Isles of…

It’s here. The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. I’ll say upfront that I’m more than a little cynical about the games, and particularly about the relentless, neverending marketing of, well, seemingly everything to do with the games.

The team putting together this spectacle, though – headed by Danny Boyle – is intriguing, and it’s the biggest show this country will stage this year. So… liveblog, slightly edited, first, then commentary afterwards.

9.01pm  Opening credits – oh Gawd – start with a parody of EastEnders, mixed with Lloyd Webber’s Paganini variations and a snatch of Muse.

9.03pm Bradley Wiggins can cycle really fast for a long time, but can he ring a bell? Oh, yes he can. Good.

9.04pm Three minutes in, and we’ve got a choir of children singing already. Solo treble singing ‘Jerusalem’. He’s very good. Choirs of children from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – they’re ordinary kids, not choral scholars, and they’re excellent. Rural scenes – grass, fields, farmers, peasants, geese. This might be who we were, but it mostly isn’t who we are today.

9.05pm – Is that Kenneth Branagh in a top hat? And look, there are some less famous actors dressed as poor people. And the choir is back to singing ‘Jerusalem’.

9.06pm – Yes, that’s Kenneth Branagh, and my God, he can mug to the cameras. There’s none of that in ‘Wallander’. Thank God. Apparently he’s playing Brunel; he’s delivering a speech from ‘The Tempest’, and clearly having the time of his life. Good job there’s a lot of scenery, because he’s leaving bite-marks in most of it.

Since this is directed by Danny Boyle, of course, the first thing I want to know is when someone is going to dive head-first into a toilet?

(Our national dignity already did that several days ago, so no, you’ll have to bet on something else.)

9.08pm – Oh, goody. Now we get a tableau vivant depicting the coming of the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent decline of rural Britain. No room in these three hours to go back through more than 250 years of our history, then.  Evelyn Glennie hammering the percussion dressed as a peasant, actors dressed as more peasants walking over turf… it’s huge. Drummers in the aisles, rising mill  chimneys… it’s undeniably impressive. And loud. Mill chimneys rising out of the ground; I’m from the middle of the area where the Industrial Revolution began, and it’s a part of our history that we don’t often show to the rest of the world. For better or worse, what happened here then changed the world, and it’s far more important, in terms of the makeup of our contemporary society, than the bucolic rural scenes we saw at the beginning.

9.13pm – As set-changes go, this one is pretty good. This section, apparently, is called ‘Pandemonium’. Here come the suffragettes. Goodness, we’re moving through history quickly here, aren’t we? The music is loopy, bombastic electro-dreck. Interesting, though, that what we’re seeing is mostly presented from the point of view of workers, with the industrialists/capitalists sidelined in a little group, apart from the main action.

9.14pm – There must be something wrong with my TV set. I can’t see any corporate logos.

9.15pm – Poppies. We’ve reached 1914.

9.16pm – Awww, cute. The Industrialists are pretending to be cho0-choo trains.

9.17pm – it’s the cover of ‘Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’! So two-thirds of the Twentieth Century can be summed up by a war memorial, industrial machinery, and the Beatles.  There’s a parade of (actual) war veterans walking through the middle of this, and it is, yes, entirely appropriate to put them centre stage. It’s a quick skip through history, from which the aristocracy and the Royal Family, so far, are conspicuously absent.

9.19pm – The grass that covered the – pitch? stage? – at the beginning is mostly gone, replaced by what looks like an iron foundry. This, actually, is interesting – a billion people around the world are watching this, and this is not the image of ourselves that we usually sell abroad.

9.21pm – The factory chimneys are sinking into the ground now, because the Tories killed our industrial base in the early 1980s.

9.22pm – and the massive iron foundry has brought forth the Olympic Rings, forged from the blood of peasant workers and Kenneth Branagh’s sweat. Or something. I think this is supposed to be moving as well as breathtakingly spectacular.

9.23pm – Film – ‘Happy and Glorious’ – about the Royal Family’s arrival at the ceremony. Couldn’t they have found something – anything – other than ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ to play behind the video sequence inside Buckingham Palace?

9.24pm – Yes. the Queen did just address Daniel Craig as Mr. Bond. She’s doing quite a nice job of not giggling at the absolute ridiculousness of it all.

9.25pm – Awww. Corgis.

