As Modern Citizens


From the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony

From Inside Story:

This is a slow country to move. After seven years of preparation, months of publicity, weeks of fractiousness and days of panic, Britain had still not quite adjusted itself to the idea that it was to play host to the 2012 Olympic games. In the end, it took an instant of art to unlock the heart. True, at two hours the opening ceremony on the evening of 27 July in the gleaming new Olympic stadium in east London was, for an instant, on the long side. But the unfolding revelation that a genuine artistic vision of this complicated country was at work – coupled with the evanescence intrinsic to the occasion – sharpened the emotional effect. And, if much of the world was bemused, Britain was duly moved.

The creative director Danny Boyle’s affectionate, people-centred collage of national particularity and inventiveness offered an exuberantly different pantheon from the familiar top-down one – pioneering engineers, toilers of the industrial revolution, suffragettes, musicians, children’s writers, the public health service, youngsters out on the town – while respecting (but thus also repositioning) more established figures already secure within it. A formative inspiration was the work of the modernist–romantic film-maker Humphrey Jennings (1907–50), especially his anthology of lesser-known texts (or “images,” as Jennings preferred) charting Britain’s transformation, Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. The influence of Jennings’s lyrical wartime documentaries – including the soundscape Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires Were Started (1943), whose acute social detail is observed with a surrealist eye – was also evident.

From the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony

“Isles of Wonder” was spellbinding, humane, witty – and contained elusive multitudes. (In the course of praising the dedication of the 15,000 actor-volunteers, the show’s writer Frank Cottrell Boyce noted the pleasing fact that “wherever you looked, people were doing something different.”) The highlights included Caliban’s lament for his lost island from The Tempest, the most ambiguously fertile of Shakespeare’s plays; Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose great buildings and bridges drew a new social landscape; William Blake’s Jerusalem, whose musical setting by Hubert Parry gives it an emotional charge that makes it England’s unofficial anthem; Mary Poppins vanquishing Voldemort, villain of the Harry Potter stories; J.K. Rowling herself reading from Peter Pan; John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the wellspring of Pandaemonium; a sonic kaleidoscope of modern pop, from The Jam to Dizzee Rascal; and many others, often represented in glancing but pinpoint detail (such as the blink-if-you-missed-it references to eternal romances such as A Matter of Life and Death and Gregory’s Girl).

The animating spirit of a beautiful fantasy was encapsulated in the paean to Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web: “this is for everyone.” Its propulsive narrative – that the subversive, imaginative spirit of a multifarious land is the source of its achievements, and that it is now confident enough to pass on the torch to those kids – was both intelligent enough to accommodate the sensibilities of the “official version” of national history (including in its post-imperial, “inclusive” variants) and bold enough to claim fresh ground.

 “An Olympics fantasy”, David Hayes, Inside Story