OUT OF LONDON Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics walked such a fine line between the Right and the Left that it had both sides drooling over it
With his opening ceremony for the London Games, Danny Boyle managed to pull off an act of subversion so subtle that neither side in Britain’s culture wars noticed it. Or, each pretended that it was directed against the “other”.
The quirkiness of Mr. Boyle’s romp through British history has allowed both the Right and the Left to interpret it to suit their own ideological predilections — the former conveniently overlooking how it subverted the Thatcherite notion of individualism; and the latter ignoring its romanticised account of Britain’s past.
The Tories have seized on the show’s nostalgic references to pre-industrial rural England — a period they revere as a “golden age” before it was destroyed by industrialisation — as a tribute to their own vision of Britain. The Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recalled how he struggled to control “hot tears of patriotic pride” as he watched the pageant.
Those on the Left have chosen to highlight its focus on multiculturalism and public services, especially the National Health Service.
“To people in countries impoverished and racked by ethnic bias and religious conflict, this will look like the true wonder of these isles,” said Trevor Phillips, the Afro-Caribbean chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The result is a rare political consensus around the vision of a man hated by many on the Right. One Right-wing filmmaker described Mr. Boyle as a “miserable northern socialist”. Nor is he every Left-winger’s darling. He is simply too eclectic to fit into a mould.
All manner of superlatives have been used to praise Boyle’s Isles of Wonder: “awe-inspiring”, “quintessentially British”, “bold and brilliant”, and simply “wonderful”. The Times, clearly inspired by the film sequence featuring the Queen and James Bond, called it “Shaken and Stirred”.
The show has spawned a new political correctness that doesn’t permit any criticism. A Tory MP, Aidan Burley, was slapped down by party grandees for calling it “leftie multicultural crap”.
“That is nonsense. I’m a Conservative and I had hot tears of patriotic pride from the beginning. I was blubbing like Andy Murray,” thundered Mr. Johnson.
In this climate, even Downing Street thought fit to distance itself from Mr. Burley’s comment with Prime Minister David Cameron personally hailing Mr. Boyle’s effort as “a great showcase for this country”.
On the Left, Labour veteran Roy Hattersley’s was the only dissenting voice. He said that in trying to portray the elusive “spirit of Britain”, Mr. Boyle had ended up sentimentalising its past and reinforcing the myth of a pre-industrial rural idyll.
“One of the most blatant [myths] was endorsed by the sheep that safely grazed and the ploughman who plodded his weary way in the Olympic Stadium last night. We really believe that, once upon a time in the golden age before the industrial revolution and the Common Agricultural Policy, this land was Arcadia,” he wrote in a newspaper article “raising a rose-tinted glass to Danny Boyle”.
For saying this, he was bombarded with angry comments, including vicious personal attacks.
“Hattersley is right that we shouldn’t be constantly looking over our shoulders assuming the past is better than the present. His career and contribution to politics rather serves to prove his point,” commented one Patrick Watkinson alluding to his disastrous bid for Labour leadership and his almost non grata status in the party today.
Much of the reaction has focused on the show’s humour, its technical brilliance (cotton storm clouds, dozens of Mary Poppins’ dropping down from the sky, “dark satanic mills” rising from the ground) and “quirkiness” as exemplified by the Queen-Bond rendezvous. This ignores what was central to Mr. Boyle’s narrative — the people.
Impressive though the gadgetry and special effects were, ultimately it was the throbbing presence of human beings on the stage — a parade of peasants, industrial workers, Jarrow marchers, suffragettes, nurses, musicians, writers — that made it such a watchable experience
The show derived much of its power and infectious energy from its 15,000-strong cast of volunteers — men, women and children representing the ordinary people who lived through and shaped Britain’s cultural and political history.
Rebutting the Thatcherite view that there was no such thing as a society but only individuals all pursuing their own interests, Mr. Boyle presented a vision of Britain as a collective human endeavour. As critic Miranda Sawyer pointed out, he “chose to celebrate what we can achieve together”.
But he did it ever so slyly, dressing it up as a celebration of national pride and co-opting the Queen, that Thatcher’s heirs who rule Britain today missed the trick. How could a show appearing to drip with nostalgia for “Merrie England”, warm beer and cricket — and with the Queen in a starring role — be anything but authentically British, they wondered.
As Mr. Johnson said: “It wasn’t global ‘Brito-pap’. It wasn’t just Big Ben and Beefeaters and red buses and stuff. It was actually the truth about this country in the last two or three hundred years told in a big, dynamic way.”
Until Mr. Boyle turned up, people had been palpably absent from the Games. No attempt was made to involve them in the planning, which actually seemed to keep them out with intimidating security, a chaotic ticket sales system and bizarre sponsorship rules that prevented people from using the Olympic rings even as a mark of their support for the Games by, for example, painting the rings on their front doors and car bonnets, or displaying them in shop windows.
A young florist, who put up Olympic rings made of tissue paper in her shop window was threatened with legal action and forced to take them down.
“I was just trying to help people get into the Olympic spirit — I haven’t used it to advertise my own products, I was just trying to support Team GB,” said Lisa Cross echoing similar complaints from other people.
People felt excluded from the Games. Danny Boyle made them wanted — and that alone made his show a triumph.