9.26pm – Oh, bloody hell. The statue of Churchill just waved at HMQ’s copter (well, she’s not in it herself, obviously, it’s her body double and Daniel Craig).

9.28pm – the James Bond Theme. Heralding the Queen’s entrance into the Royal Box. Of course. NOT via parachute, that was a stunt double. And she’s introduced in French first. Like everything else.

9.30pm The Union Flag, brought in by servicemen and women. Flag raising accompanied by a performance of ‘God Save The Queen’ by a choir of deaf and hearing children. And they’re genuinely lovely, and it’s wonderful that they were given such a prominent moment in the ceremony. They get two verses of it as well. They could have gone for the usual suspects – a cathedral choir, trained choristers – and they didn’t, and the show is all the better for it.

9.33pm – ‘Second to the Right and Straight On Till Morning’. Mike Oldfield and a bunch of NHS staff, plus patients and staff from Great Ormond Street hospital. The title – the directions to Neverland that Peter Pan gave Wendy. I can think of plenty of worse things for us to celebrate here than literature for children. We’ve produced a lot of it, and a lot of it is justly celebrated throughout the world.

9.35pm – I’m a little less sure about a big dance number celebrating both kids’ literature and the NHS. The two themes don’t quite hang together. It’s very nicely staged, though. And I’m not sure whether spelling out GOSH in lights – Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital – will make sense to the rest of the world.

9.38pm – J.K. Rowling reading from Peter Pan. This is genuinely moving. If anyone shows that dreams can come true, she does.

9.39pm – Bad dreams, and things that go bump in the night, rendered via dance and puppets, with actors playing Voldemort and the Child Snatcher from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. The flying work is terrific; this sequence is surprisingly dark, particularly given the number of kids involved.

9.40pm – and here’s a team of Mary Poppinses (what is the plural of Poppins?), chasing the bad dreams away… which unfortunately leads Mr. Oldfield to begin playing his terminally twee version of ‘In Dulci Jubilo’.

9.44pm – And the children are all safely tucked up in bed. So that’s that. It’s great that we’ve just spent nearly 15 minutes of this paying tribute to the NHS. It would be even greater if our current government wasn’t so hell-bent on dismantling it piece by piece.

9.46pm – ‘Chariots of Fire’, conducted by Simon Rattle, with Mr. Bean on synth.

9.47pm – two minutes of Mr. Bean is about as much as I can stand, and the parody of the beach scene from ‘Chariots of Fire’ is not particularly funny.

9.51pm. Gosh, a red New Mini. Which is manufactured by that well-known British company, BMW. I wonder what’s going to happen next?

Oh. A flashback to the most infamous moment of Michael Fish’s career. The 1987 hurricane that he didn’t forecast. Oops.

9.52pm. British pop music, in the form of OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’. No lyrics. Then a verse of ‘Food Glorious Food’. And was that a brief clip of ‘The Cosby Show’?

9.54pm – we’re celebrating four decades of pop music, apparently. And we’re celebrating it with black-lighting and dayglo tights and leg-warmers.

9.56pm – musical segue from ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ to ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Ouch.

9.57pm – Glam rock. Spandex jumpsuits. It’s like the finale of ‘Mamma Mia’, only bigger and with less of a sense of restraint and decorum. It’s wildly silly, but also infectiously fun, and a good deal more tongue-in-cheek than these things often are.

9.58pm – Better musical segue: Bowie to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. There are dancers playing air guitar in the aisles.

9.59pm – Punk Rock is apparently being represented this evening by a gaggle of dancing leather-clad radishes.

10.00pm – New Order. ‘Blue Monday’. Then Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. This is the quick-fire 80s musical nightmare. Musical chronology is off – the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ was two years before Frankie’s ‘Relax’.

10.02pm – the dancing radishes are now pogoing on spring-loaded stilts. There, that’s not a sentence you expect to write every day, is it?

10.03pm – a clip of ‘Trainspotting’, followed by everyone singing  ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, followed by Huge Grunt saying ‘I love you to a walking hatstand Andie McDowell in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Whatever this means, it’s something to do with drugs.

10.05pm – quick flip from hip-hop to Bollywood and back. Gosh, we’re multicultural, aren’t we? Then the obligatory Amy Winehouse clip. No, it’ s not ‘Back to Black’. Then Muse’s awful ‘Uprising’, entertainingly being used as part of the soundtrack of the biggest corporate shindig this country has ever thrown.

