Well that was unexpected.
I’ll admit it: I’m a bit of a cynic about London 2012, not so much of the Games themselves but because of the pseudo-Orwellian manoeuvring that’s being done to protect the ‘brand’.
Fortunately that wasn’t much in evidence last night. What we got instead, thanks to Danny Boyle, was an insane, surreal and strangely moving portrait of Britain. I went from cynic to believer within 20 minutes.
Part of what made it work so well was the ambiguity. A pastoral idyll is supplanted/wiped out by the forces of technological progress, Isambard Kingdom Brunel effectively presiding over the Scouring of the Shire, ‘Jerusalem’ acting as both England’s unofficial national song and a cry for social reform. The ceremony raised questions, which isn’t normal for this sort of thing. Suddenly the whole event became a lot more interesting by focusing on the interplay between communities.
That extended throughout the proceedings, even in the frankly bizarre interlude in which Daniel Craig stands in Buckingham Palace, an elderly woman seated with her back to him. “Haha!” we say, “It’s a lookalike of the Queen meeting James Bond!”
Except it wasn’t.
It was the actual Queen.
Who later appeared to jump out of a helicopter with a Union Jack parachute.
I swear those five minutes did more for the monarchy than the entirety of the Jubilee celebrations. By participating in – rather than being a bemused spectator of – a pop culture spectacle, the Queen entered into the day-to-day life of the the country somehow, through a conversion between high society and ‘low’ culture.
But she still managed to remain above things. Other moments seem deliberately pointed at the country’s current ruling class. Royalties from Peter Pan have always gone to Great Ormand Street hospital, so it was a piece of genius to celebrate both children’s literature and the NHS at the same time. Monsters pursue kids through a hospital at night, but those monsters are defeated by the forces of good, which include the NHS, the concept of providing healthcare on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.
The Government are currently dismantling this concept. The opening ceremony effectively attacked this policy. Like I said, things were getting interesting.
Even the celebration of British music focused mainly on the way in which it has brought communities together – that’s why it was part of a narrative that also celebrated social media and multi-ethnic relationships. It’s probably worth noting that some of the bands and songs featured here were considered controversial in their day; I suspect that was deliberate too.
I think that’s why many of us recognised Britain in the spectacle – sure it covered all the theme park aspects of the country, but they were presented in a dynamic way, conversing and interacting with each other, just as they do in everyday life. And it worked.
So congratulations Danny Boyle. You played a blinder. And rule Britannia!