As we were watching the Olympic ceremony in our local pub, my friend Bev turned around to me and said “Why weren’t we involved too?”
I knew what she meant. This was something I’d debated about in my head a few months back, when there was a call out for musicians/performers. However, the positions were unpaid, and being a professional and also having work commitments at the weekends when most of the rehearsals were involved initially, I decided not to. Which I am not unhappy about. But as we watched the ceremony unfold, the sheer positive energy that emanated out of the screen was palpable and joyous.
I’m so glad it was thus. I had suspected that Danny Boyle would have to take the opening ceremony in the complete opposite direction to Bejing; the simple fact is that London 2012 did not have the resources, either financial or in terms of population. The British are also more individualistic and (sometimes rightly) suspicious of anything that smacks of state dogma. I also suspected that he would do something very personal and intimate and would draw on folklore embedded in the English psyche, which he did. What I didn’t foresee is how political he would be, or how humorous.
From the very beginning of the ceremony, we saw the shire of Middle “Earth”, so fabled in Tolkien. My first gasp of delight came on seeing Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Brunel; the choice of Caliban’s speech, rather than the rallying call of Henry V an indication of where the ceremony was headed. As the ceremony unfolded, the themes became even more apparent: Nature vs Industry, Male vs Female, the 99% vs the 1%. I do not believe in the way it was staged that he meant it totally as a celebration of innovation in industry, although that was there as well. It was more about how the people of Great Britain had contributed to the mass appeal of industry and were an integral, nay, indispensable part of any innovator’s vision. Lest we forget it, Caliban’s speech is the speech of a slave, a native whose island has been usurped, colonised if you will.
“………and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
Boyle’s staged an NHS sequence, his references to CND, the Accrington Pals, the Suffragettes, the miners who had taken on Tory governments in the 1920s and 1980s. It was a gauntlet being thrown down disguised as a celebration. The message I took from it was this: If you try to colonise us economically, or tear away at the social fabric of our great institutions, be advised: there is a spirit in the people that will cause them to rise from the mines, the hills, the valleys, the cities, all four corners of Great Britain.
Apparently, Jeremy Hunt (the Culture Secretary – although that description is merely nominal, in my opinion, as the man wouldn’t know culture if it came and bit him on the backside) saw the NHS sequence a few months back and wanted it cut. The message to him, and to the billions that watched it was clear to the overlords of global finance and politics: Destroy this if you dare.
Boyle’s focus on women was also very moving, although all too briefly covered by the BBC in the opening sequence. Interestingly enough, that very day, I had a conversation with some work colleagues about how women are portrayed in the media in the UK. It is something I’ve found deplorable for some time now: the hacks on Fleet St and beyond seem to place most women either in the boxes labelled “Thatcher” (strong scary singular woman), “Kate” (virginal, slightly bland woman) or “Jordan” (Page 3). For millions of women who live in the UK and who don’t fall into anything of those categories, or who might traverse aspects of them without embracing the full box, it is deeply frustrating. His inclusion of the Suffragettes, with the nod to Emily Davison, was hugely interesting – the Suffragettes were mainly middle to upper class women who agitated for the right of women to vote, amongst other rights. They were not working class; they were ladies trapped merely by virtue of their gender. And yet they were innovators of a social movement that has seen the first time that all competing nations in this Olympics include women.
Perhaps the Mary Poppinses and NHS nurses were easier for the Beeb to stomach, putting women in the role of carers, and in any case, they were harder to sideline, given the length of the sequence; but again, I believe that Boyle was making a political point here: these women that you see in every day life are an integral part of the social fabric of Great Britain – you tear their jobs/influence away at your peril. The parallels with present times was easy to see: women have been more affected than men by the coalition cuts. Also what was interesting for me is that he set nurses in WWII outfits rather than modern-day nursing uniforms; again perhaps a nod to the fact that while the men were away fighting in the war, it was women who kept the country together.
His defence of the creative industries was also palpable. Most news desks have focussed on how he was demonstrating the punk, anti-authoritarian spirit of these isles through the music chosen, and the element of fancifulness through literature. However, what was equally interesting, though not as heavily covered, was Boyle’s love letter to British cinema, past and present. One of the interesting moments for me was when the dancing couple kissed – rather than correlating it with one of his own films, the shot that was playing at that time was Hugh Grant and Andi McDowell in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. I found it intriguing as Richard Curtis is a film maker who in spirit seems diametrically opposed to Boyle’s style of film making. Maybe Boyle’s point was that from Hitchcock to Lean to Curtis to Boyle right through to the present day, British cinema holds a unique and powerful fascination globally. Given that the UK Film Council was one of the first major casualties of coalition cutbacks, this was a reminder to the government that creativity is a unique selling point that Britain has to offer the world.
There were other moments of course: Rowan Atkinson, Her Majesty’s Bond girl moment, the stunning choreography of Akram Khan eulogising those lost in the 7/7 attacks. What Boyle’s opening ceremony showed most of all though is something I have believed all my life: that Art has the power to galvanise the spirit of a nation. It is not for nothing that dictators or oppressive regimes seek to control or silence artists, because they know that Art, and therefore artists have power that is not quantifiable or tangible, and that scares them. Although Britain has produced some great sporting men and women, it is their artists that are immortal and world-class: Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, the Brontes, Tolkien, Orwell, Barrie, Lean, the Sex Pistols, Bowie, Eurhythmics, Lean, Hitchcock, Curtis, the LSO, right through to Boyle himself. He showed how our theatre, our imaginative industries are second to none; and instead of crushing us, like industry is often wont to do, they elevate us to angelic transcendence. It is time that successive governments start respecting the great creative talent of these isles, because it is in this realm that we are world champions and London a great innovative centre, both historically and to this present day.
By the reaction to the ceremony it is also apparent that the zeitgeist of these times is the power of the collective. It is apparent that Boyle absolutely understands this, and his ceremony was a unique rallying call to the people of Great Britain, which consciously or subconsciously most people have recognised. I walked through Central London today, and saw it with fresh eyes. I saw how not only in times of danger or sadness (the Blitz, the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, the riots) how people want to be part of something positive, exciting, historic, how they wanted to show their children the power of positive endeavour, the excitement of reaching out and standing together as a nation. After the Games, it will be interesting to see which way the powers-that-be spin this for their own political ends. I suspect try as they might, they will not be able to, because one cannot spin the truth in people’s hearts. From a practical standpoint, I believe this government will not survive if they wield any further cuts to public services, including the NHS and the creative industries. From a more esoteric standpoint, I believe that people in the UK may be awakened in feeling to that old left-wing mantra: “The people united shall never be defeated”. If nothing else, that is Boyle’s and London 2012’s legacy to the world.