10.07pm – and the commentators remind us that the soundtrack will be available to download from tomorrow. Good. We’d gone almost an hour without anyone trying to sell us anything, I was beginning to get worried.

10.09pm – footage of the torch relay. Lots of footage of the torch relay. Because obviously none of us have been watching the news at all at any time in the last seven weeks. I suppose they need the film clips to cover a set change in the stadium.

10.11pm – You know what’s great about this? (Oh, wait, as I typed that there was a brief clip of Camoron. Oh well). It’s about our diversity, and our urban culture. That is to say, it’s about who we really are, and not about the mythical version of this country that we usually wheel out when we try to market ourselves abroad. It’s also a singularly un-Tory vision of Britain (to the point where I suspect that some of the bigger lighting effects might be powered by the spontaneous self-immolation of Daily Mail readers). It’s easy to be cynical about what is essentially a spectacle designed to market us to the rest of the world, but a lot of what I’m seeing is genuinely surprising, and refreshingly unlike the stereotyped version of Great! Britain! that we package to tourists.

10.15pm – memorial section, which apparently means dancers in black leotards writhing to what sounds like an Enya cover of ‘Abide with Me’. Only it’s not Enya, it’s Emeli Sandé.

10.18pm. Still not convinced by the musical arrangement, but her voice is gorgeous, and this is absolutely stunning to watch. It’s even better when the backing track cuts out and she sings the last verse acapella. And I’m impressed by what this is not leaving out – this choreography is about 7/7, and it’s absolutely right that the show is acknowledging that part of our recent history.

10.20pm – and now we’re into the entrance parade of athletes of all nations. This’ll take a while.

10.22pm – Greek kid with a collection bowl. Ouch.

10.23pm – need the loo. Back in a moment.

(Move on, there’s nothing to see here.)

10.26pm – I’m back. That’s better.

10.28pm – the part of me that occasionally had to walk in processionals in church services when I was in choirs as a child/teenager/undergraduate slightly frowns on the sight of athletes filming the audience in the stadium on their smartphones/cameras as they parade in. But this is the biggest thing they’ve ever done, probably, and why the hell not? I’d want footage of it, if it was me.

10.30pm – nice matching cream suits for the Belarus team.

10.34pm – 14 minutes in to the parade, and we’re still only on Brazil. I needn’t have rushed to finish loading the dishwasher before this started.

10.38pm. The Canadian team all appear to have been shopping at Roots.

10.39pm – ooh, ‘West End Girls’. Accompanying the entrance of the teams from Chad, Chile and China.

10.44pm – Did Costa Rica recycle Belarus’s outfits?

10.46pm – the Czech team have chosen to accessorise their very smart blazers with incredibly camp shiny blue wellies and umbrellas, because it always rains here. Ha. I’m actually smiling.

10.50pm – just a reminder: the people who created this spectacle BEGAN THEIR CAREERS IN SUBSIDISED THEATRE. I know I’m shouting. Arts funding is important, and you only develop the kind of imagination you need to do this sort of thing well by learning the ropes away from the commercial arena.

10.52pm – Finland, Finland, Finland… the country where I quite want to be… pony-trekking or camping… or just watching TV… sorry, spaced out there for a moment.

10.54pm – So glad we have Aidan Burley MP’s twitter feed to lend comedy to the proceedings. What. A. Maroon:

10.55pm – Germany: campest outfits so far. Team Germany looked like a gaggle of off-duty dancers from a road production of ‘Footloose’.

11.01pm – the Queen looks like she wants a cup of tea. Can’t say I blame her.

11.05pm – Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Usain Bolt! Finally.

11.10pm – those drummers must be getting very tired.

11.13pm – Team GB won’t be up for another 45 minutes or so, apparently.

11.17pm – couldn’t Team Montenegro iron their jackets?

11.20pm – Bloody hell. It’s like the voting in Eurovision, only longer. And without the actual voting.

11.27pm – ELO in the background, irritating commentary in the foreground. The BBC’s presenters seem to feel they should deliver a constant voice-over discussion of the procession. They shouldn’t, less would be more.

11.31pm – on the one hand, the sheer number of countries involved is fascinating, and this is probably the only opportunity to show the global reach of the games. On the other hand… a parade this long is not great television, particularly coming after the first hour and a quarter of the show.

