Monday, 30 July 2012

Isles of Wonder

by George Neame

The five rings join to form the Olympic symbol
(source: Daily Mail)
There is no doubt that designing, directing and producing the ‘greatest show on Earth’ must have been an arduous task, but, finally, on Friday 27th July, Danny Boyle and co sat down to watch their creation come to life before the world’s eyes. With £27 million at his disposal, Boyle (British director of blockbusters such as Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and 127 Hours) had stated he did not intend to match the jaw-dropping spectacle of Beijing’s ceremony four years ago (which, by the way, had a staggering budget of £100 million), but, instead, wanted to return the Games to the people and celebrate ‘something unique about this country’. With this in mind, 25 minutes before the show was scheduled to start, Boyle addressed the audience to thank the thousands of volunteers who had helped the ceremony come together, claiming ‘this is their show’. And it certainly was.

‘Isles of Wonder’ was the name of the show itself, and, although there was little wondrous about the rolling rural set that covered the floor of the Olympic Stadium prior to the countdown, there was definitely something magical and spectacularly British about it. A variety of live animals, from sheep to geese, were herded around the makeshift fields, and cricket was played by men and boys in outfits that were intended to celebrate the success of British costumed drama. It was slightly unfortunate (but exciting nonetheless) to have to watch the livestock be cleared in time for the ceremony to start and, at 8.59, the screens turned to a huge countdown, following numbers across London, such as speed limit signs, street markings and No.10 Downing Street. Then the show began.

A short film flies the audience from the source of the Thames right to the Olympic Park itself, before Bradley Wiggins, who recently became Britain’s first Tour de France winner, steps into the spotlight to ring Europe’s largest bell. At this signal, a young boy begins to sing Jerusalem, joined by choirs from Scotland, Wales and Ireland with other traditional hymns and songs. Whilst the volunteers below continue to enjoy the pastoral setting, Kenneth Branagh alights from a horse-drawn carriage, posing as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and climbs ‘Glastonbury Tor’ at the far end of the stadium. ‘Be not afeared,’ he proclaims, ‘The isle is full of noises’. Such a speech from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is fitting and resounds throughout the rest of the ceremony, as it seems the directors aimed to ensure the ceremony highlighted that Britain is full of noises and much, much more.

Fireworks over the Olympic stadium
Beginning slowly, the rumble of drums is heard, led by deaf percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, building up to a loud shout as 2,000 volunteers emerge from around the stadium, tearing up the rural landscaping as they swarm the ground. This is, of course, the Industrial Revolution. Enormous chimneys rise from the ground and a cacophony of noise fills the air, in order to imitate the pandemonium of the time (“pandemonium” a term coined by John Milton to describe Hell in his epic poem, Paradise Lost). In the midst of all this, though, there is a moment of abrupt stillness, a pause to remember those who lost their lives in the two world wars. Then the stadium is filled with a variety of cultural and historical references, from men in bright Sergeant Pepper-style suits to a replica of the Windrush, the ship which brought the first West Indian immigrants to Britain after World War II. To the backdrop of chanting, drumming and dancing in unison, which could easily be mistaken for some religious ritual, four golden rings swing into the centre of the stadium, a fifth being raised from the sea of people below. As all five connect, a shower of fireworks rains to the ground, before the smoke clears and the men and women beneath stare up at the internationally-recognised symbol of the Olympic rings hovering in the air above them.

The Queen’s entrance is a grand one, one which will undoubtedly go down in history.  

Queen Elizabeth II parachutes into the stadium
(source: The Guardian)
A short film depicts Her Majesty welcoming Daniel Craig to Buckingham Palace with ‘Good evening, Mr. Bond’, the pair then entering a helicopter and making for the Olympic Park. Frank Cottrell-Boyce, script-writer, later assures us that the Queen ‘really wants to do it’ (i.e. take part in her acting debut). Whilst the 637,191 pixels installed on seats around the audience create a Union Flag with five times the resolution of an HDTV, two figures descend from a helicopter above the stadium to the James Bond theme tune and the Queen appears with Prince Phillip to take her seat for the evening. It is this great sense of humour that runs throughout the evening and adds a great sense of ‘Britishness’ to proceedings.

