LONDON, United Kingdom — Lights! Music! Chimneys! The opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics was by turns spectacular and surreal. It did a good job of stirring British hearts, but did the rest of the world have a clue what was going on?
Danny Boyle, the show’s director, crammed so many UK-centric references into his spectacle that most people watching from afar would have benefited from cultural subtitles to explain everything, from the opening scenes of maypole dancing to the rap climax of “Bonkers.”
There was an obvious subtext to this triumphant parade: Britain is great. Look at the marvellous things it has produced: cricket; mechanized industry; the National Health Service; punk and worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee. That’s right, Britain invented the web. Beat that, China!
But was there a sub-subtext? Most of things celebrated in the ceremony were from Britain’s past – the industrial revolution which made Britain into a global superpower, most of the memorable music and movies it has exported. Even the NHS is a shadow of its former self these days.
It would be nice to think Boyle, director of Slumdog Millionaire and heroin addiction tragicomedy Trainspotting, was trying to make a political statement about how Britain, currently being ransacked by austerity measures, has only just managed to host the 2012 Games.
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It certainly looked chaotic. And Boyle didn’t dwell too heavily on the picture-postcard images of Britain. The bucolic landscape of the show’s opening scenes quickly gave way to the smouldering hell of the 18th-century industrial revolution.
Smokestacks burst out of the ground, followed by sooty laborers. Meanwhile actor Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel – a visionary British engineer who built bridges, railways and enormous ships – intoned portentous dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Those, like these, were grim times. One scene, in which dozens of workers puddled molten iron to forge giant Olympic rings only to watch them ascend skywards, served as a useful metaphor for the Londoners who have toiled hard to pay for the Games, but can’t afford tickets.
More grit was to come. Homage was paid to the suffragettes, a 19th- and early 20th-century movement that saw women commit suicide and go on hunger strike to demand the vote, and to the Caribbean migrants of the 1950s who endured racial hostility to begin new lives in Britain.
For a moment it seemed as if we might spend the rest of the ceremony luxuriating in historic British gloom. Perhaps we’d get the powercuts of the 1970s, the confrontations of the 1980s coal miners’ strike – all soundtracked by Manchester miserablists The Smiths.
Instead we had a sudden splash of color as Boyle dipped into the psychedelic age of the 1960s before launching into a silly section in which actor Daniel Craig, reprising his role as licensed killer James Bond, teamed up with the real Queen Elizabeth II for a comic parachuting scene.
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This was followed by the undisputed centerpiece of the show: a beautifully choreographed tribute to the NHS, the universal healthcare institution that has cared for Britons since 1948 and could serve as a template for the “Obamacare” reforms in the United States.
While images of beds, sick kids and medical staff in the middle of an Olympic stadium might have struck an odd note with overseas spectators, for generations of Brits delivered into the world by the NHS, this was the ceremony’s lump-in-the-throat moment.
“I bawled my eyes out,” said Helen Fearnley, a 26-year-old office worker. “It made me very proud of what we have.” Salesman Raz Khan, 37, described it as: “Flipping brilliant.”
Not everyone thought the same. Unemployed Londoner Oliver Markham, 54, said: “I know I’m going to sound like a miserable bastard, but what a waste of money. They could’ve built a new hospital instead of putting on a song-and-dance act about it.”
There were more possible metaphors at work as the show unleashed the villains of British children’s literature on the bedded youngsters, perhaps symbolizing NHS funding cutbacks set in motion by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron (who was in the audience).
This was followed by a tribute to the British film industry, chiefly the Olympic-themed movie Chariots of Fire. Since Cameron’s government has cut crucial arts funding, this was perhaps another barbed reference to a golden age which no longer exists.
Boyle had fun with the soundtrack as the show charted British pop through the decades in a segment based around a classic redbrick English house that appeared to chronicle the online-obsessed culture of the country’s modern youth.
We had music by The Who, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles and David Bowie. We also had the Sex Pistols singing “Pretty Vacant” – which the queen must have enjoyed. We had, too, the anarchic rave anthem “Firestarter” by Prodigy, which may also have raised a royal eyebrow.
That wasn’t all. Ahead of a brief cameo by an endearingly excited Berners-Lee, “grime” rapper Dizzee Rascal, who hails from nearby east London, got to sing his hit “Bonkers” with lyrics including: “All I care is about sex and violence / A heavy bass line is my kind of silence.”
This was followed by a somber remembrance of the 52 people killed in terrorist attacks on London on July 7, 2005 – the day after London was awarded the 2012 games. A poignant moment, although it did feel as if every single Briton, alive and dead, would be namechecked before the show was over.
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It was all very chaotic and at times it seemed as if most of the cast was busy pulling apart or rebuilding the set. Much of it also seemed like a very British in-joke, with references to sitcoms, soaps and weather forecasts that – with the exception of Mr. Bean – will be alien to outsiders.
And then, after the athletes had paraded their national flags through the stadium and proceedings drew to a close, there was the mandatory appearance of former Beatle Paul McCartney, leading the audience through a plodding rendition of “Hey Jude.”
But the best metaphor of all was saved until almost the end, when the Olympic flame was ignited. The torch itself was created by raising more than 200 flaming copper stems until they joined aloft to form a giant crucible of fire in the center of the arena.
Just as these individual flames came together to produce a powerful Olympic symbol, so did the chaotic scenes of the opening ceremony unite into something quite splendid.
It was bit messy, overly nostalgic and extremely eccentric. Yet it was spirited, proud, funny – and very British.
Find GlobalPost's full coverage of the 2012 London Olympics.