Friday 19 January 2018

Master of ceremonies Boyle gives London back its groove

Dion Fanning

'People are talking to each other." There are few things that capture how the Olympics have already transformed London than those words from somebody standing watching the flame at Tower Bridge on Friday afternoon.

One of London's many great qualities is its willingness to embrace anonymity. It is a city which allows the neighbour to come and go as he wishes ("he kept himself to himself") until he is revealed as an axe murderer, unless he frightens the animals or commits a heinous act of noise pollution before that. This weekend, there has been a different feeling. People were excited and talking to strangers, even before Danny Boyle's opening ceremony electrified the city.

Boyle's opening ceremony demonstrated that you can go a long way in life with a good record collection. The advantage London had over nearly every other Games was that it is the capital of a country that has made more good music than anyone apart from the USA. It has also made more bad music than anyone apart from the USA (and France), but when Boyle was selected, the good was always going to triumph over the bad.

The word being used a lot to describe the opening ceremony was 'bonkers'. It's an epithet just a couple of rungs below 'wacky', especially when used by someone as a self-portrait.

I thought Boyle's ceremony was lucid and sane. It was also tender (but not sentimental), cutting and funny. When is an opening ceremony ever funny?

Saying it was bonkers is like describing someone as eccentric simply because they don't care what people think of them. Boyle's most revolutionary act was to trust his instincts. "What will the rest of the world think of this?" some wondered. Those questions are what focus groups are for, and this was a ceremony which wasn't created by a focus group.

Boyle presented his vision and his story. From the clip of Noel Mannion of Ballinasloe going over the line for a try (Boyle's mother is from Ballinasloe) to the choice of music (in a parallel and much worse universe Leona Lewis would have appeared instead of the Arctic Monkeys), there was a confidence that also allowed for doubt and irony.

Orwell's words that the goose-step is not used in England because "the people on the street would laugh" were quoted a lot last week. Boyle managed to gently undercut any of those moments with a laconic scepticism.

Even the arrival of the Great Britain team, which could have seen an explosion of bombastic nationalism, was saved by playing Heroes rather than any of the usual rubbish. It all makes sense in retrospect but good judgment always does.

In the hours preceding the ceremony, the speculation about who would light the Olympic cauldron became intense. David Beckham was a contender. Steve Redgrave was the favourite and Boyle turned the list of predictable contenders to his advantage. He chose none of them. Instead he offered an antidote to the culture of celebrity by leaving Beckham on the river and getting a bunch of young athletes to light the cauldron. There are worse words in the corporate bullshit lexicon than 'legacy'.

Boyle followed Beijing with humour. The Queen appeared in a scene with James Bond and fulfilled the wishes of the continuity department by wearing the same outfit at the Games as she did in the already shot film. This essentially meant she was playing herself at the opening ceremony.

Thanks to Boyle's show, the Olympics have already done all they can do for a host country: make them feel good about themselves. The Olympics won't do much more.

Earlier in the week, figures were announced that showed Britain's recession was worse than all projections. Some hope that the Olympics will transform things but research shows that any growth before a Games is countered by a slowdown afterwards. Most of the spending is at the expense of something else. While many people visited Sydney for the Olympics in 2000, the numbers of visitors dropped below normal for the next three years.

So Boyle had the world watching but he managed to avoid second guessing them except perhaps for the appearance of Mr Bean, and even that was funny for a moment.

In tough times, others were ready to complain about the cost of the ceremony. "I'd rather they skunked the 27m on a life time remembering opening Olympic ceremony. Than a fucking new road in Slough. Stop fucking moaning," was Joey Barton's accurate reading of the complaints yesterday.

Boyle had made a beautiful and touching tribute to the NHS which demonstrated that sport and politics mix, and there is always politics in the opening ceremony.

The Tory MP who complained about multi-culturalism will have a long few weeks ahead and made no point except one about the utter banality of the political class.

Boyle made his point with subtlety and showed his sensibility. He had banked on a collective contribution and he got it. There was a strange silence before the ceremony began and there was an expectant hush around London on Friday.

Boyle showed he wasn't afraid of silence and wasn't afraid of trusting the crowd. When there was a minute to remember lost friends and family (Boyle's father's birthday would have been on Friday but he died 18 months ago), it was introduced gently, instead of with the usual booming voice which creates an anxious silence. On Friday, the moment was peaceful and soothing and followed by a beautiful Abide With Me.

The ceremony was a triumph in so many ways, especially because it removed London of its anxiety about the Games and, temporarily at least, its anxiety about itself.

Before the ceremony began on Friday, Boyle addressed the crowd, thanked the volunteers for their commitment to the Olympic ideal and quoted Billy Connolly. "I don't believe in God but I believe in the people who do." Or, as somebody else put it late on Friday night, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."

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