June 4, 2020

Isles Of Wonder: The London 2012 Opening Ceremony

London 2012 finally welcomed the rest of the world to its games with a ceremony full of  spectacle, joy, comedy and a celebration of that peculiarly indefinable trait: Britishness.

Throughout the build up, we’ve been subjected to constant sound bites from a plethora of all involved that London is ‘not trying to compete with Beijing’. It’s come across as quite defensive, but entirely understandable given the high regard with which the 2008 opening ceremony is widely held. For my money, though, we needn’t have tried to temper expectations: given the choice of watching either the London or Beijing opening ceremony, I’d pick London every time.

Danny Boyle (or Sir Danny Boyle as Twitter promptly decreed him) had the unenviable task of concocting the three hour plus ceremony, choosing the Shakespearian theme ‘Isles of Wonder’ to bind proceedings together. What followed was, in many ways, what we should have expected: frenetic, kinetic, veering just the right side of chaotic, but ruggedly clinging to a narrative thread – traits typical of a Boyle film.

It was a show to welcome the world but, perhaps more importantly, it was a show to convince any wavering Brits that, if only for two weeks, it’s time to leave any cynicism at the side of the bed and get behind Team GB; both the athletes themselves and the nation as a whole.  Anyone who still remained uncertain at the end will surely never be swayed.

In fact, if you compare the opening ceremony with Beijing (even though I’m not supposed to), I think it stands very favourably. Whilst the spectacle in China was something we could never surpass, spectacle by itself can leave you feeling a little empty in hindsight. (The budget for the Beijing opening was £100million, compared to London’s £27m.) Yes, Beijing’s ceremony told of China’s great inventions, but there was not the same heart as in Boyle’s creation. Boyle, a great filmmaker and storyteller, knows the importance of narrative and character, and so despite the huge scale of events, we had things to ground us, be it a simple love story between a boy and a girl, or with familiar characters (fictional or otherwise) from our history and culture.

It is hard to imagine the Beijing ceremony acknowledging the struggle for women’s rights, or the mixture of fortunes that the industrial revolution provoked. Harder still to imagine them, or any other nation for that matter, producing a show with such irreverent and self-deprecating humour.  Huge cheers reverberated around the stadium when rain erupted from one of the floating clouds, and the infamous clip of Michael Fish’s assurance of no hurricanes brought big belly laughs. Boyle knew that to compete with Beijing we had to do things our own way, and that means simultaneously (sometimes miraculously) poking fun at ourselves whilst also maintaining a sense of pride. There was one small moment that Boyle seemed to reference the Chinese ceremony four years ago. Like China, Britain too has a grand history of inventors, and it seemed like playful one-upmanship when Sir TimBerners-Lee was revealed to small confusion, before he was revealed as the man behind the internet. Take that, Beijing!

Other highlights included Rowan Atkinson (known around the world as Mr Bean) playing Chariots of Fire, his face as full of expression as it’s ever been; a bewildering blitz through the history of British music and film (I was overjoyed to see Chaplin get his due, and equally pleased at the fleeting glimpse of WALL-E, though the reason for his presence was less obvious); and, of course, Her Majesty appearing in her first film role alongside James Bond. It embraced every British stereotype you could imagine, addressing them with humour, genuine fondness, and occasionally a little subversion.

For all the great comedy, there were truly awe-inspiring moments too. The transformation from Tolkien’s pastoral shire to Eliot’s industrial wasteland was mightily impressive, and the forging of the Olympic rings was a sight to behold.

The lighting of the Olympic flame, perhaps the most iconic moment of any ceremony, was a secret that had been kept remarkably well by all involved. Speculation and excitement had been building as to who was going to light it (and, indeed, where it was) and a host of famous Brits were running through my mind – I was hoping for David Attenborough, though admittedly his contribution to sport has been a little less than to wildlife. When it appeared to be Sir Steve Redgrave who was given the honour, no one grumbled but it seemed a bit obvious. That the honour of lighting the flame was then handed over to ‘future Olympians’ – nobodies to the Olympic layman – was a truly fantastic gesture. One of the thrusting forces behind the whole London campaign was that of legacy and the future, and this act embodied its whole spirit, removing any ego from the symbolic gesture. The 204 copper petals (one for each competing nation) were lit and then closed up together in a beautiful movement that concluded a bonkers but beguiling ceremony, and one that will stand amongst the best.

It was almost as fun reading all the tweets in the aftermath. Plenty of opinions that Beijing still stood tallest, but even more declaring pride at the proceedings. The parachuting queen in particular was fondly discussed, as well the fact that, unlike four years previous, we had 100% real fireworks. However well our athletes perform during the games, we can at least take comfort from the fact that our British identity is more assured than ever. And to anyone still complaining about the ceremony and its cost (£27million), consider this little bit of perspective: Andy Carroll cost Liverpool £35million. Which would you rather spend 4 hours watching?

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