Remembering the 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony

The 2012 London Olympic Opening Ceremony was a significant moment for London. Not because it marked the opening of one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events and not because it marked the first time a city had hosted the games for a third occasion. Bizarrely, the significance of the opening ceremony lay in the fact that it managed in one four hour show, to scope, affirm and celebrate the astonishing contribution that Great Britain and London had made to popular music, over the last half century. In effect the opening ceremony constituted Britain presenting a lifetime achievement award to itself, a gold medal if you like, smugly, but with enough warrant for it to be done confidently, in front of a global audience. It was truly a moment to be proud of. That this occurred owed nothing to foresight, but instead to the need to find something British to be celebrated coincided with the fiftieth birthday of permissiveness, liberalism and popular music, and since when an awesome variety of musical genres and styles have been created and exported around the world. The catalyst for this coincidence was Danny Boyle, the man to whom the ceremony directorship had been handed, a man well read in popular music and determined to demonstrate Britain’s contribution.

To ensure the show paid homage to the immensity of Britain’s contribution to popular music, and to the diversity of the styles created, Danny Boyle recruited the band Underworld, iconic figures of 1990s dance culture, and collaborators with Boyle on previous cinematic and theatrical soundtracks, to pick the music. Homage was paid throughout the opening ceremony, but perhaps the first and most significant contribution, came an hour or so into the show, when the show turned to the journey made by a group of teenage girls, who went through a tour of British musical culture. The tour started with the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 60s, moved to the Sex Pistols and punk rock in the 70s, onto the new romantics, acid house and dance music of the 80s, via the trance of Underworld and the techno of Prodigy in the 90s before finishing with a live performance by Dizzy Rascal, contemporary purveyor of hip hop and dance fusion. But this wasn’t all. As the athletes entered the stadium their steps were accompanied and encouraged by a montage of high tempo dance and indie rock. During this time the Bee Gees’ Night Fever greeted the entrance of Fiji, a rhyming coincidence, and besides that touching, given the death of member Robin Gibbs, some months before. Then, once the athletes were ensconced inside the running track, and everyone was expecting the ceremony to take on a spiritual harmonious feel, the Arctic Monkeys appeared, the Arctic monkeys being a furious rock band from Sheffield, who came to prominence midway through the first decade of the new millennium. From a platform situated high up in the stadium they blew an electric storm into the audience’s faces, thrashing out their anthem ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor’. And finally, and fittingly, after the Olympic flame had been lit, the world and athletes were engaged, arm in arm, swaying and singing to the chorus of ‘Heh Jude’ led inevitably by septuagenarian, Paul McCartney, front man for Britain’s greatest contribution to popular music. By this time the true scale of Britain’s popular music achievement was dawning on the global audience. Seeing Paul McCartney egging the crowd on, reminded one of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, only this was a Golden Jubilee.

At the time it took place many spectators were keen to compare and contrast London’s opening ceremony with that which took place in Beijing, China, four years earlier. Beijing’s 2008 opening ceremony had been stunning, futuristic, powerful and disciplined. It had communicated the Chinese authorities’ control, resources and global supremacy. China was depicted as a young bull, strong, whose hour was about to come, and yet, in its determined drive to assert its power, China also came across as self-conscious, isolated, disaffected and distrustful of the world. London’s ceremony featured a number of differences, which said something about the nature of London and Britain and how they differed from Beijing and China. London’s ceremony said nothing about what it was trying to achieve in the world, and was focussed very much on what it had already achieved. The ceremony started off with a romantic potted history of London and Great Britain. The stadium was filled with grassy meadows and hillocks, wandering maids, stooping cricketers and waddling geese, reminiscent of Britain’s agricultural past. The landscape then underwent an industrial revolution, replete with ashen-faced workers and Victorian entrepreneurs. This historical transition was interspersed with reminders of famous actors, authors and fictional characters, from Charlie Chaplin to Charles Dickens, from Mary Poppins to Harry Potter. London was celebrated as the birthplace of the National Health Service and the inventor of the Internet. London then, far from being a young bull, was an ageing stag, a grandfather who had seen great days, but now old and weak, was less interested in challenging for the mantel, and happy to nestle in his laurels and history.

The ceremony was self-indulgent, celebrating artists, institutions and events of national but not international importance. Live performances from musicians such as Dizzy Rascal and Arctic Monkeys were examples. Homages paid to the National Health Service and Great Ormond Street hospital were others. This self-indulgence suggested a city, which in contrast to Beijing, wasn’t concerned about impressing and intimidating, but instead wanted to throw a party for the people of Great Britain, one which the rest of the world was invited to join in. London, wrongly or rightly, felt understood by the world, a friend of the world and at one with the world. The ceremony also showed that London was at one with itself, warts and all, that London could be self-deprecating, in a way that the eager to impress and awkward Beijing could not. One of the opening shots of the televised coverage of the opening ceremony was a fake cloud mounted in the Olympic stadium, recognition of the fact that London did not always feel such a great city when soaked by the rain and dulled by clouds, as it so often was.

Another key difference was the celebration of permissive liberal society, which defined post-war liberal western European society as a whole, and which took root in London and Great Britain during the 1960s, thanks to the right to freedom of speech, a right which has been enshrined for much longer. A video was featured of two women engaged in a passionate kiss, one blogger questioning whether this was the first example of a televised lesbian kiss on Saudi Arabian TV. In a video shown to television viewers prior to the opening ceremony a camera whizzed over the Thames, stopping for a second at the House of Parliament, where the rasping voice of Johnny Rotten could be heard snarling, ‘God Save the Queen’ after which a silence came, during which time everyone including the Queen herself, sat in the Olympic stadium ready to open the games, uttered, the next bit of verse. Without the permissive society, Britain’s counter-cultural musical genres would never have seen the light of day. Beyond music the ceremony also depicted the miners’ protests against the closure of mines during the 1980s, the suffragette’s fight for a vote for women, and the march of unemployed men from the town of Jarrow in the 1930s. These aspects demonstrated the way in which both London and Britain allows for variation, deviation and dissent and is able to incorporate these elements into fractured, dissonant but ultimately stable society, in ways in which Beijing and China, focussed on control, discipline, co-ordination and pacification could never do. A key message to come out of the ceremony was that by allowing freedom of speech, difference of opinion and lifestyle, one unleashes a force of creativity, and goodwill, which one could never plan for centrally. One gets more from a nation, where each member is empowered to follow his or her path, than one that is controlled to meet the destiny of the ruling elite. Furthermore security can just as easily be attained by allowing indifference, criticism and dissent, as it can by control, intimidation and intolerance. The very choosing of Danny Boyle to direct the opening ceremony, was, it might be argued, based on this supposition. Boyle is a man who embodies counter-culture. One of his earliest and greatest works, the film Trainspotting depicted and celebrated addiction, hedonism and thuggery. However Boyle is equally comfortable with the mainstream, one of his latter works being an acclaimed version of Frankenstein produced for the National Theatre.

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