Isles of Wonder Video
Danny Boyle’s dark and inspirational opening ceremony using his group Underworld struck the world with wonder and nightmares
– Caliban, The Tempest by William Shakespeare as recited by Kenneth Branagh at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony
Friday saw the grand opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Academy Award-winning director, Danny Boyle, presented the world with a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, and simply stunning opening ceremony to rival all others and bring a flush of pride to every Briton.
The 2012 Olympics has drawn its fair share of ire over the months and weeks of its preparation. Not least was the overwhelming cost of the whole affair, standing at a staggering 13 billion pounds with the opening ceremony alone taking a 27 million pound slice of that monetary pie. A nation gripped in the worst double dip recession in 50 years, few had cause to celebrate the financial burden the games presented this economically stricken nation.
Then there was the questionable partnerships forged by the Olympic committee. In the run up to the games, the Olympics appeared to increasingly become a garish mess of commercialism and corporate greed, with little concern for ethical value. From the sponsorship accepted of the DOW Chemical Company, notorious for the harrowing disaster it wreaked in India’s city of Bhopal, to the official sponsorship provided by Adidas of South Asian child-labour and sweatshops fame, it isn’t a wonder that the reception was proving mixed. Indeed it is shocking that LOCOG saw fit to form such brazen partnerships and a credit to those who raised their voices against them.
Also protested, the congestion the games are inevitably adding to the nation’s most congested city has found little appreciation from Londoners. Being notorious for bemoaning tourists, the thought of having a good few million more to clog the transport lines has horrified the capital’s inhabitants. Perhaps it’s the happy-go-lucky nature of tourists mocking a Londoner’s daily grind that grates, but it is clear that precious few are looking forward to their rush hour journeys as sardines further exacerbated.
Yet, while the complaints grew, Friday’s opening ceremony suddenly hushed the nation and the world, as the Isles of Wonder were lit and Britons were reminded of what makes Britain great, every Briton exceptional, and the games welcome.
While in the planning stages the Olympics seemed to be the corporations’ games, Danny Boyle’s production brought the people back to centre stage, reminding the world of who the games were truly about. The celebrations forgot no one as 7 billion pieces of biodegradeable paper representing every person on the planet, were set adrift across the stadium, and the next generation, the nation’s future, were held aloft in pride while honouring the generation past. The spectacle was as beautiful as the values it represented.
The opening of the celebrations proved a nostalgic ride in history. With rumours floating about in the run-up of Boyle’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ theme turning the stadium into rural Britain, complete with foliage and animals, one found it difficult to believe it possible. Yet the production went even further. It took us from the English countryside to industrial chimney-stacked Britain with a fluidity that proved the impossible is possible if one is only willing to dream and aspire as Boyle has; a most fitting sentiment for the games. There was clearly very little acting involved in Kenneth Branagh’s flush of pride as the blazing Olympic rings were forged mid-air above the industrialised isles.
In mentioning the many elements that make Britain great, no soul was left untouched. The inclusion of children at the forefront of the production was a mark of their place in Britain, and Boyle’s faith in the talent of the young proved one that held true. The many children that performed, from the choristers to the actors, were exceptional.
It was also a real pleasure to see inspirational individuals and organisations paid tribute to. The NHS and its staff were afforded the honour they deserve for their incredible services. While many have found cause to critique the NHS, it is those of us who live in nations that do not benefit from accessible healthcare that can recognise the NHS as an institution that should spark the pride and respect of everyone. Meanwhile, it was heartwarming to see renowned percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, take centre stage, while such civil rights activists as Shami Chakrabarti were lent the honour of bearing the Olympic flag.
Pleasing, also, was the inclusion of the multicultural elements that contribute to the brilliance of modern Britain, from influences of South Asian music to the elaborate portrayal of the first West Indian working immigrants, joining to help rebuild the post-war nation. The nuanced elements of British culture and heritage were not forgotten either, as the richness of our children’s literature were shared by none other than J K Rowling, and the theme songs of such quintessentially British shows as Dr Who and The Archers found their place on stage.
Of the many secrets and surprises so carefully guarded, none however was more appreciated than those surrounding the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. Making the last leg of its 8,000 mile journey across the Thames to its new home in Stratford, the light was received by five-time British Olympic gold medalist Sir Steven Redgrave who then went on to hand it to the real lighters of the flame: seven teenage British athletes nominated by previous British champion Olympians. A generation truly inspired, as the heroes of the past passed the torch to the heroes of the future, bringing the Olympic motto vividly to light.
The young athletes then went on to light the innovative Olympic Cauldron. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, it is composed of 204 copper petals, one for each nation, rising on long stems to form a single magnificent flame. Each nation will go on to take a copper petal back to their home countries as a memento of a summer like no other. As the sparkling banner proudly proclaimed, “This is for everyone”.
However, for all the glory of the opening ceremony, the proceedings were somewhat marred by the questionable commentary included as part of the BBC broadcast. In particular, the commentators’ propensity to mention the oil reserves of innumerable nations was at best bewildering and at worst a reflection of the consumerist, and almost colonialist, undertones of their attitudes towards these countries. What oil has to do with their entrance into the Olympics is anyone’s guess. One may as well have designed a checklist of nations to invade for their precious resources.
BBC commentary on certain nations also came across as patronising, and even mocking, in tone. As the Bangladesh athletes entered the stadium, laughing comments were made on the nation’s significant population in comparison to its number of athletes and medals won. As a country with a significant British presence in London’s east end, the statements were in particular bad taste. Similarly, nations such as Rwanda and Somalia were introduced in terms of the challenges they faced from war and genocide, rather than the glory they brought for their nations by competing, while numerous Arab nations were condescendingly appraised in terms of their female participation.
In spite of their ironic assertion, “we’re forgetting all the problems of the world with the Olympics”, the commentators ensured that no one did, and that the countries were defined to the viewers not through positive observations but through negativity and ignorance.
Boyle did indeed make Britain truly great, redefining its past colonial identity in achieving greatness from what it takes and owns, to being great from what it gives back. This is the modern Great Britain, and it is for everyone. The labour of the many thousands involved in bringing the spectacular ceremony to fruition proved a great triumph and it is only unfortunate that the BBC commentary proved almost equally successful in spoiling it.
The Olympic opening ceremony succeeded in defining the almost indefinable: the nuanced, vibrant and quirky [even the Queen deigned to act] British spirit encased in the often inscrutable exterior of the stiff upper lip. To fault a production so impressive is a struggle. For a small moment we forgot the many concerns surrounding the Olympics. For a moment we all believed in magic in our isles of wonder.