For two solid hours the BBC’s anticipatory fluffers worked on the audience — with a selection of former Olympians and medal hopes inserts that worked as a kind of fifty shades of great, tittilating the audience for what was to come — an opening show that had consumed at least £27 million and almost as many column inches of speculation.
And then, after an embarrassment of countdowns (there seemed to be at least three different ones before the thing itself began) we were finally there — with a Hobbity vision of pre-industrial England. Sue Barker had promised us “the greatest show on earth” in her lead-in but for the moment it looked like a surreal and unusually well-attended village fete. As a boy chorister sang “Jerusalem” mob-capped maidens demonstrated the ancient sport of apple tossing, sheep bleated in a startled fashion and flat-capped farmers huddled anxiously, as if discussing the fate of a mortgaged farm.
The idyll and the cliche wasn’t to last long. Kenneth Branagh appeared, a stove-piped Isambard Kingdom Brunel conducting what began as an over-extended scene-change but then accelerated -- to the beat of tin bucket drums -- into manufacturing Pandemonium. Hazel Irvine supplied the footnotes (Milton, the capital of Hell, etc etc) but as the brick chimneys began to rise and the molten steel flowed to orm the Olympic rings, the need for commentary fell away. This was a spectacle which filled the stadium and worked on screen and it didn’t matter exactly what we were watching, only that it was captivating. Naturally that didn’t mean that the commentary stopped. “It’s definitely my kind of history, Huw”, said Trevor Nelson, apparently preferring an account of our island story which cuts directly from the Industrial Revolution to the arrival of the Beatles. “Organised chaos” added Hazel, not a criticism apparently but another helpful nudge to our understanding.
It was then that Boyle answered the biggest question prompted by his promise of a less solemn ceremony. How do you tell a joke that a billion people will get? The answer, it turned out, was to get the Queen in on the act, apparently climbing into a helicopter with Daniel Craig and then parachuting into the stadium.When they played the Sex Pistols in the intro they’d tactfully cut away before the line “she ain’t no human being”. Now here she was -- yes, the real one -- proving the charge had been unjustified. The gasp must have been audible globally and the internet -- honoured later by a vaguely baffled appearance by Tim Berners-Lee -- momentarily trembled under the massed expression of OMGs. But there wasn’t much time to be astounded. Already we were on -- to a genuinely moving tribute to the NHS, somewhat enigmatically folded in with a condensed history of British children’s literature. There was, as Trevor Nelson helpfully pointed out to the sluggish of comprehension, both light and dark, gleaming duvets and monstrous childcatchers, Mary Poppins and a towering Voldemort. “It’s like a big contradiction you know”, he said, “...my cousin’s in there somewhere”.
After Simon Rattle had provided the backing for an over-extended Mr Bean joke (answer number two to how you make the whole world smirk simultaneously) we were into the digital age -- a moment at which the detail and inclusiveness of Boyle’s vision began to cause real problems for the first time. Where many of his Olympic predecessors had said to hell with human scale, treating people as pixels, Boyle instead insisted on individual close-ups and a romantic narrative, further complicating the picture with lightning fast clips of various movies. I don’t know whether it worked in the stadium. But it didn’t work where most people were watching. In fact it was as if a KTel music compilation had been given the biggest budget ever for a television ad. In the end though that didn’t really matter. If you can pull the Queen out of your sleeve you’ve won the game before it’s even halfway over. And if you finish with a beautiful Thomas Heatherwick cauldron, which allows a large group of young athletes to light the flame simultaneously -- you’ve won twice over. Boyle’s ceremony was eccentric, individualistic, mischievous where it mattered (the first lesbian kiss on Saudi Arabian television?) and almost never guilty of the worked up abstractions that are the besetting sin of such extravaganzas. The scoffers didn’t go entirely unnourished -- they had Lord Coe to feed on -- but they surely ended the evening feeling that the pickings had been thin.
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