Last night’s Opening Ceremony has perhaps ended for ever the long-held notion of Britain as a country full of people with stiff upper lips. It was a vibrant people’s history and a wonderful antidote to the stuffy pageantry of the recent Jubilee.
Director Danny Boyle worked wonders with his cast of thousands, all volunteers and mainly amateurs, and produced a magnificent community play – and film. He told our national story – or at any rate, part of it – through the eyes of ordinary people, and with consummate skill and technical wizardry moved from a rural Britain – complete with actual farmyard animals – to the industrial revolution and beyond. The activities of monarchs and politicians were ignored, and the show was all the better for that. Those like Toby Young who tweeted later that we should have had one of Churchill’s wartime speeches rather missed the point – Boyle was telling a story about people, not about leaders.
It was not bombastic and, although national pride was there, it was anything but jingoistic. We were invited to admire ordinary people as they faced the ravages of war and unemployment, struggled to win votes for women and then went on to create our present multicultural society.
As Danny Boyle put it in his programme notes:
“You’ll hear the words of our great poets – Shakespeare, Blake and Milton. You’ll hear the glorious noise of our unrivalled pop culture. You’ll see characters from our great children’s literature – Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Mary Poppins, Voldemart, Cruella de Vil. You’ll see ordinary families and extraordinary athletes. Dancing nurses, singing children and amazing special effects.
But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone”.
And our contributions to the world’s literature, music and inventions also featured prominently. Kenneth Branagh, as the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, read the ‘isles of wonder’ speech from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’; JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, read from JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’; and Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was there in person.
The show celebrated British music and popular culture with Elgar at the start, Paul McCartney at the end and much else in between. And there were references to our growing tolerance as, for example, we saw the first lesbian kiss on British television. This was back in 1994 but may have been a television first for viewers in Saudi Arabia!
This was the least pompous show imaginable. And very witty. Getting the London Symphony Orchestra to play ‘Chariots Of Fire’ could have been a stirring, patriotic experience – the film and the music are, after all, celebrations of two of our most famous Olympians. But Boyle punctured any possible pomposity by making Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) part of the orchestra. Hilarious.
As a republican, I was concerned that the royals might be given too prominent a role. How would Boyle deal with the Queen’s arrival at the Olympic Stadium? Quite brilliantly it turned out. When James Bond (Daniel Craig) entered the Queen’s presence, her back was to the audience. I was sure it would be an actor – perhaps Helen Mirren. But, to my amazement, it was the Queen herself who spoke the words: “Good evening, Mr Bond”. We then saw Bond and the Queen get into a helicopter and parachute into the Olympic Park. Moments later the Queen and Prince Philip walked to their places. Stunt actors doing the parachuting, of course, but it was so well done that just for a moment many believed that the Queen had actually parachuted.
But any kudos the Queen won for being a good sport and agreeing to be in the James Bond film was lost by the way she comported herself during the Opening Ceremony. Unlike her mother, the Queen is not renowned for her warm smiles, but last night she seemed positively grumpy. Every time the cameras picked her up she appeared to be scowling. When the British team entered the arena all the VIPs around the Queen – including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister – leapt to their feet to give our athletes a standing ovation. Only the Queen and her husband sat, stony-faced. Worse was to come moments later when the camera panned to the Queen who appeared to be picking at her nails! BBC commentator Huw Edwards loyally tried to cover by saying the Queen was looking at the competitors with interest. She clearly wasn’t, and her apparent bad mood was widely commented on in Twitter.
There had been great speculation about who would be given the honour of lighting the Olympic Cauldron. We saw David Beckham speeding along the Thames, so we thought this was his consolation prize for being left out of the GB football team. But when his boat pulled up, he handed over the torch to the winner of five gold medals, Steve Redgrave. So we assumed he had the job. But, in fact, the lighting of the cauldron was done by seven of Britain’s most promising young athletes – an inspiring choice.
The lighting throughout the show was absolutely breathtaking. But for me the highlight was the lighting of that magnificent cauldron. Surely one of the greatest moments ever at an Olympic Opening Ceremony.
I was concerned that those not steeped in British culture and history might find parts of the show difficult to follow. Thankfully this doesn’t appear to have been the case, and the overseas reviews of the show have been mainly very positive. At times, though, I did yearn for a bit more explanation – perhaps Kenneth Branagh taking on a narrator role would have been a bit heavy-handed, but maybe more captions on the big screens? Sometimes things moved so fast that it was difficult even for someone British like myself to take it all in.
I also thought the show was too long. Supposed to last three hours, it ran for nearly four, so it was getting on for 1am by the time it ended. This meant that when we got to the final performance – Paul McCartney singing ‘Hey Jude’ – it was well past many people’s bed-time! This resulted in some irritable comments on Twitter directed at McCartney. He should have been on much earlier and it would also have been better if he had been integrated into the main part of the show.
The Opening Ceremony, of course, started late – at 9pm – apparently because Danny Boyle wanted to start when it was dark. And, given the importance of the lighting, I can see his reasoning.
However, I do think the show could have been cut – for me there was too much pop music, for example, but I would also have done things in a totally different order.
The parade of athletes has its moments, but with 204 countries, it frankly got a bit boring. In sheer theatrical terms it is better to start with the duller parts of a show and then end on a high note.
So I would have started with the parade and then had the boring speeches (sorry, but they were) by Seb Coe and Jacques Rogge. This part could have been before darkness fell so it could have started at 7.30 or 8pm, thus ensuring that proceedings would have ended well before midnight.
This would have left the second part of the evening for the main show.
But a great start to the Olympics. Many people declared on Twitter that they were ‘proud to be British’. Not something we often say!