Having watched the ceremony and written a recap, I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. Putting Danny Boyle, the film director who most famously made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, in charge of this ceremony was an unexpected move, and one which surely paid off. But paid off how and to what effect, it’s difficult to pin down. It was in some ways an oddly inward reflection on how Britain feels about itself. Watching the shire horses, may poles and farmyards of “traditional” England be overrun by the smokestacks and carriages of the nineteenth century, I wondered how accessible this was to anyone who wasn’t familiar with the overall narratives being played with here. If you don’t feel one way or another about the Industrial Revolution, it must be difficult to identify a take-home message from that segment. It wasn’t obviously the pastoral idyll being overrun by the forces of Mordor, but nor was it the liberation of the peasants by the grace of technology.
There were sets of contradictions which seemed to deliberately defy interpretation. What were we supposed to make of Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel approaching the green hills to the accompaniment of “Jerusalem”, a hymn which is England’s unofficial national anthem (and can put a lump in the throat of more than a few people who’d politely curl their lip at “God Save The Queen) but which pleads with the nation to abolish the “dark Satanic mills” which the industrial engineer Brunel represented? When he reached the hill and started a speech, it was obviously one of our most identifiably Shakespearean actors Doing Shakespeare, but Boyle bowled us a googly: instead of the sceptred isle, we got Caliban’s “be not afeared”, a speech delivered by a subhuman monster who is tormented by his social superiors. Branagh proclaimed the dreams which this island could bestow, but in The Tempest those dreams are either purposefully delusive or a temporary escape from tyranny. I was so busy wondering about this, that I nearly missed how far Boyle’s transformation of the landscape borrowed from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Still, I quickly caught up when they started forging the rings of power in the middle of the arena.
The most telling moment for me of this section wasn’t the rise of the smokestacks, or even the workers appearing from the hills, but the deliriously weird sight of a group of “industrialists” in top hats and side whiskers dancing in sync to the pounding techno. Were their gestures supposed to represent the energy released by the harnessing of fossil fuels beneath the mountains? The repetitive movements they condemned their factory workers to repeat through every minute of their working day? Or just the fact that Danny Boyle gets really really excited by images of the industrial revolution? It’s an obsession which has peeped through in his previous work – the most striking image of his entire Frankenstein at the National Theatre was the appearance onstage of a sort of steam-driven rave wagon, which was all the more noticeable because of its almost total irrelevance to anything else which happened outside its own ten minute star turn.
I had the same sense of a nation (and some of its artistic traditions) pondering inwardly during the NHS/ Great Ormond Street Hospital turn. What are we to make of a section which chose to dramatise – with swing dancing nurses in early twentieth-century uniforms – not the Spirit of Caring or the Hope of the Youth, but a specific children’s hospital and the National Health Service? I rather thrilled to this deliberately un-abstract concern with particular institutions and actual hospital beds. Romanticized into the middle of next week, yes, but it showd again Boyle’s interest in people doing things. Not boldly striving for the horizon in an orange spandex bird costume, but putting a child to bed. And the James Bond sequence – what was the hero of a set of midcentury thrillers, whose main interest seems to be navigating the British class system with a certain amount of xenophobia and violence, intended to signify to the rest of the world? Or Mr. Bean playing as part of the orchestra? Don’t let’s even ask how the Sex Pistols signify Olympic values, or wonder about the wisdom of including Churchill and the “Dambusters” theme in an opening ceremony in which we’re hosting a number of nations whom we fought in that war…!
Except, on closer inspection, these aren’t inward-looking icons at all. In fact, James Bond, J.R.R Tolkien, Shakespeare, the NHS, J.K. Rowling, Churchill and Mr. Bean all have one thing in common: they’re export product. Each of them are represent Britain more to the outside world than they necessarily do to most British people. Of course they’re massively popular here (apart from Mr. Bean – we’ve never quite worked out why the rest of the world likes him so much), but they’re all cultural figures who really punch above their weight in terms of overseas market share. Whilst this ceremony had the air of a society examining its own history and culture, Boyle was careful to use symbols which were easily recognisable (and highly marketable) to the watching world. This doesn’t by any means solve the contradictions which the show presented, nor detract from the director’s achievement. On the contrary, Boyle seems to have produced an exhilarating grapple with our feeling about British progress and identity, which also functions as a cheery shop-window for our artistic exports. It’d be easy to dismiss the ceremony as glib or so contradictory as to have no real meaning. No doubt many people will say exactly that. But I wanted to sneer at it, and I couldn’t.