London gave a marvellous show to the world on Friday. Depending on my mood, I’m a cautious optimist or pessimist regarding the long-term benefits of the Olympics for the city (and there is no denying that having Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Cadbury as main sponsors is laughable), but this is a criticism more fairly applied to almost every Olympics event held in recent memory.
But the Games have only just begun. Everyone’s abuzz about the Opening Ceremony, and reactions have ranged from the simply loony (see Aidan Burley’s tweets) to the gushing. High profile Chinese dissident, Ai Weiwei, praised the ceremony as a “show about real people”. And when cast against the pomp and extravagance of Beijing’s 2008 spectacular, this is perhaps the most important advantage London’s offer enjoyed over Beijing’s standard-setting challenge.
I wouldn’t have minded seeing tot-friendly Shakespearean characters…
It was all about the people. It wasn’t just Rowan Atkinson wreaking havoc on the Chariots of Fire. It wasn’t just the cheeky shenanigans Her Majesty enjoyed with her escort, Mr Bond. And it wasn’t just the appearance of children who sang Danny Boy. Beijing also threw a range of celebrities, Jackie Chan most famous amongst those outside of China, at us. But at the risk of sounding like a tech geek, Danny Boyle’s technique of integrating British celebrities with the technical ecology of the performance was quite unmatched. Mr Bean’s orchestral cock-ups were all part of the grand plan. The eccentric paradrop of Britain’s monarch was supposed to be funny, and we were supposed to still be chuckling as we applauded respectfully the real Queen’s entrance.
It was a spectacle of deliberately organized chaos. The transition of old scenic Albion (an anachronistic Albion at that) to the mechanized grey and steel of the Industrial Revolution was a case in point of Boyle’s half-serious, half-light-hearted touch. Men in black three-pieces and top hats – symbolic of Britain’s industrial, capitalist, and imperial power – made excellent contemporary dancers. I enjoyed the generous inclusion of the NHS and the children, although I felt the bit about kids’ tales had even more potential than what we saw. I wouldn’t have minded seeing tot-friendly Shakespearean characters rolling and bouncing about the hills; indeed, the Beijing ceremony invoked much about China’s classical past, and Boyle seemed to avoid the nostalgia for anything too “feudal”. I thought the scene about the digital age, while chaotic in its own right, was really quite appropriate. Family scenes, smartphone-obsessed teens, snogging – Boyle wanted it all to be charming, and I think it does the job for many.
It was still not as grand or imperial, and that’s probably the point…
The ceremony seemed to lose steam (no pun intended) somewhat towards the end, although I’m certain someone, somewhere up or down the country knew exactly what was being referenced. But I’m so glad I stayed to watch the whole thing. By the time I got home, I had been bitten by what our Mayor called the Olympics bug.
I’m still cautious about the Olympics as a whole (as I am about any large scale corporate bonanza), but professional athletes are gathered here to break records, we all have an excuse to blow a hole through our wallets on soft drinks, Cadbury and Samsung, and best of all we find ourselves wondering how, post-Beijing, we could have been so pessimistic about our Opening Ceremony. It was still not as grand or imperial, and that’s probably the point: it’s not about the status anymore. It was about the people, so it was about humanity. And there was plenty of it to go around last night.