Summer Hitlist 1: The Olympics Opening Ceremony
Since the end of World War II and the Decline of Empire, Great Britain has been suffering from a severe identity crisis, a seemingly relentless and fruitless search for self that no manner of brief cultural hysteria – Beatlemania in the 60s, Britpop in the 90s – has been able to permanently rectify. This crisis has been additionally influenced over the years by gradual internal devolution and external immigration, irrevocably changing the formally homogenous nature of individual communities and leaving the English, at the core of the Kingdom, particularly confused and conflicted as to their true culture and customs. On Friday July 27, film-maker Danny Boyle rectified almost all of this half-century of doubt and debate in the space of a single rousing Olympics Opening Ceremony, Isles Of Wonder, that championed everything that is Great about Britain as both a Kingdom and a number of individual nations, societies and communities, and with such a combination of wit, wisdom, mischief and (technological) magic that the rest of the world was left looking on, collective jaws on the floor, with equal parts admiration and envy.
The ceremony was a triumph on every level. Historically, Boyle’s visual transformation of Britain from a pastoral society to an Industrial one was both accurate and pertinent (and visually stunning), and yet did not ignore the human cost of the Industrial Revolution; and if I was right to wonder why those of us watching NBC’s edited tape-delayed American broadcast were privy to the sight of marching suffragettes but not to Trade Unionists, at least we can take some comfort in the fact that NBC highlighted the tribute to the National Health Service so overtly that my wife wondered aloud if Boyle (and perhaps NBC itself) wasn’t trying to send the Americans a message: that the only argument one should have about socialist health care is its degree of funding.
Musically, the decision to focus on what Britain still does best (pop, rock and dance) to near enough the exclusion of what it once did only reasonably well (classical and hymnal) felt like vindication for several generations that have long known as much but rarely seen this truth acknowledged in such an important and powerful context. We were aware that Boyle shared our beliefs because the soundtrack to his movie Trainspotting remains surely the greatest cinematic compilation in British pop-cultural history, but those of us who had not read up on the various media leaks were nonetheless stunned when, during the opening scene’s journey down the Thames, we heard the Sex Pistols singing ‘God Save The Queen,’ and only seconds later, fellow former enemies-of-the-State the Clash extolling the nuclear terror of ‘London Calling.’
And that was only the appetizer. Music rightfully dominated the Ceremony, and nowhere more so that in the ‘Frankie and June’ segment, with its parade of musical (and accompanying visual) reference points from the last fifty years, including the Jam and the Who, David Bowie and Mud, the Beatles and the Stones, the Specials and (again!) the Sex Pistols, New Order and Queen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Soul II Soul, and even throwing in a quick blast of the Tardis, causing the Facebook pages of my (American) teenage son and his (American, Dr. Who-obsessed) friends to light up in delight. There were, of course, also the live performances by such musically disparate and culturally representative acts as the Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal, Mike Oldfield and Paul McCartney. And then there was the music composed by my own long-term heroes Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of Underworld, who ably justified Boyle’s faith in hiring them for the purpose with the epic fifteen-minute epic ‘I Will Kiss,’ featuring Dame Evelyn Glennie’s wonderful drumming and covering the entire transition through the Industrial Revolution and beyond, including the appropriately mournful whistling section for the World War I tribute. That musical theme was revived for ‘Caliban’s Dream’ featuring Two Door Cinema Club’s Alex Trimble, and Underworld’s contribution to modern popular dance culture was further recognized with the sound of both ‘Born Slippy’ (made famous by its inclusion in Trainspotting) and ‘Rez’ booming through the Stadium sound system at various moments of communal celebration. (Additionally, the soundtrack to Isles of Wonder, released online the moment the ceremony concluded, featured a variety of Underworld remixes as well as many of the aforementioned artists as live performances.) All in all, it was a great evening to be an Underworld fan of twenty years’ confirmed standing. And though I didn’t hear the Smiths, their apparent absence only emphasized that, per capita, per city, per community; per sub-culture, sub-genre and 15 minutes of media coverage before the next one comes along, no nation on earth can match Britain when it comes to modern music.
