Well, my tweets last night were mostly either bemused or rather negative, so I should emphasise that there were bits of the Olympic opening ceremony I thought were rather good.
I liked the levers of the industrial revolution hoisting enormous smoking chimneys into the sky, though one gets the impression that nothing good came from this Saruman-style destruction except the forging of five giant gold rings to rule us all. A pleasing effect, but some other industrial achievements might have been nice: Stephenson’s Rocket, perhaps? The spectre of Voldemort hovering over children in hospital beds, until chased away by Mary Poppins, was quirky but amusing, though perhaps he was really hovering over the NHS? It, like so much of the ceremony, must have been completely bewildering to hundreds of millions of viewers.
I cringed at some of the inevitable political correctness, was proud of the music we used to produce until about 20 years ago, was pleased by Her Majesty’s involvement in the Bond escapade and felt sorry for her obvious boredom at having to sit through the rest of it. It’s good that Tim Berners-Lee finally gets appropriate global recognition, tweeting ‘This is for everyone’ from the middle of the arena; given his natural humility it must have been a challenge to get him to agree. And the cauldron was, indeed, very pretty.
To give a true history of modern Britain, I thought, we should have had a huge influx of Polish people at the end! And then I realised that they had probably been there all along, behind the scenes, making everything work. And work it did; it was certainly an impressive technical achievement, and it looks very good in the BBC’s six-minute edited highlights.
Then the athletes came in, and many of them looked like rowdy drunken yobs coming out of… well… a sporting event. Still, I suppose that’s something else that the world knows us for.
Now, I know I’m not the target audience for this stuff; I’ve made my feelings clear about the financial outrage that is the Olympics. For the same money we could have given a shiny new MacBook Pro to every schoolchild in the country. Or employed 1000 teachers for 400 years. Or… well… take your pick of better investments. So I tried to divorce my feelings about the ceremony from its association with the bigger picture. And as my friend Jeff Jarvis put it, to set the context for his tweets last night: “I cannot abide opening ceremonies or folk dances”.
And I’m also very out of touch with popular culture – I recognised about half a dozen faces last night: the Queen, Rowan Atkinson, Sir Tim B-L, Daniel Craig and Kenneth Branagh. OK, five. But it would have been six if I’d stayed awake long enough to see Paul McCartney. So I imagine there were probably lots of sports personalities, soap-opera stars, rap ‘musicians’ and winners of X-Factor that might have been recognisable to others.
So it’s probably better to rely on others’ commentary than mine. I liked:
It’s hard to imagine any other nation willing to make so much fun of itself on a global stage, in front of as many as a billion viewers. It takes nerve to look silly; the cheesy, kaleidoscopic history lesson that took Britain through its past, from pasture through the workhouses and smoke stacks of the Industrial Revolution to World War I and, of course, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” was like a Bollywood version of a sixth-grade play.
But bad taste is also a part of the British heritage. The imagery mixed the glory of a royal Jubilee with the grottiness of a Manchester pub-crawl. Britain offered a display of humor and humbleness that can only stem from a deep-rooted sense of superiority.
The NBC anchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira did their best to get in the spirit of British nuttiness, but at times their energy flagged, and their bewilderment became obvious. After a hospital sketch that morphed into a children’s nightmare — and a giant fake baby floating on a bed — Lauer said, “I don’t know whether that’s cute or creepy.”
The whole show veered from cute to creepy and from familiar to baffling, including a pop music tribute to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Most of all, it showed a love of movies that celebrate British eccentricity. “Isles of Wonder” seemed most inspired by a scene from the movie “Love Actually,” in which Hugh Grant, playing the prime minister, explains that Britain is still a great nation because it is “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot.”
Some of the rest was bitty and disjointed; the sub-mobile-phone advert style of the digital section was particularly weak. It was more political than I expected. Voldemort loomed over the NHS. Tonight marked perhaps its final transformation from a healthcare system into a religion. Dancers made up the CND symbol. The Royal Family looked bored, but the new Right-On Royal Family – Doreen Lawrence and Shami Chakrabarti – got to carry the Olympic flag.
The NHS segment in particular underlined how surprisingly parochial this ceremony was. The idea of the Health Service as a beacon for the world is, bluntly, a national self-delusion. Most other Western European countries have better state healthcare systems – and healthier people – than we do. Does the average Chinese person even know what the letters stand for?
But I suppose the whole Olympics is in a broader sense parochial. Three weeks ago, I was in Libya witnessing that country’s first free election in sixty years: an end, or at least a beginning of the end, to decades of madness and tyranny which killed tens of thousands and blighted the lives of millions. To borrow the words of tonight’s over-excited TV commentators, that really was an inspirational and historic moment. Tonight, by contrast, was just a show.