I expected to be sitting down in front of last night’s Olympic Opening Ceremony and taking the piss for about three hours. What information about the presentation that had emerged seemed to cast it as twee and odd and ‘quirky,’ three things I’m generally opposed to. The Great Giant Mind that is Twitter seemed to be of a similar opinion – although as we drew closer to the opening I started to see murmurs from people who had either seen rehearsals or knew someone who had seen them that this was going to be something quite special.
And so, to my very pleasant surprise, it proved to be.
The presentation began with a video journey down the Thames from its source to the centre of London, accelerated a la that old London To Brighton train film. That alone was a little gem, but what followed was by turns funny, uplifting, bonkers, celebratory and sometimes genuinely jaw-dropping.
The opening act in the stadium began a little unpromisingly – a rural idyll complete with maypole and a big hill surmounted by an enormous tree. But then a bunch of chaps dressed as Victorian technocrats – frock coats, top hats, big sideburns – turned up and things began to accelerate. Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Brunel, stood under the tree and declaimed Caliban’s speech from The Tempest, the tree literally took off, and from beneath it emerged hundreds of extras dressed as Victorian working folk and they began to enact the social and cultural upheaval of the Industrial Revolution.
The rural idyll was dismantled and taken away, and to a really rather splendid soundtrack of drumming the stadium was transformed into a colossal foundry in which, we finally realised, the Olympic rings were forged and raised, glowing red hot and spitting sparks, into the sky. Bloody good, but the best was yet to come.
Cut to a film sequence of Daniel Craig’s James Bond visiting Buckingham Palace. Those of us used to this kind of thing were set up for the gag – he was going to visit The Queen, and when he was finally ushered into the Royal Presence we were all expecting the figure at the writing desk to turn round and be Jeanette Charles.
But it wasn’t. It was the Queen. The Queen, playing herself opposite Daniel Craig playing James Bond. The Queen with a bit of a twinkle in her eye, I thought.
There followed a bit of business with Bond and the Queen flying to Stratford in a helicopter and then skydiving into the stadium, followed by the Queen – in the same outfit she wore in the film, nice touch that – and Prince Philip taking their seats. Cheeky, inspired.
After that, an extended piece of dance and music celebrating the NHS which must have made Andrew Lansley’s heart turn to a cinder. Segue into a celebration of Great Ormond Street Hospital – famously associated with JM Barrie and Peter Pan – and from there a sequence celebrating characters from children’s fiction, from Lord Voldemort to the Childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Big dance number featuring British kids out partying and having fun, which was basically a huge two-fingers raised to the rest of the world. “Look! The Stones! The Kinks! Bowie! We pity you your sub-standard ‘music’!”
Emile Sande singing ‘Abide With Me’ to another rather splendid dance number was very affecting.
Then a brief sketch of Rowan Atkinson taking part in a performance of Vangelis’s theme from Chariots of Fire, which ended in possibly the first ever fart gag in an Olympic opening ceremony.
I know it seems churlish to say this, but things went a bit flat when the actual athletes began to enter the stadium. A procession is a procession, no matter how much you dress it up, although once again there were a couple of nice gags – I liked the entry of Fiji to the accompaniment of the Bee Gees very much.
There had been quite a lot of discussion about who would – or should – light the Olympic Cauldron. Would it be David Beckham? Would it be Roger Bannister? Would it be Sir Steve Redgrave? As it turned out, what happened was pitch-perfect.
Beckham accompanied the flame up the Thames by boat, and it was handed over to Steve Redgrave, who brought it into the stadium and handed it over to seven young athletes, each one nominated by a different British Olympian. They paraded the torch around the stadium, then lit torches of their own, and then they all lit the Cauldron, a literal and metaphorical passing of the Torch between generations.
And a special mention for Thomas Heatherwick’s Cauldron, constructed of hundreds of metal bowls – brought into the stadium by the athletes – on long metal stems, which rose up to form one enormous flame. Utterly wonderful.
The ceremony did not suit everyone. During the NHS sequence the Tory MP Aidan Burley tweeted that he was fed up of all this lefty-leaning multiculturalism and he wanted the patriotism back. Twitter, of course, descended on him like a sack of bricks.
I thought it was a fabulous ceremony. It was packed with quirky little references, soundbites from the Shipping Forecast and The Archers. I do wonder what viewers in other countries made of some of it – obviously Rowan Atkinson and James Bond are global phenomena, but Great Ormond Street might not be as well-known, and the celebration of the NHS might seem a little weird. I did see a couple of Americans tweeting that they thought the ceremony was a bit of a confusing mess. And that makes me wonder how much our gleeful dissing of other nations’ Olympic ceremonies is simply a matter of us lacking the requisite cultural references.
Outside the stadium, real life was still going on. The regular Critical Mass cyclists’ protest ran into a large police presence, which stopped dead any sense of dissent and made multiple arrests. A reminder that, for all the celebration and pizzazz, there is a darker side of security to these Games.
The ceremony did not have the colossal numbers involved in Beijing, nor its megatonnage of fireworks. But it was full of…Britain. It was a more honest depiction of ourselves, I think, than the platitudes we hear mouthed by our government. It was gently self-deprecating, fun, a celebration of British culture. Danny Boyle played a blinder, and I’m glad I was wrong. Oh yes, and it featured Tim Berners-Lee!
My one regret is that a sequence involving Doctor Who was apparently dropped. That would have been good.