If there is one word that can sum up Danny Boyle’s vision of Britain it is eccentric.
Classic British eccentricity – quirky, odd, slightly uncomfortable, self-deprecating, political, always amusing – was on full glorious, dazzling display at the London Olympic opening ceremony Friday night. There were sheep, dancing nurses, a lot of Mary Poppins, the Queen of Hearts, James Bond and heart-thumping array of the best Brit music, from the Sex Pistols and Mike Oldfield (in the flesh, no less) to the London Symphony Orchestra and Vangelis.
But as Boyle’s £27-million creation pranced through the ages like a manic show horse, the message wasn’t just that Brits are an odd folk; it was that Britain’s past is more important than its future.
But what a past! Your country should be so lucky.
Boyle’s "picture of ourselves as a nation" was in stark contrast to the opening of the 2008 Games, in Beijing, which was dramatic display of force, power and sheer numbers – 14,000 performers versus Boyle’s mere 10,000 -- a kick-in-the ass declaration that China is the future and don’t for a nano-second think otherwise. The endless, massive, explosive fireworks display said as much. And, of course, the Beijing show went off without a hitch or glitch.
Boyle’s vision was firmly rooted in the history books and country’s extraordinary rich literary heritage, which is so integral to the British experience that history and literature are one and the same.
As if to prove the point, the audience of 62,000 in the stadium – after the obligatory burst of English rain at about 830pm, local time -- first encountered a pastoral scene that traced the iconic river Thames from Gloucestershire to London itself.
And who did we meet along the way? Ratty and Mole, of course, from the Wind in the Willows. Later, Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, making an exceedingly rare appearance, read from JM Barrie’s classic Peter Pan and actor Kenneth Branagh read Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which inspired Boyle’s Isles of Wonder theme for the opening ceremonies.
To be sure, literature that put Britain on the global map, and is keeping it there, was the entire point of the exercise. The entire point was to entertain and surprise, in an entirely eccentric and creative way, as would befit the director of the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire and Boyle’s signature film, the bleakly comical Trainspotting.
The shock-and-awe bits got off to a slow start. The opening pastoral scene, to be rude, was dull even if it was beautifully staged. But things would only get better.
The "Pandemonium" segment, with thundering music by Rick Smith, of the electronic group Underworld, got the blood moving. This is where Boyle abandoned the post-card perfect view of Britain, with its trademark lush greenery. Britain gave the world the industrial revolution, with all its grime, disease and poverty. The stadium filled with smoke and smoke stacks rose from center stage. All of a sudden, the audience was immersed in dark satanic mills.
To wit: A film showed a helicopter hovering over the stadium. The aircraft steadied and Queen Elizabeth, making her film debut, parachuted out, followed by James Bond. Then the queen herself, with her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, entered the stadium to wildly cheering fans, including about 120 heads of state, among them David Johnston, and a sort of head of state, Michelle Obama.
It was a brilliant, crowd-pleasing bit of magic and multi-media
Then things got truly eccentric. What unites Britain if not the National Health Service? It is supported by all parties, left, right and middle. Some 600 nurses, dowdy, not saucy, danced and skated and patients bounced on big trampoline beds. How this played for audiences in Tokyo, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires is an open question. Yes, this was very British show.
The crowd loved Rowan Atkinson, distracted by his smartphone, coughing, sneering, scratching when he was supposed to be playing the keyboard in the theme to Chariots of Fire. It was classic Mr. Bean.
The overall performance, after a flat start, had a lovely texture and momentum, not too fast, not too slow, dazzling in parts, never overwhelming, always anchored by the best British music and the best-known names in literature and culture. Boyle even threw in a tribute to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man, one that few people of heard of, who was instrumental in launching the world wide web. But where was Monty Python?
Spectators had to wait well after midnight for one of the great mysteries to be solved, one that even the vaunted British media couldn't uncover. Speculation about who would light the Olympic cauldron had been rampant with Sir Steve Redgrave, winner of five gold medals in rowing, the leading candidate. In the end, Boyle went with a collective effort, featuring Redgrave, seven former medalists and seven young athletes. The evening ended with Paul McCartney singing "The End" and "Hey Jude".
One thing for sure: This was not Beijing. This was a celebration of British life and culture, with all its rich oddness. It was not quite genius, but it was, as they say, a slice of the real thing. It was also a smashing way to open the greatest sports show on earth. Now, it’s all about the athletes.
Unlike the power display in Beijing, Boyle wanted to create a ceremony that showed Britain as a modest country, sure of its place in the world. "We are learning our new place in the world," he said before the ceremony. "One hundred years ago we were everything. But there is a change...You have to learn your place in the world and that's a good thing."