I’ve been thinking about the Olympics opening ceremony for days, and better get some thoughts down before they’re obliterated by the games themselves. Many others have already got in first, of course, and it’s especially worth reading these good blog posts and Metafilter comments, as well as the thoughts of its director Danny Boyle and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce.

A few weeks ago I went with a friend to see Prometheus, the first night out at the movies for either of us in months. We splurged on the 3D IMAX version, which made it all look so much bigger and bolder, and despite the hokey Erich von Däniken plot device, we both enjoyed it; it had some good thrills and looked fantastic. But my enjoyment was tempered when, curious to see what others thought, I read some online commentary about it the next day. It seems that “everybody” hated Prometheus, which was full of plot holes and weak characters and had a hokey Erich von Däniken plot device. Its main crime seemed to be that it wasn’t nearly as believable as Alien. You know, that well-known documentary about the hazards of interplanetary space travel, as opposed to Ridley Scott’s current work of obvious fantasy.

I should have known better, then, than to go back to the well of online commentary on Boyle’s Isles of Wonder, because those links above are only the positive stuff; there are many Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells out there too, if you venture below the comments fold of those and other pages.

It’s been criticized as cliched. Never mind that it was full of things that nobody has ever seen before: industrial chimneys rising from a stadium, hundreds of dancers celebrating the NHS, the Queen parachuting from a helicopter with James Bond, the newly-forged Olympic rings showering sparks, and a cauldron unlike any other.

It’s been criticized as historically inaccurate, as if the whole thing should have been a Merchant Ivory production or a BBC documentary. As being too multicultural, as if it were for an Olympics in any other city than London, one of the most multicultural places on earth. As being full of old guys like Paul McCartney and Rowan Atkinson, as if Dizzie Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys weren’t featured strongly; and as being full of noisy young acts like Dizzie Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys, as if Paul McCartney, Mike Oldfield and the plethora of classic rock songs in the soundtrack weren’t either.

I didn’t watch it on Friday night; I met up with some mates for the evening instead. But when I got home, J. was still watching it. And when she told me that Mike Oldfield had been on it, I knew I’d have to watch it on iPlayer the next night, even if he was only a 30-second guest appearance in some giant medley.

I hadn’t seen an opening ceremony in years; when the 2008 ceremony was sitting on iPlayer we never quite had the time to watch it. My last was probably the 1998 Commonwealth Games, which we saw in person after J. won a trip to Kuala Lumpur from a Hardy’s wine bottle. (That’s Hardy’s, the South Australian wines of choice for competition winners everywhere.) My only similar reference point was the Millennium Dome Show in 2000, with music by Peter Gabriel. Neither really came close to what we just saw.

I enjoyed seeing Mike, of course, and it was great that he featured so much more than a 30-second spot. It was good to think that people might now stop associating Tubular Bells with The Exorcist and associate it with the NHS and children’s stories instead. (Here’s Oldfield himself on how he became involved in the ceremony, plus an interview at the Telegraph.)

But even for this Oldfield fan of old, his appearance wasn’t the musical highlight. That was instead the new Underworld tracks composed for the event, especially the Pandemonium section; and the carefully selected snippets from fifty years of British popular music—not the Pop Idol stuff it might have been, but punk and the Floyd and New Order and “Bonkers” and Blur. The effect was of a round-up of everything the UK had been up to since it last hosted the games in 1948.

I loved the furious dancing choreographed to silence during the 7/7 tribute. Loved catching a glimpse of a top-hatted Noel Fielding on roller-skates. Enjoyed Rowan Atkinson’s bit, and Kenneth Branagh as Brunel. But the highlight had to be the surprise appearance of Tim Berners-Lee live-tweeting from the stage. That, and the cauldron petals coming together, and those rings showering sparks.

I hadn’t expected to be so swept up in it all. Hadn’t expected that I’d feel so British at the end of it, when I’m an immigrant dual-citizen who doesn’t have nearly the claim of someone born and raised here. But the culture and landscape it celebrated is a big part of my life too, even if it isn’t the only part. It’s remarkable to think of the power of a single ceremony to invoke such feelings; but as someone who has hung around anthropologists obsessed with ceremonial I probably shouldn’t be surprised.

The moment that stuck with me the most, though, was an ambiguous passing shot of Branagh looking up admiringly at the towering chimneys belching their soot across Britain. Boyle and Boyce surely intended us to feel ambivalent about a celebration of the Industrial Revolution; after thinking about climate change even more than usual this past month (which I’ll have to feed into a subsequent post), I sure did. London’s own rich history may have only another century or two to run before it succumbs to the tide. That lends an even more elegaic quality to the strains of “Eclipse” playing over views of the burning cauldron.

Not really what you expect to feel from the opening of an occasional sporting event.

1 August 2012 · Events