Saturday, 28 July 2012


I'm not a great sports fan. I have been known to watch some big events; England football games, the rugby world cup, that kind of thing, but the Olympics has always bored the shit out of me. Athletics just isn't that interesting; it's like a school sports day blown up to monstrous proportions. Still, it's come to my adopted home city anyway, with all of its Zil lanes for the 76,000 strong "Olympic family" of bigwigs, sponsors and assorted hangers-on, its vanloads of police with machine guns, helicopter gunships and surface to air missile batteries, its heavy-handed corporate censorship, its road closures and general self-important pomp. Londoners have carped. We are not as a city easy to impress. After 2,000 years, London has endured sacking by Celts, plague, fire, the Blitz, the IRA and al Qaeda, oh, and by the way, two previous Olympic games. Pardon us if we don't swoon at the prospect of a third. Nevertheless, I have enough residual pride in my country and my city that when it came to last night's opening ceremony, I didn't want it to be embarrasssing. I watched with fingers crossed. "Just don't be shit", I Tweeted. It wasn't.

If the Olympics are boring, opening and closing ceremonies tend to be even more so, with lots of bland totalitarian marching and dancing in unison in bright lycra costumes and vapid sentiments about fraternity and peace and giant doves being unleashed. Four years ago Beijing had pulled out all the stops to send the kind of message about China's arrival on the world stage that Dr Goebbels would have approved of, and we had limply slunk away after Boris Johnson had looked manic with his shirt hanging out and some second rate slebs farted around on a red bus. Oh God, we all thought; 2012 is going to be really embarrassing, isn't it? Well fortunately, no. Danny Boyle rose to the challenge, and managed to produce something both impressive, stirring, at times confusing, occasionally bonkers, but identifiably British and definitely the best opening ceremony I have ever seen, perhaps the best it's possible to conceive of, given the constraints it has to work within.

We had all seen the teletubbies-style layout of England's Green and Pleasant Land in the preview, and had rightly been a bit suspicious about trying to represent the country as a John Majoresque fantasy of bicycling nuns and cricket on the village green, but that was swept away by the impressively done sequence of the Industrial Revolution, Kenneth Branagh as Isembard Kingdom Brunel as Caliban from the Tempest declaiming loudly underneath a cross between Silbury Hill and Glastonbury Tor. In a kind of 'four ages of Britain', we moved from the 18th century's pastoral idyll to the industrial 19th and then to the 20th century (exemplified, apparently, by the NHS, but then it's a closer thing to a state religion in Britain than Anglicanism ever was), and finally the digital era of the 21st. Boyle tried to cram in just about everything he could, from Shakespeare and Blake to JK Rowling, from Elgar to the Beatles and the Arctic Monkeys, James Bond, Mr Bean and even the Internet care of Tim Berners-Lee, but it served as an effective reminder that while the days of our industrial muscle and globe-spanning Empire may be (fortunately) behind us, we are still a cultural superpower. He played unashamedly to the home crowd - things moved so fast that even as a native I'm sure I missed things, and there's surely no way someone from overseas would have identified Eastenders or Michael Fish, but managed to be inspiring and even emotional without being mawkish. And above all I think it succeeded in winning the hearts even of cyncial Brits because the ceremony had something that the Olympics is generally conspicuously lacking - a sense of humour. From the utterly lunatic sequence of the Queen 'skydiving' into the arena with Bond to Rowan Atkinson daydreaming about Chariots of Fire, it wasn't afraid to be funny. Take that, po-faced mandarins. Our singing children weren't dubbed either, and our fireworks weren't CGI-enhanced.

The games themselves will be as dull as they always are, but I think everyone in Britain is walking just a little taller this morning. "And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills?" Well Mr Blake, even if only for one evening, yes, perhaps it was.

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