11.40pm – those poor sods from countries beginning with ‘A’. They’ve been standing now for an hour and twenty minutes, and there’s a good half-hour to go.

11.45pm – Bonsior, Tunisie!

11.47pm – quick, just time to get a drink before Team GB comes in.

11.48pm – Team USA. They, of course, have had their jackets pressed for the occasion.

11.50pm – Placing Team GB under ‘U’ in the alphabetical procession of nations obviously just a dastardly plot to get us all to watch the whole sodding show.

11.51pm – “Let’s hear it for the drummers, they’ve been at it now for hours.”

11.53pm – Oh. We’re not under ‘U’. Presumably, as host nation, we’re last.

11.55pm – Team GB. White tracksuits with gold lamé armpits. Seven billion bits of biodegradable confetti, representing everybody on the planet. It’s numbingly kitsch, absolutely staggering, and oddly moving, all at the same time.

11.56pm – Dear BBC, please stop showing us David Cameron. You get enough opportunities to do that on the News.

11.59pm – Team GB look very, very happy indeed. That’s because they got there via the Olympic VIP lanes rather than the Central Line.

12.01am – and we move from the procession to the Arctic Monkeys, and fireworks – none of which, unfortunately, are loud enough to drown out their lead singer.

12.03am – someone on Twitter just pointed out that most of the teams looked like airline cabin crew in their uniforms. Yes.

12.04am – Oh my. Cyclists with glow-in-the-dark wings.

12.06am – they were doves. Obviously. Because doves are noted for their love of cycling. It’s… odd, but also oddly lovely. One of them flies over the middle of the stadium, looking strangely like ET on his way to Phone Home.

12.07am – enter Seb Coe. In glasses. Enunciating carefully. Unfortunately he has the charisma of a bowl of Shreddies.

12.11am – Ooh. Platitudes. A bland speech, boringly delivered. Sorry, Seb. You worked very hard to make this happen, but public speaking is not your greatest strength.

12.16am – Speech #2 from Jacques Rogge. Not as good as Coe’s, and in French as well as English. It’s getting late.

12.17am – the Queen looks very, very tired. Not surprising.

12.19am – Doreen Lawrence is the first of the flag-carriers. Brilliant, and having her, of all the people who could have been chosen, lead the entrance of the flag is incredibly moving – cynical as I am about all of this, I have a lump in my throat. She’s a remarkably brave, dignified lady, and she’s absolutely the sort of person who should represent us to the world.

12.20am – and Muhammad Ali, battling Parkinson’s Disease and accompanied by a carer. Powerful.

12.23am – Lord, they’re raising this flag slowly.

12.24am – Becks. Speedboat. Canal. Meeting the final torch-carrier: Steve Redgrave. And quite right too. If anyone deserves to do this, he does.

12.27am – the oaths. These people look very nervous as they read. Huge audience watching all over the world. That can’t be easy.

12.28am – and, yes, the Olympic Torch is introduced in French.

12.30am – no, even better: Steve Redgrave is not the final torch-carrier. He’s handing the torch off to seven young athletes from this year’s team. Quite right, too.

12.33am – OK, yes, this is magnificent. There’s been a lot of insanity surrounding the run-up to this moment, but I doubt anybody has ever staged this part of the proceedings better than this. It’s a dazzling spectacle, and it has real emotional weight. And the flame in the stadium – lit by multiple young athletes, rather than one VIP –  is extraordinarily lovely.

12.37am – and that’s quite a fireworks display.

12.40am – Paul McCartney. Lip-synching, badly. For the first verse of ‘Hey Jude’, his mouth movements and the vocal track are a good four bars apart.

12.43am – at least the crowd are singing live. Unlike Sir Paul.

12.45am – na na hey Jude. Milking it a bit. Particularly since he’s mostly not singing. When so much of what has gone before has been so striking, this is a let-down. It’s a very, very bad performance.

12.47am – aaaand that’s all, folks.  Show’s over.

