all time, and deserves to stand alongside true greats like the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, and much deserved his slot at the event, alongside slotting in his much needed humour during the Chariots of Fire sequence.
Perhaps the most emotional honour, and clearly a cornerstone of Boyle’s whole vision, was the prominence going to Sir Tim Berners-Lee; perhaps the man who has transformed Britain, if not the world, more than any other at the tail end of the 20th century. His anonymity is as incredible as it is unforgivable considering that he invented the architecture for global communications – the world-wide web. What better stage – a UK audience of at least 26 million and a global audience of up to 2 billion – to give him the status he richly deserves?
Brand Britain also included two of our crown jewels – the NHS and the BBC. The show started with the uniquely British shipping forecast – unrecognisable to people who don’t live here but a cosy reminder of all things British– and included a long section involving NHS volunteers in a vibrant number that also celebrated the importance of children’s literature. A reminder to the world about how British authors have set the global standard in this field; JK Rowling was given the honour of stage-time but the show harked back to the golden age of Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Here, as throughout, Boyle didn’t take the easy route of simple-minded jingoism but looked deeper into the soul of the nation and realised that Britain has never shied away from looking into the darkness in order to find light.
Lord Coe promised to ‘inspire a generation’ in 2005, and in 2012 this vision was realised with a left-field choice for lighting the Olympic cauldron. Standard practice is to give the torch to an icon or suitable dignitary. Would any other country have decided to abandon this practice and give the torch to unknown young athletes who have been selected by our current greats? What message does this send to the children watching around the world? And how, in 2016, will Brazil manage to top such an audacious, and pretty much uncriticisable, choice?
And special mention must be made of the Olympic cauldron. An unbelievably spectacular artwork in its own right; something that almost managed to upstage everything that came before. An art-installation with practical purpose, built with copper petals carried by every nation of the games. Amazing demonstrations of the Olympian ideal of unity and togetherness that towered above the athletes and was a fitting send off to the evening – alongside the spine-tingling sound of 80,000 people booming out the inevitable na-na-na-na’s of Hey Jude.
Danny Boyle was given something that was a chance of a lifetime but, in the wake of Beijing, deeply unenviable. His career to date has displayed an unshakeable knack of hitting the cultural pulse in any genre he has taken on – small-scale urban drama in Shallow Grave, a kinetic slice-of-nation in Trainspotting, global understanding in Slumdog Millionaire and in 127 Hours an audio-visual montage that served as a warm-up for some of the video sequences employed in the show. Here he has cemented his reputation and for him the world becomes his oyster.
He has given a Britain that we can believe in, that we can be proud of and that balances the light and dark of our history in harmony. He has given the world a Britain that recognises its contribution to the world, that has given the world great industrial and social change, that has provided an imaginary world for its children and an audio soundtrack to people’s lives for the past 50 years. And you really can’t ask for more than that.
For more on the global media reaction to the Opening Ceremony click here
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