This is Britain: A triumph
Over the gushing jingoism of the opening ceremony comes the cry for a knighthood for Danny Boyle. Well, they have been given for a lot less and perhaps a gong could be reserved for whoever had the inspirational idea to hand the event to a film director. It seems obvious now to have used a professional so at home with the majestic sweep of a huge production.
Did he deliver? Oh Yes. This was a double-edged welcome to the world with tongue in cheek and two fingers held behind our back. The opening ceremony was never going to match Beijing for massive over-the-top scale or precision. One had the feeling while watching events in China that the slightest mistake by any participant would have resulted in a firing squad. And even though the Chinese invented fireworks, they still felt it necessary to top those up with some CGI effects.
Boyle’s effort was more forgiving and a lot more honest, starting with a magnificent trip from the source of the Thames to the East End of London and included all things that aren’t necessarily British in reality but are an amalgam of the way we see ourselves and, more importantly, as the world sees us. So the thwack of leather on willow, the Eton boat race song, the meadows, the river widening as we overshot the landmarks of the glorious capital.
Boyle then continued the theme by starting the stadium show with a twee 18th century bucolic look at a Britain of shepherds and village greens before amazingly unraveling the cosy thread with the brutal reality of the genesis of what made modern Britain great. What followed was a clamorous, smoky, fire-and-iron wide-screen rendition of the industrial revolution, amply illustrating all the thrust and confidence of an emerging world power.
Along the way, we were cleverly reminded of the by-products of that wealth and the British visionaries who did so much to raise the status of their less fortunate countrymen and the wider world. Enjoying these benefits as a right, we perhaps take for granted Britain’s contribution to the causes of women’s suffrage, the trades unions, the NHS and the welfare state. It was also a timely reminder of what we stand to lose should we take our eye off the ball!
What followed was a dazzling display of Britain’s impact on the arts and sciences – from Shakespeare to The Beatles, from Brunel to the inventor of the web – rendered in a very modern fast-motion technique seemingly slap-dash but choreographed with a precision belying the use of the amateur participants. So crammed was the event with sound bites and historical notes that it was hard to think what was left out. I don’t remember a mention of the Magna Carta but did I blink?
The famous offbeat, sometimes surreal, British sense of humour was in hilarious evidence when The Queen appeared to skydive into the stadium, perfectly summing up our ability to laugh at ourselves and our erstwhile po-faced reputation. Everything slowed to a put-the-kettle-on respite for the interminable parade of the athletes but the appearance of Team GB in gold and white preceded by Sir Chris Hoy – a handsome icon in the mould of Bobby Moore – blew any fading memories of dowdy Brits to smithereens.
That they arrived to David Bowie’s ironic anthem of “Heroes” was a dusting of perfection only bettered by the greatest flame in Olympic history. How has the obvious handing of the torch to the next generation been so overlooked as successive countries have played top-trumps in their attempts to find ever more bombastic lightings? Magnificent.
So what did we think of it? Boris Johnson: “We knocked the spots of Beijing” … A mate of mine: “A bipolar display of Britain” … “The Ghanaian Times”: “Bloody brilliant”. The quotes perhaps represent a summation of an event on which everyone will have their own take.
Mine was a huge sigh of relief of the typical Brit who wants the best and expects the worst but knows, in the face of adversity, all will work out in the end. Because we are Great Britons and that’s what we do best.