The British love pomp yet loathe pomposity.
The average Brit has the maximum respect for institutions and traditional values (how else would the Royal Family have survived) yet is suspicious of anything that smacks of ostentation or false display.
In his essay,England Your England, George Orwell asked “Why is the goose-step not used in England?” After all, he pondered, many other countries routinely use this style of marching in military parades.
Orwell concluded, that “it is not used because people in the street would laugh” and the truth of this observation speaks volumes about the national character.
When he accepted the job of directing the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Danny Boyle would have known that he needed to walk the fine line between high spectacle and dry humour. That he managed to pull this off with great panache is a tribute to his common touch and to the skills of his team of helpers.
From the outset, Boyle was pragmatic enough to recognise that , as a purely visual spectacle, you couldn’t get any bigger than the ceremony in Beijing in 2008. He said he wanted the London event to have a more inclusive and idiosyncratic quality. Boyle and his team brainstormed a list of things that make Britain unique and came up with the Isles of Wonder concept.
The theme of the first segment was how the rural idyll of the Green and Pleasant Land was disrupted by impact of the industrial revolution. This was followed by ‘Second Star On The Left And Straight on Till Morning’, named after Peter Pan’s directions to Neverland. This celebrated children’s literature and the National Health Service and the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in particular. The third, and final, section revolved around how new technology has revolutionized communication.
Thankfully, they decided against another overdose of wartime nostalgia in favour of broader themes that relate to national identity. This was not just a stroll down memory lane but an exploration of a vibrant nation that is proud of its history yet prepared to embrace change.
A big part of the show’s success was the prominence given to popular culture and to music in particular. This was surely the most rock and roll of any Olympics ceremony.
Aside from the impressive Underworld soundtrack, there was just the right combination of well established classics (My Generation, Bohemian Rhapsody) and punkier anthems (Pretty Vacant, Firestarter).
I was surprised to see The Arctic Monkeys and their live rendition of I Bet That You Look Good On The Dance Floor fell a bit flat, not helped by the fact that they had to compete with the firework show. The second song, a cover of The Beatles’ Come Together, was a more appropriate choice for the occasion.
I fully expected to see Muse in this slot. Having been commissioned to write a theme tune for the Olympics (Survival) you’d have thought that this was the perfect opportunity to play it to a global audience. On balance, I prefered the Arctics as they looked like a garage band who were performing as a dare rather than a slick stadium band going through the motions.
On top of this, two Scottish female artists played a key role with percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie performing like a benevolent witch and Emeli Sande’s elegantly reinventing ‘Abide With Me’.
What I especially liked about the show was how it reflected the importance of collective strength; of how a nation comes to be identified with individuals (like Bond, Beckham or Bean) but is ultimately defined by an altruistic spirit of shared values.
The modest Sir Tim Berners Leigh, the inventor of the Internet, epitomised this notion. He was there in person to endorse the message ‘This Belongs To Everyone’- a simple slogan in favour of the public accessibility of the world-wide web and a defiant rejection of corporate control.
This principle of ‘all for one and one for all’ was carried through to the end with the decision to go against custom of having one man or woman light the cauldron. Instead, the symbolic Olympic flame was lit by seven young athletes chosen to represent the next generation of sporting hopefuls.
In short, through this original and intelligent piece of theatre on the grandest of stages, Danny Boyle must surely have done enough here to earn a knighthood.
It should be noted, however, that the glum-faced Queen gave no hint that this honour will necessarily be forthcoming.