The next half an hour is full of British culture, history and quite simply celebrates everything that makes Britain Britain. Because of this, it is understandable that many countries respond to the ceremony confusedly, but somehow we have managed to ignore these criticisms and, while the rest of the world stares at their television screens with looks of bewilderment and perplexity, it seems we all just sit back, smile quietly to ourselves and enjoy the show. Trampoline beds light up in different shapes to celebrate the NHS and Great Ormond Street Hospital and JK Rowling reads the opening of Peter Pan to the backdrop of a giant inflatable Lord Voldemort (from Harry Potter) and the Child Catcher (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) among other villains, in honour of Britain’s renowned children’s literature.

The London Symphony Orchestra then begin to play the theme from Chariots of Fire, as Rowan Atkinson takes on his character of Mr Bean, getting distracted from playing the keyboard by taking photos on his iPhone and reaching for tissues, before an inspired dream sequence that subverts an iconic scene from Chariots of Fire. An enormous 15-minute medley of great British songs plays, as scenes from famous British films and television series are projected on to a house in the middle of the stadium and dancers symbolise the last few decades of British culture and technology. Needless to say, it is all very... British.

At 10.08, over an hour after the spectacle began, the house rises to reveal the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. We are then given a heart-warming montage of highlights from the Olympic Torch’s 70-day journey around the UK, no doubt sparking memories for the estimated 14 million people who witnessed the once-in-a-lifetime event in their local towns or cities. Just before 30 dancers perform a silent routine that is meant to represent the ‘struggle between life and death’, in honour of the victims of the 7/7 bombings and other victims of violence and war, the screens show David Beckham driving a speedboat towards Olympic Park with the torch, sparking even more debate over who will light the cauldron.

Finally, the real stars of the Games have their moment, as the athletes begin the ceremonious parade around the stadium before gathering in the centre. As is customary, Greece take the stage first (as founders of the original Olympic Games) followed by Afghanistan (first in the alphabet), before athletes from over 200 countries walk around the track, smiling, waving and, in many cases, filming every moment. Great Britain (at least, the half that are not in Portugal) is last to make the journey and receive the loudest applause, before taking their copper petal behind Glastonbury Tor to be assembled in secret.

The formalities of the Olympic Opening Ceremony then take place, with Lord Coe and Jacques Rogge making speeches, athletes, coaches and officials taking oaths and, of course, Her Majesty The Queen officially opening the 2012 Olympic Games.

The petals come together in the Olympic cauldron
(source: Daily Telegraph)

Without further ado, Britain’s most successful Olympic athlete, Sir Steve Redgrave, runs with the torch from the river to the stadium, with most assuming he will take the honour of lighting the cauldron himself. Organisers, however, have clearly stuck with their promise to ‘inspire a generation’, as the Olympic flame is handed over to seven young athletes, each nominated by the generation of athletes whose careers have come to an end. In a shock, that has since caused many bookmakers to refund bets on who would light the cauldron, all seven simultaneously light one of the many petals that were carried by each country earlier in the ceremony, and the fire spreads into several concentric rings. In a magical, harmonious moment, the petals come together and the icon of the Olympic Games comes to life. The fireworks are as spectacular and breathtaking as could be imagined and Paul McCartney ties up the ceremony with a rendition of Hey Jude, connecting the crowd as one, as the Games should.

Danny Boyle certainly stuck to his word. The show didn’t contain hours of impeccably performed dance routines and choreographed sequences with professional dancers. Writing for SB Nation, Cyd Zeigler of the US critically suggested ‘maybe we should just have the Chinese produce all of the Opening Ceremonies’, and there is no debate that it was by no means Beijing. But that is because it shouldn’t be Beijing, it should be London. Where China is represented well by masses of people doing things in unison to perfection, London is represented by its culture, its music, its history and (shown largely during the ceremony) its sense of humour. The volunteers onstage seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves and you felt an odd desire to join them and celebrate with them, something which, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing during the Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony. After such a successful and celebratory introduction to the Games, we can finally be certain that this will be ‘The People’s Games.

The Times newspaper, Saturday July 28th
The Daily Mail website, Friday July 27th
The Guardian website, Friday July 27th

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