So… I was expecting a full-evening version of a Debbie Allen Dance Number from the Oscars. This was better than that, often much better, and some of it was genuinely remarkable and surprisingly moving. The stage-management was faultless, the lighting design was superb, and above all else it’s very clear that Danny Boyle and his team have thought long and hard about precisely how they want to present contemporary Britain to the rest of the world. This was mostly not the tourist-board, chocolate-box image of Brand Britain that we peddle abroad. This was very British (and not just English, either), to the point that some of the nuances probably aren’t going to travel abroad terribly well. It very deliberately presented nearly everything from the point of view of everyday people, and it put forward the best version of what we are: a hard-working, secular, multicultural society with a rich history and a vibrant cultural heritage. Of course there was a certain amount of schlock – that’s inevitable – but this was, overall, a far more thoughtful presentation than I think anyone was expecting, and while it was sombre when it needed to be, it was carried off with a genuine sense of fun.

It’s also, of course, important to note that – a few name actors and significant figures aside – the cast was almost entirely made up of volunteers. The performances – apart from Mr. McCartney – were faultless, and the message throughout was very clear: this is for everybody (a slogan that, at one point, was actually spelled out in lights in the stands). My cynical side notes that this of-the-people-for-the-people approach stands in stark contrast to a sporting event whose financing and marketing appears to have been designed mostly to benefit multinational corporations rather than the ordinary inhabitants of the very depressed area of east London where it’s being staged, and the presence in the stadium of Bahrain’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Alyev leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth, but it’s still very heartening to see that the directors make a very deliberate choice to place volunteer performers and people who have made a significant contribution to society front and centre, rather than a parade of celebs, politicians and pop stars.

So no, not perfect – but striking, surreal, often gripping, occasionally very moving, and far, far better than we had any right to expect (for one thing, Wenlock and Mandeville, thank God, were nowhere to be seen). I’m surprised and genuinely impressed. This wasn’t simply a by-the-numbers retreat of a series of tired patriotic tropes. It at least attempted to show who we are and where we come from. I expected to giggle, and I mostly didn’t, and some of it was genuinely extremely powerful. By the end, my cynicism had mostly dissolved – at least, in relation to the opening ceremony. This was remarkable television. For once, we really did present our best face to the rest of the world – and it wasn’t quite the face I was expecting to see.

4 thoughts on “Isles of…

  1. I agree with your assessment of the ceremony almost entirely. I didn’t really *get* the whole “Frankie and Johnny Give Thanks to Tim” or whatever it was. I know about Tim, who he is and what he’s accomplished, but the accompanying story and huge crowd of candy-colored kiddies were kind of lost on me (even with the U.S. commentator’s feeble narration). (Oh, and you weren’t mistaken: that *was* a brief snippet from The Cosby Show. Almost gave me whiplash. Was the show *that* popular in the U.K.? Would it help if I apologized on behalf of my country?)

    Yes, Branagh is taken with himself, er — his country — isn’t he?

    Much of it was quite moving and impressive; I’m glad they didn’t resort to throngs of faux-Dickensian children moping about singing that horrible “Food” song. And I, too, was stunned by the mostly lack of commercialism, though the typical U.S. commercial interruptions were, as usual, infuriating.

    One minor quibble: It was seven, not five, young athletes who received the flame from Redgrave, and the U.S. talkers explained that they were not participants of these games, but represented (and were training for) the next Olympiad in four years.

    Ah, Rio by the sea-o……will it be four hours of shaking and shimmying of beautiful waxed bodies? We can hope.

  2. P.S. I hope the musical tribute to the NHS made U.S. elected officials uneasy.

    And was it just me or did it seem, in the brief shot of them smiling their vapid, carnivorous Mormon smiles that the Romneys had a lot of empty seats around them; as if NO ONE wanted to be seen in the same shot as them?

  3. Karen: I’d guess it started so late partly so that it would be beginning to get dark by the time the show got under way, which would help with the lighting design, and partly so that the live broadcasts wouldn’t start too *early* in continental Europe. I think it ran over a little; the planner on my DVR had it finishing at 12.30, and it went on for about twenty minutes or so after that.

    Bill – I thought I’d caught the error in the number of athletes. It’s corrected now.

    That segment in the middle was basically just a celebration of our popular culture. I’m sure there was a point, but it was probably best to just let it wash over you and enjoy the spectacle. Although part of the point, certainly, *was* that the cast were studiedly multicultural.

    ‘The Cosby Show’ was certainly popular here, but I’m not sure it was *that* big.

    Romney’s presence here this week has generally gone down like a lead balloon, largely due to his own crass behaviour. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, at this point, his entering any given room created an instant twenty-metre exclusion zone around him and his entourage.

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