Additionally, the Ceremony was so large on laughs that the ceremonial children of Beijing ‘08, young adults now and hopefully some the wiser, may have watched and wondered why their leaders couldn’t have allowed them to likewise demonstrate a sense of humor. And for that, they would have to look no further than the difference between their autocratic pseudo-Communist dictators and our own ageing Royalty, in the shape of an 86-year old Queen Elizabeth II who, just weeks after what looked, to the rest of the world, like the most tedious, lo-tech and, frankly, embarrassing Jubilee celebration in the history of humanity (really, an endless parade of barges in the rain?), demonstrated that she actually had a sense of silliness and a penchant for adventure as she played the role of a Bond Girl jumping out of a helicopter for her arrival at the Olympic Stadium by parachute. Why had she never taken on such a cameo before: merely because nobody had the balls to ask her? (In which case, we greatly look forward to their interaction during Boyle’s inevitable knighthood.) Under the circumstances, her brief ‘performance’ upstaged even Rowan Atkinson’s familiar but still hilarious activities during ‘Chariots of Fire,’ and for a while (until the following morning in my case) enabled us to forget that Britain’s greatest, most irreverent and most universally revered comedy team of all, Monty Python, appeared not to have gotten a look-in.
And then there was the dancing. Hours of it. The dancing doctors and nurses. The dancing children in their hospital beds. The dancing Mary Poppinses. The dancing representatives of Britain’s fifty years of pop, in their Ziggy/Mercury/Mud costumes. And all the dancing dancers dancing for the sheer dancing hell of it all. At the heart of the nation’s obsession with pop culture, the British have always loved to go out on a Friday night and dance, and somewhere around midnight GMT, Boyle’s ceremony acknowledged as much by exposing the rest of the world to the newer waves of Britain’s cosmopolitan cross-cultural colors and creeds, bringing the country resolutely up-to-date even as the Frankie and June segment descended into overly simplistic faux Twitter/Facebook messages, though thankfully rectifying itself with the acknowledgement of Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee and his simple message, This is for Everyone…
As indeed it was – perhaps, except, for Tory cost-cutters who prefer to dismantle the NHS, increase student tuition, cut funding for school sports, close down public libraries, and who have long had their moment in the spotlight on such occasions and were gratefully notable for their absence at this celebration of the real British communal culture. Overall, in fact, there was so much of excellence that one feels churlish leaving anything out. Which didn’t stop NBC from doing just that. We viewers in America, for example, didn’t get to see ‘Abide With Me,’ and so I have to take the word of others that there were 96 dancers in accompaniment, one for each of the Hillsborough 1989 victims – the kind of detail that was present throughout the ceremony. (I didn’t fail to recognize the relevance of the poppy field in the opening cinematic rush down the Thames, for example – or what appeared to be Toad of Toad Hall super-imposed in the river.) Nor did we get to see the dance tribute to CND, or what I would like to believe was a more sobering tribute to the victims of 7/7; NBC thought its viewers better off with Ryan Seacrest interviewing Michael Phelps instead. The network was roundly attacked for this display of almost obscene nationalist self-interest but their faux pas did confirm a certain truth about the Ceremony: it was so perfectly, purposefully and ashamedly British in its planning, design and execution, that the rest of the world struggled to fully understand it. It was, as the Dizzee Rascal song put it, ‘Bonkers’.
Look, the rest of the world still largely thinks of Britain (if it thinks of it much at all, that is) as a nation of Royalty and cream teas, Carnaby Street and Stratford-on-Avon, pinstripe suits and bowler hats, Monty Python and Benny Hill, Upstairs Downstairs and Masterpiece Theatre, with the occasional bout of incomprehensible football hooliganism thrown in. Younger people may know it for its pop culture, but there are few who keenly understand how deeply it resonates through every aspect of modern British life. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony confirmed that there is some truth to all clichés, but that Britain is so very very very much more. (It is, indeed, also a nation of teenage gangs killing each other with knives for no apparent reason, and equally pointless fighting and puking in the streets when the pubs and clubs close, but on an occasion such as this we were allowed to put the negatives aside.) In its frequently irreverent but never insulting madness, its acknowledgement of what really matters, both trivial and vital, and especially, for its musical celebration, the Olympics Opening Ceremony allowed me to admit to something that I rarely have cause to admit to any more: that I am proud to be British.