Well in the end, they pulled it off, kinda. For four years, since China’s drilled army of pixelbots stunned the world, there’s been one question on everyone’s lips — what the fah are the Brits going to do? There was absolutely no question they would not be able to replicate the display of the People’s Republic, and not merely because all those participants had been training for that moment since 1949.
No, it was, well, it was the Brits. Though they are far from being the least efficient of Europeans, just about every other country can pull something out when required, whether it’s Italian operas, Spanish festivals or the opening of a new Lufthansa terminal in Germany, the Brits well, the Brits wobble. The whole country is like jelly floating on the North Sea. The event, whether it be sporting, artistic or political, is, in the last analysis, a mere pretext for post-hoc recrimination and remorse across all platforms.
So it was never thought that the opening ceremony was going to be a fiasco, but from 2008 on, there was eager anticipation about how disappointing it would ultimately turn out to be. The problem for the UK was that the modern Olympics had been book-ended by two opening ceremonies — Beijing’s 2008 extravaganza, when its imminent global leadership was effectively unveiled, and Sydney’s 2000 effort, which was the first ironic opening ceremony on record. It’s a measure of the distinct nature of those two ceremonies that no one remembers a thing about Athens 2004.
So for the UK, the full Pythonesque treatment was out — and would have been in any case, the UK retaining too much imperial afterglow to be fully ironic. But something topping Beijing well — it would have been unimaginable. The buses would have been late, the rain would have come, the company providing the dancers would have gone broke, there would have been strikes due to an absence of fishpaste sandwiches. So, caught between irony and fascist modernity, Danny Boyle and team made a virtue of necessity and created the first deliberate shambles.
From the first, with the great green mountain, inhabited by pre-industrial villagers, engaging in their happy clog-dancing life, to the appearance of Branagh as Isembard Kingdom Brunel, and the sudden eruption of five vast smokestacks from the earth, there was a lot going on — dozens of little dramas, depicting the great transition, the theme being Pandemonium, inspired by the book by the great British sociologist Humphrey Jennings, which recorded the rise of machines and industry from the 1600s onward, in the voices of eyewitnesses, from John Milton on.
That this transition was taken as the centre of British history was itself instructive — no kings, queens, Romans, no armada, no Agincourt — not even something as genuinely exciting as a Boadicea, arriving on a scythed chariot. The absence of nobles skewed the picture a bit — who were those happy clog-dancers working so hard for? Where were the church that tithed them, the navy that press-ganged them, the squalor they oft-lived in? When the smokestacks arose, where were the cities that rose with them, the libraries, hospitals, schools?
Where were the movements that arose with them, the Chartists, the trade unionists? They were there, but in a less-than-starring role. Why didn’t one of the nameless navvies who dug, and died, in Brunel’s sodding tunnels get to read out the bit from The Tempest? By a third of the way through, the BBC commentators were finding it hard to keep up. The US commentary, through NBC, was, by all accounts, hilarious. But the upshot of it was that the narrative tended to be curiously too harsh on industrialism, and too soft on it at the same time — with the same things reversed for the rural Britain segment.
By the time it got to the modern period, it had staged the moment that everyone will remember from it — the Queen pressed into a scene with James Bond, via Daniel Craig (shoulda been Sean). That was pretty good, and then we were into the most daring bit, in which the whole scene was given over to a dream-like celebration of the NHS, with Mary Poppins intertwined. After that — and not forgetting Rowan Atkinson breaking Vangelis’ heart — it began to suffer what had been some fairly last-minute cuts of up to a half an hour — a huge dancestravaganza going through every hit song of the past 40 years, some malarkey with a Romeo ‘n’ Juliet couple texting, and well, by then I was most of the way through a bottle of red.
Everyone I was with thought that the natural and moving end was the sequence accompanied by Floyd’s Eclipse — and then we had Macca, and it was like chuck-out at a pub. But perhaps that was the intent. Reviews of the show in the UK were almost universally positive. I’m liking it a lot more in memory, but at the time it didn’t overwhelm, and I suspect it will live a lot longer in British memory than anywhere else.After that, it was back to business as usual — the British starting to lose the events, but garner gold for excuses, and the process of running the Games falling into fresh absurdity. Day one was a shocker for the Brits, who have put a bit too much sense of self on doing well in these Games. The cycling team did less well than it should, losing — a result so disappointing that the team was actually rude to post-event interviewers (“stop asking stupid questions, do you know anything about cycling?”) — and then losing in the tennis, an event so inevitable it should have been in the opening ceremony.
They were outclassed in the swimming, and the UK commentators didn’t help, with their usual shtick — “Britain leaving its run for later” — when it was obvious that they were simply losing from the off. British swimmers did all but commit seppuku beside the pool. They weren’t even doing well in the football, insofar as anyone cared, and the veal-fed giantesses of the Oz basketball team creamed them, at least in the first-half that I watched.
This was all pretty embarrassing, but fortunately the organisers had a plan — they made sure there was no one there to see them. Inevitably, given that nearly 20% of tickets have been given out to media, sponsors and officials — the so-called “Olympic family” — who like all family at boring dutiful events made their excuses and stayed away. For Brits herded through a frustrating ticket process — in which you handed over your bank details only to be told you had got no tickets — it was multiply galling. Then it got better — it was decided that students, teachers and the military would be “given” free tickets to fill such events.
More likely to all it seemed was that people were being ordered into seat-fill to placate TV networks who hate empty seats. So the military called into run things because the private sector can’t, were now being pressed to see sports they had no interest in to cover up the failure of the government as well. And then mirabile dictu, someone said it — why not get G4S to send in the people they had hired too late, and get them to sit in the seats! Danny and co by now looked like a piker. This was Alice in Wonderland stuff. By the end of day two, someone had realised what every theatre company working above a pub already knows — make people turn up five minutes before, and if they don’t sell the tix on in a returns queue. Genius! Why didn’t they think of it?
Because it has been a great British shambles. Python did not need to be a part of it, because it was all Python — and not necessarily a bad thing for that. Wrapped in absurdity, to a degree true heroism and exceptionality can emerge without one feeling that a cult of violence and disdain is being celebrated. The UK even got a medal today, in the cycling. Bless. We are still beating their ass, by eight places. Shambles and the rain. It’s good to be home.