Best of British

Danny Boyle’s audacious Olympics opening ceremony fused the past, present and future in a startling, passionate and inventive show.
The ambition of Olympics opening ceremonies has grown over the decades but everyone seemed in agreement that 2008’s Beijing offering was as spectacular as it could get without becoming ludicrous and out of hand both artistically and also financially. So film director Danny Boyle’s task was enormous yet he has succeeded. Last night’s show was equal parts historic, symbolic, optimistic and hugely entertaining.
Boyle has already been accused of offering a left wing version of British history and culture which only Tory MPs of course would say (imagine how horrendous a right wing version might have been complete with a golden Mrs Thatcher rising from the furnaces!) but this did not come across. If the critics are saying he showed how inventive, hard working and resourceful Britain has been and remains then surely people of any political persuasion would say that was both true and to be encouraged.
Nationalism though is a tricky thing to pitch correctly in the fever of a show like this and the production deserves enormous credit for never resorting to jingoism. Boyle’s patriotism is a positive love of where we live and rather than a negative dislike of everywhere else. You could even say he has reclaimed national pride from those who would use it to preach hate.
The most remarkable thing was the show’s inclusiveness. Even at the start, we had national songs for each of the British Isles rather than just settling for an English one. The increasing diversity of our culture through the ages was celebrated and most of all the majority of the performers were not trained actors or dancers, but people like you and me. If some of the details of the history presented in the first half hour or so were lost on those less familiar with the iconography, the sentiment was presented so well. Toil, development, and creativity- these were visible whether or not you knew the intricate detail.
Inevitably the social commentary took second place to the sheer spectacle. With such a huge stadium to fill there was always a risk that the efforts of some individuals would be lost and it was here that the choreography scored. Though mostly basic movement, when performed by hundreds at a time it translated well making the presentation feel warm and welcoming rather than austere with excellent transitions between segments.
Some of the sequences were breathtaking, other moving, some very funny, others just surreal. If sometimes it seemed sport had been forgotten the post athlete’s entrance section pulled us back to the purpose. Endless speculation in the last week as to who would be lighting the Olympic flame was kicked into touch because nobody had guessed it would be nobody famous at all. Instead some British Olympic legends had each nominated a young promising athlete and it was these seven hopefuls that had the honour. Thus that slogan that never seemed to quite fit before –“inspire a generation”- was demonstrated in a powerful moment. Genius!
At this rate, the actual sport will be something of an anticlimax! There was so much in a ceremony that lasted in total more than three and a half hours to mention everything but these are the highlights...
SIR KEN! Yes, what celebration of Britain would be complete without Sir Kenneth Branagh, sporting Bradley Wiggins style mutton chops and a stove pipe hat reciting Shakespeare.
CHIMNEYS! This was perhaps the most theatrical moment as the fake green fields were torn away and several tall smoking chimneys grew from out of the ground heralding the industrial revolution. First gasp out loud moment.
THE FLYING OLYMPIC RINGS! The second `OMG` moment occurred when five rings began to rise from the steel works set and slowly began to move together. Forged on the night, or so it seemed, they touched and sparks flew from them and if it had ended there people would have felt they had had their money’s worth. Because it happened live as opposed to some CGI moment in a movie, it seemed even more incredible.
THE NHS! The most overtly political moment celebrated the wonder of the NHS currently of course undergoing cuts. Yet any sourness that right wing types might feel was deftly undercut when this section segued into children’s literature and Mary Poppins arrived by the dozen. Of course if these cuts continue, a spoonful of sugar will be all the hospitals can afford.
UNDERWORLD! Who would have thought that erstwhile “lager, lager, lager” dance merchants could come up with music that ebbed and swelled with the production, always accompanying but never overwhelming the visuals? They did a fabulous job.
JAMES BOND AND THE QUEEN! It really was her! Most people probably think it was done with overdubs and clever shooting but Her Maj really did speak one line welcoming James Bond aka Daniel Craig before the two were whisked off by helicopter to the stadium. Such capering really needed Roger Moore’s arched eyebrows to make it truly camp.
ABIDE WITH ME In the midst of the smoke filled spectacle, one of the most stunning sequences occurred when Emile Sande performed `Abide With Me` to a delicate arrangement accompanied by dancers choreographed by Akram Khan. Long since thought of as that song they sing before the Cup Final, its poignancy was re-ignited in this tribute to the fallen and the lost.
MR BEAN! A curious choice you’d think but Boyle knows the character is beloved around the world so even those baffled by Sir Ken and the Chimneys would appreciate a little Beaning about with Chariots of Fire.
STARMAN! The musical pageant took in snippets of British pop music from The Beatles to artists most people over the age of 20 have never heard of. Yet the special bit was saved for Bowie’s `Starman` when people in jet packs rose into the air. You see, they said we’d have jet packs in the future.
THE FLAGS ON THE HILL! A great touch of togetherness was the idea that each team would plant thier national flag on the hill at one end of the stadium, united under the Olympic flag. Of course, if G4S are involved, nobody will get their own flag back.
THE DRUMMERS! Word out to those drummers who had to drum for an hour and a half as the athletes entered the stadium ,especially those we could see each time a new team went past. They had to keep smiling and looking lively as well as drumming as a total of 204 countries went past. I hope the drummers have got free seats to as many events as they like.
THE TORCH AND THE CAULDRON! Was it going to be David Beckham? Sir Steve Redgrave? Sir Roger Bannister? The Queen? Simon Cowell? Ha, what do these people know. Yet even if we had known, imagine our surprise at what happened once the cauldron was lit. Flaming metallic petals rose together to create a mighty fire. OMG x 100!! Though the effect was slightly dampened by a commentator revealing “Of course, they’re going to move the cauldron for the events”. Why? Why not have a giant roast hog cooking over it to feed the athletes? How traditionally British would that be!


  1. Have you seen Frank Cottrell Boyce's account of working on the event in The Observer? Battles with sponsors and LOCOG, and praise for the volunteers, of course.

    1. I didn't see it but I heard rumours of ructions behind the scenes. I hope all concerned thought it was worth it because the end result was so good.