Monday, 30 July 2012

Some thoughts on the Olympics...

So, just enough time to get our breath back from The Tour and the Olympics are upon us. To be honest, after the first couple of minutes of the opening ceremony I had my head in my hands. The sheep. The Maypole dancers. Kenneth Branagh. The eyes of the world were on Britain, and the world was thinking, "what the hell is this?" But then the twee vision of ye olde England was dramatically, and deliberately, brushed aside by the power and fury of the industrial revolution, and for the rest of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony we scarcely had time to draw breath, never mind look back.

How to define Englishness, Britishness ... surely it is impossible to define. Danny Boyle managed to define it, in a madcap, eccentric and gloriously self-aware way. With the words “Good evening, Mr Bond” the Queen secured the monarchy for the next thousand years. Then there was David Beckham  - a man who has achieved many things in his sporting career. But no last minute free kick for England could ever have matched the iconography of him escorting the Olympic flame by speedboat down the river Thames. Cool Britannia has never, and never will be, cooler. The climax, the literal handing over of the flame to a new generation of Olympians, followed by the creation and ascension of the Olympic cauldron, bordered on the spiritual.

The NHS, gay kisses; the Sex Pistols, Mary Poppins, the Suffragette movement, 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, 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. 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 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 no Hirst or Emin). 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 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 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.

And in the end, the cauldron is not lit by a lone Olympian from the past, but by seven teenagers whose days of glory are surely yet to come. The torches ignite the copper petals; the petals in turn ignite the cauldron. It is a masterstoke, a dazzling end to a night of wonders and a glorious salute to the democratic spirit of Olympics; enshrining these games as a collective endeavour and a celebration of emerging talent.

And all at once the cauldron is blazing and the games have begun.

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