At 9 p.m. Friday in the United Kingdom, a newly cast bell that is larger than Big Ben will ring out from London’s Olympic Stadium. More than one billion people across the globe will listen and watch. What will they see? What does modern Britain look like?
As ever, it’s a mix of things, with many characteristics shared with other countries. But we like to think that, together, they make up a pretty distinctive whole. The challenge for Danny Boyle, artistic director of Friday’s opening ceremony, was to capture all the shards and angles with just three hours to portray the British people and our society to the world. You’ll judge for yourselves whether he’s succeeded, but I hope everyone watching will be able to take something away and see Britain in a new light.
Mr. Boyle’s vision for the ceremony came from thinking about the people of Britain: who we were, where we’d come from, our history and heritage – then who we are now and where we’re going. The U.K. has always been an open society. It’s in our blood and geography. Poised at one of the world’s crossroads, the British have always thrived on the exchange of goods, ideas and people.
Our openness has influenced the way we connect with the world. We have a long history of looking outward and taking a global perspective. And we help other people connect, too. Our language, the product of centuries of influences, is used all over the world, and our greatest writers, poets and playwrights have left behind a global birthright. Mr. Boyle’s concept was inspired by a speech in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though the first scenes you’ll see celebrate William Blake’s rural idyll of “England’s green and pleasant land.”
Many of you associate Britain with its history: From the pomp and ceremony of our great royal occasions, such as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, to Sunday afternoon games of cricket on village greens. Indeed, on the surface, many of our customs and values, laws and ideals seem to have changed little over the years. But, in truth, we’ve never been static. We are constantly reinventing ourselves, as we must. While our deep historical roots give us stability, our origins as a nation of migrants express themselves in a continuing tradition of exploration, discovery and creativity.
So Friday night’s ceremony will also be unpredictable and inventive. It will reflect the rising urban population and life in Britain’s cities, as well as our traditional landscapes. While one side of the stadium will evoke the classical music celebration of the Last Night of the Proms, the other will recreate the spirit of the Glastonbury music festival. Because both of these are exuberant occasions where the British people contrive to let their hair down. Both show different sides of a society that is dynamic, creative, constantly in motion. But a society that pulls together too. Nothing demonstrates this better than the astonishing dedication of the 10,000 volunteers who have given up hours of free time to rehearse for liftoff. They represent an abiding spirit of national community.
When you watch the spectacle, I hope you will see a snapshot of the heritage, diversity, energy and invention of the modern United Kingdom. And when you listen to the sounds of the show, I hope you will take away a musical memory too, from the ringing of Europe’s largest bell to the soundtrack of the electronic music duo Underworld. As Caliban says in The Tempest: “Be not afeared. The isle is full of noises.” Above all this, the British people are proud and honoured to welcome the world, both this summer and in the future. Wish us luck.
Dr. Andrew Pocock is British High Commissioner to Canada.