That Opening Do
A brief history of Britland by interpretative dance, sons et lumiere and massive sets should rightly strike fear into the heart of any social observer and commentator. Last night, however, was impressive, inspiring and moving. Obviously the time constraints and context meant the focus was on a very specific and limited narrative (arrow of time anyone?) but I’d say it was magnificent given that. The inclusion of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Isambard Kingdom Brunel was genius, focussing on what Britlanders have given to the world (although perhaps ignoring what we have taken). Also powerful were references to the suffragettes, unions and the world wars.
The Queens first acting role was a stroke brilliance: she looked incredibly smug when she walked in! I do wonder what the consequences of that will be: royalty have long been celebrities; does this cement them more in the pages of Hello! and OK! than it does Burkes and the Court Circular? Is this the solution to the crisis of inherited monarchy?
The focus on the NHS was surprising given the constant claim (which I challenge anyway!) that the games are apolitical; the fact that it royally annoyed the Mail and Tories gets a massive thumbs up from me though! Regardless, that sequence was really a tool for introducing our cultural contributions to the world: we really have led the way in so many ways of which we should be proud. Film, music, TV, radio and literature were rightly powerfully represented. It seemed odd to associate it with the amazing work of the NHS and GOSH though; am I missing a juxtapositional constrast?
Rowan Atkinson gave a moment of light relief, a constrast to the weightiness of some of the content. He showed how nobody – but nobody – does physical comedy like we do.
Rogge’s (or was it Coe’s?) speech told us that the Olympics celebrates the best of being human. I disagree personally: sports is a tool for achieving great things. The Olympics does pull nations together, but sports are also used as a method of social control, to reinforce injustice and elitism. Whilst sports undoubtedly does good – the biggest cheer all night was in response to his noting all teams included women – it can only do so within a values framework, and within a wider cultural context which includes the contributions of the humanities, science, diplomacy, politics, arts and media. Again, I acknowledge the rhetorical context of his remarks as rendering my criticism less powerful. However, since one of my criticisms is of the Olympic narrative in wider society, I’d argue I couldn’t not make the observation.
Flag bearers were well chosen and for me summed up the main themes of Danny Boyle’s sketch of Britain: change, diversity and social justice. Showing that Britain is always reinventing itself industrially, artistically and socially reminded me of how far we’ve come over time and the rich legacy – both positive and not-so-positive left by our forebears.
The focus on diversity was symbolised by the inclusion of people with disabilities, people from a range of ethnic minorities, the mix of classes and the inclusion of the infamous 1993 Brookie lesbian kiss in the montage all highlighted that Britain is heterogeneous in ways we take for granted on a day to day basis. Whilst some may bemoan the courting couple were portrayed by two young black actors, I didn’t even notice they were black until I reflected on it. Again, contrast that with how society treated minority groups one hundred, fifty or even thirty years ago.
And this for me was the third core theme: social justice. Our change from a society with rigid boundaries and a fixed sense of identity to a society which has taken doing the right thing to its heart really does set us apart from many other countries. We do welcome minorities, despite moves to marginalise them. We do care for the sick and injured. We do think that corporations should be in the service of society, not the other way around. We do value women as well as men. I’m not saying we’re there yet: women are still not equal with men, the NHS is threatened, the rights achieved by unions are being undermined by “austerity” measures and, ironically, neoliberal corporatism has been boosted by the Olympic sponsorship deals. Regardless, we have reason to celebrate what we have fought for and achieved.
The opening ceremony was a moving piece of amazing theatre, and at the price tag, so it should be! I still feel the Olympics feed aspects of culture which make me feel very uncomfortable, but this was different. This was about a vision of who we are and what that means, and expression of pride in the journey to the opening of the thirtieth Olympiad.
That said, do I now feel a sense of pride of being British? No: I still don’t think I know what that means. However, what I saw in Boyle’s brief brush-strokes showed me some of the values which I am proud to subscribe to. Perhaps on a very deep level, being British is actually about being who you are, doing the right thing and being so utterly eccentric that even those who hate you and what you stand for have to admire your gall and laugh at you. In which case, I guess that Boris Johnson, and I, are right up there.
And am I proud of being eccentric? You bet I am.