What Danny Boyle's Olympics Opening Ceremony said about Britain's Cultural Landscape

By: The Guardian, UK
By: The Guardian, UK

The NHS, gay kisses; the Sex Pistols, Ken Loach; the Windrush, the Suffragette movement. As Danny Boyle's extraordinarily bonkers Olympic opening ceremony progressed, you could feel left-of-centre Britain gradually giving into its curious and often unintentionally hilarious charms, while Tory Britain little by little grew more enraged. It was bewildering enough, at times, to its domestic audience; abroad it must frequently have been plain incomprehensible. But we, in Britain, knew what it added up to, despite its baffling moments: it was Boyle's impassioned poem of praise to the country he would most like to believe in. One that is tolerant, multicultural, fair and gay friendly and holds the principles of the welfare state stoutly at its heart. One that is simultaneously silly and earnest, mainstream and subversive, "high" and "low" in its culture.

So what was projected, through this ceremony, of British artistic achievement? At the outset, it was all about the density of British literary brilliance. There was Shakespeare, of course, though it's hard to say how many viewers across the globe will have untangled that Kenneth Branagh was playing Caliban dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. There was Blake. Tolkein was invoked through the manner in which that bucolic landscape gave way to industrial gloom, even if he was never explicitly referred to. Ian Fleming had a double hit, with references to both James Bond and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Carroll, JK Rowling and Barrie were there, the last ushering in the great celebration of free healthcare at the heart of the ceremony.

The ceremony showcased Britain's dance landscape, with Akram Khan's choreographic sequences, and TV and film got a look-in – aside from Boyle's slightly cheeky references to his own back catalogue, there were clips of those decidedly nonconformist British classics, Ken Loach's Kes and Gregory's Girl. Apart from the vaguely Samual Palmerish landscape of the opening scene, though, there was no visual art: no shades of JMW Turner (and perhaps thankfully no Hirst or Emin). In fact the whole thing might be said to have owed a greater debt to the continental surrealist tradition.

Music, of course, was the other great element: the soundtrack triumphantly smacked down one classic British track after another, from Bowie to the Sex Pistols. Classical music got fairly short shrift: Nimrod, from Elgar's Enigma Variations, had its moment, and there was Parry's Jerusalem and Handel's Water Music, and several nods to Britain's choral tradition. The fact that Sir Simon Rattle was called upon to play a junior role to Rowan Atkinson's comic turn as he conducted the theme for Chariots of Fire seemed an eloquent enough remark on how marginal classical music really is in Britain today.

It was also, however, part of the wit and comedy: this was the surely the most joke-filled Olympics opening ceremony ever staged. After all, what else can a former imperial power do in its more or less dignified decline than have the good grace to laugh at itself? The Queen herself colluded in the national sport of humorous self-deprecation, and not even the most hardened republican could deny that she did it beautifully.


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