It’s (unexpectedly) not shite being British: on the Olympic opening ceremony

You love a failure. I know you do, because I do too. I’m keen on both the Olympics and Danny Boyle, and even so I was screwing up my eyes into mean little slits of delight at headlines such as “Danny Boyle urged to drop live animals from Olympics opening ceremony: Animal rights groups say organising committee may face prosecution if it uses farmyard animals in three-hour spectacular“, and “Olympic opening ceremony: a feast of drama … and that’s just the rehearsals: Source says relations between Danny Boyle and broadcasting firm now so strained that director’s trailer has extra security“. You can’t be sure of success, but a humiliating, unmitigated shambles? Now that’s something to tell your grandchildren about.

It could have gone so wrong. Not just the live animals, but the whole idea of celebrating a bucolic past could have come over sickly and sentimental. Of course, it seemed unlikely that it would go that way if you remembered Renton’s rant from Trainspotting on being dragged to the countryside by his distressingly hearty (and doomed) friend Tommy: “Doesn’t it make you proud to be Scottish?” booms Tommy, and Renton spits,

It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference.

Unlikely, but not impossible: big occasions do funny things to people. Boyle could still choke.

In the end, whatever Boyle and his cast and crew accomplished was the opposite of choking. In execution, it was – as far as I could see from my sofa – faultless. But a fuck-up-free dose of pap would still be nothing to be proud of. This was something else: a vision of Britain, its history and its people, that I recognised, felt good about and (despite my reflex cynicism) loved. Branagh as Brunel as Caliban, declaiming the words of threat and promise (“Be not afeard…”) the monster of The Tempest uses in his attempt to usurp his own “effete wanker” colonist, while Elgar swelled underneath – that mix of artistry and industry, savagery (the capitalist savagery stripping away the countryside from the arena) and civility – that felt like a true and fair account of “Britishness”.

With the turf rolled away and replaced with soot-blackened towers, there was no appeal here for loyalty to scenery: the seemingly permanent landscape can be transformed inside a generation. What matters instead is people. The people who work, the people who make, the people who fight (Boyle’s pageant glorified suffragettes and Jarrow marchers), the people who through some uncertain alchemy of community and consent make up whatever it is that counts as a nation.

Which is why the triumphant celebration of the NHS with dancing nurses and children bouncing on trampoline beds made so much sense. This (not the NHS alone but the whole welfare state) is the greatest thing any civilisation has ever made, a triumph of shared resources in the service of compassion. Looking at Cameron and Boris in the box, and knowing that the effete wankers who’ve colonised politics would have to smile and cheer at this celebration of the thing they’re doing their best to demolish? That, it turned out, was even more satisfying than total and horrific failure would have been.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012

3 thoughts on “It’s (unexpectedly) not shite being British: on the Olympic opening ceremony

  1. Oh yes, as the Churchill dog would say. I think it was Simon Kuper in the FT this morning who said that he was normally ‘anyone but England’, but loved this. Danny Boyle’s celebration thing last night did more than all the Gordon Brown “Proud to be British” initiatives. I don’t like the national pride thing. I hate the swank and the implicit bigotry. (Unless the Yanks up the stakes by cutting the 7/7 memorial bit: “attacks on the US must be remember-ed until the end of time; oh, you had terrorists too? yawn, is that the time? we must be going; we need to interview the guy who will come fourth in the Olympic swimming.”)

    But I found the suffragettes (and Clare Balding’s coverage) especially moving. Working class people had succeeded before (Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Dickens, Shakespeare) but the women’s movement was something new. That, I think, was the thumb in the eye to Beijing. Neither Mao nor China added anything to how the common people participated in the state; we did with votes for women and the trades unions.

  2. I don’t think it was faultless (if only because of differing personal tastes), but it was very good indeed, and I was another cynic who was won over. A genuinely British production, with realism, spectacle and humour.

  3. It was unexpected for me too because the establishment I grew up in, & ever since the 1950s, has been pretty rubbish – dull, boring, stupid – I am thinking of Eurovision here. The Queen would never have dreamt of doing that FUN thing she did with James Bond. There was never any style or polish – clowns, people dressed in animal costumes (Euro 96?), dull members of the royal family with no taste, until Diana & she wasn’t born royal. Being patriotic felt like a chore, there was no motive for it & those who were might turn out to be racists so who wanted to be seen alongside them? All praise to Danny Boyle & whoever had the vision to ask him to do this opening ceremony. Best thing in my lifetime as regards pride in my country.

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