Saturday, 28 July 2012


Saturday, 28 July 2012

I think the UK lacks confidence and self-belief sometimes, because it's troubling to remember the cynicism many people had about the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. For years cynics have said nothing will live up to Beijing's awesome 2008 event, given how much money they spent, and the thousands of citizens who practised round-the-clock to make it look so startling. But I thought last night's ceremony was a triumph, even taking into considerations all the silly, cheesy moments. There was nothing outright bad about the occasion, thank heavens, and it managed nods to most things Britain's renowned for around the world—historically, culturally and socially.

As a former global superpower, we may have lost the biggest empire the world's ever known, but we kept our pride and sense of humour.

There were many highlights for me. I loved the initial stages, with a bucolic stadium of green pastures and farm animals transformed into an industrialised nation of towering chimneys and factory workers. Kenneth Branagh (replacing Mark Rylance) quoting William Shakespeare's The Tempest, dressed as the brilliant Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the whiff of J.R.R Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings works as allegory for the Industrial Revolution; the magnificent moment with the forging of the glowing Olympic rings, which then soared into the sky before coming together in unity. That was an absolutely fantastic and iconic moment.

Away from all the heavily choreographed spectacle, which often resembled a massive West End musical—especially in the sequence celebrating the National Health Service, via iconography from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and Harry Potter—there were a surprising number of comedy sketches, of the type you'd usually expect to see during Comic Relief. Daniel Craig as James Bond 007, appearing alongside The Queen ("Good evening, Mr Bond")—who allowed herself to be portrayed as an octogenarian Bond Girl, parachuting out of a helicopter into the stadium—was probably most memorable pre-recorded moment. Sure, Her Majesty was still determined to look like a grumpy pensioner throughout the whole show, but it proves she has a sense of humour if she agreed to that. I hear China's commentary went silent during the moment Elizabeth II deployed a Union flag parachute, as they were so flabbergasted that the UK portrayed a head of state in such a flippant manner.

It was also a reminder that Rowan Atkinson is a global superstar thanks to Mr Bean, as he was drafted in to appear in a live Bean-style sketch that involved playing a monotonous keyboard note during Chariots of Fire—which was then spoofed during a dream sequence of the beach running sequence. It was a simple silent comedy moment, that helped it cross generational and cultural barriers. I thought it was all good fun, if hardly side-splitting.

I was less gripped by the latter stages of dancing and merriment, although it was perfectly enjoyable to watch and catch the many references to British culture. Did you spot the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Yellow Submarine from The Beatles oeuvre? The UK's fantastic contribution to the music industry was well represented throughout the evening, with the ultimate compilation of British punk, rock and pop songs: Queen, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, The Arctic Monkeys, The Beatles, Coldplay, Oasis, The Prodigy, Orbital, Muse, Blur, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, the Rolling Stones, and many, many, many more.

One of the best ideas of the ceremony came at the end, during the moment where the Olympic cauldron is finally lit by the Olympic torch that's been carried around the country for the past few months. This usually means a famous athlete or sporting legend is given the honour, but London 2012 broke with tradition and instead honoured its "Inspire A Generation" motto—with Sir Steve Redgrave running the final leg with the torch, but passing it to a group of fellow Olympians who then bestowed the honour to up-and-coming young athletes... who lit the cauldron, composed of hundreds of petal-shaped torches, each signifying a participating country, which then rose up to create one gigantic burning flame. It was a brilliant and unique idea, perfectly done.

As you can no doubt tell, I thought this was a triumphant occasion. There were silly and ridiculous moments, together with eye-rolling references to things only the home crowd would understand, but thankfully British culture still travels well internationally. I think most foreigners will have understood or recognised the majority of things this ceremony was trying to communicate—in its grand ambition to cover so much, without relying on the obvious touchstones. For example, there was no sign of King Arthur, Robin Hood, H.G Wells, red post boxes, Sherlock Holmes, double-decker buses, Charles Darwin, or Doctor Who—while The Beatles didn't feature as prominently as I was expecting them to. Sir Paul McCartney was on hand to perform in person, however. Maybe they're saving some of that for the closing ceremony? But I was quite pleased by the choices, really. The ceremony celebrated less obvious British heroes—such as "Tubular Bells" musician Mike Oldfield and Sir Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the world wide web).

This was quirky, fun, inventive, creative, transformative, inspiring, passionate, crazy, dazzling. It was definitely too long at nudging 4-hours, but after seven year's of media hype and £27 million spent... it needed to be something substantial. Beijing's ceremony cost about £65m in comparison, but London didn't look like a cheap alternative stuck in China's shadow. There was more of a narrative to what was happening, which made a very welcome change, because we're a country with something to say and plenty to celebrate.

The Opening Ceremony pulled in a home audience of 27 million on BBC1/HD, making it one of the most-watched TV shows in British TV history, while entertaining the world and promoting everything that's great about Great Britain. I'm not the sportiest of people, but director Danny Boyle, writer Frank Cottrell Bryce, and the 7,500 volunteers did the nation proud when it mattered.

What did you think of the London 2012 opening to the 30th Olympiad? Did it live up to expectations, or did you find it a bore? Was the tone pitched just perfectly, or did Danny Boyle only succeed in creating a messy spectacle that probably confused foreigners? And if you were watching overseas, did your local broadcaster handle the event well? I hear America suffered a delayed broadcast (with the show beginning just when it had ended in the UK), and was also crammed full of adverts that sapped the pace! In the age of live-streaming and social media, this cause a great deal of upset online, understandably. You can't get away with non-live broadcasts of global events like this, really. The US aired the Royal Wedding without any delays, so why not the Olympics?

All thoughts on the London 2012 Olympics welcome; good or bad, just ensure they're constructive.

BBC1, Friday 27 July 2012.