Saturday 24 February 2018

Shakespeare, Sex Pistols and even the queen ring in Games

Jim White in London

IT WAS a loud and defiant celebration for the host country. Ninety minutes of dazzling theatre, dance, film and music, delivered at breakneck speed.

Danny Boyle's opening ceremony last night spun the head and made everyone lucky enough to witness it smile hard and long.

Which is not something that we have generally been able to say of an Olympic opening ceremony.

How different, indeed, it was to what took place in Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium four years ago. Then, 2008 drummers opened up a ceremony of such scale, such extravagance, such precision it seemed to defy anyone even to attempt to follow it.

After all its technical glories, what could London produce? Some thought that Boyle would be better off forgetting about the traditions of the form -- the tableaux alluding to local historic moments, the interpretative modern dance on a theme of world peace -- and instead simply do that at which Britain excels: stage a mini-Glastonbury, headlined by Tom Jones and Radiohead.

In the event he sidestepped any such alarms and came up with something innovative, witty and unashamedly patriotic.

When Kenneth Branagh stood underneath a giant spreading oak occupying one end of the stadium to deliver Caliban's speech from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' it could have been that England's greatest poet had written a review of what was to follow.

"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not/ Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/ Will hum about mine ears."

For the next hour and a bit, sounds and sweet airs did indeed fill the stadium. From Elgar's 'Enigma' to 'My Boy Lollipop', from Parry's 'Jerusalem' to 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor', as our ears hummed with a thousand twangling instruments it was like tuning in to the entire back catalogue of 'Desert Island Discs'.

And those who arrived clinging to the cynical assumption that it would all end in tears of embarrassment were sent home with faces hurting from all that grinning.

It began with a rural idyll. As we filed into our seats, down on the athletics track was a vision of Britain's bucolic past, complete with a gaggle of geese and several dozen well-corralled sheep. A plume of smoke emerged from the chimney of a cottage; there was a water wheel turning through a gentle torrent, wild flowers filled the meadows. It was 'The Archers' without the telephoned threats of violence or the vicar's daughter engaging in an affair.


Not to say that this was some sleepy past being recalled here. The Boyle village slowly turned into a frenzy of theatrical activity. As the cast members began to arrive and take up positions on the greensward, it got very, very busy down there.

From a cricket match to members of the London Symphony Orchestra wandering through the fields carrying their instruments, something was always going on: something to grab the attention, something to point at, to chuckle about. It set the tone for the evening; one of constant activity.

And there was something else that was not evident in Beijing: self-deprecation.

Every opening ceremony has traditionally been bedevilled by inflatables. Here, they were clouds. "Yes," the pointless cumuli smiled, "Britain is a country obsessed with its weather."

All this, incidentally, was before we had actually started. It was just to get us in the mood, to get us grinning.

After a fly-past by the Red Arrows and a countdown film featuring images of numbers central to British life -- the 19 bus, Number 10 Downing Street -- there followed a wonderful film tracing the Thames from source to sea.

There were hints in its flash-by of allusions -- the clips of the Eton Boating Song and of the Sex Pistols railing against a Fascist regime -- of what was to follow.

Because this was an evening in which references swished past at astonishing pace.

Boyle, incidentally, is not a man scared of referencing others' work. He must have watched and loved Jez Butterworth's 'Jerusalem', because, like in that play, his rural landscape was soon to be ripped asunder by the grinding engines of progress.

Where meadows had been, giant chimneys emerged. Ironworks appeared. The farm labourers were replaced by grubby-faced factory workers. And what they were building soon became apparent: from the cauldron of the industrial revolution was forged the five Olympic rings, which hovered, sparking above our heads, before being lifted high up to the stadium roof.

It was a breathtaking image. And it held within it the suggestion, as the chimneys disappeared to make way for a plain black rink, that Britain will benefit financially from events such as the Games.

The allusions came thick and fast. There was a sequence celebrating Boyle's own patch, the British film industry. There was a lovely moment of James Bond, including a remarkable cameo from the queen, as herself. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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