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The 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony was really very English, not British

Key elements made it very clear Boyle’s extravaganza was deeply English, writes Rory Olcayto

Britain is famous for many things - the NHS, fairy tales, crappy suburban housing and Isambard Kingdom Brunel  – but splicing them together for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, as director Danny Boyle did, was something quite new. ‘This was about Great Britain; it didn’t pretend it was trying to have global appeal. Because Great Britain has self-confidence, it doesn’t need a monumental Olympics,’ said Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. ‘I never saw an event before that had such a density of information about events and stories and literature and music; about folktales and movies.’ Yet Boyle’s extravaganza was a deeply English, not British, show and key elements made this very clear.

The hill. This is Glastonbury Tor – notable for myths and legends about the holy grail, King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea. ‘Glastonbury’ is also a byword for modern English music. So the hill is England in its purest state: its self-image (King Arthur), its multicultural roots (the grail and Joseph) and its entertaining spirit (music).

The tree. Not just a simple oak, this magnificent steel and fibreglass 12m replica on the Tor is Woden’s Tree of Life. This was the tree from which the Anglo-Saxon god was hanged for nine days and nights to become enlightened, which he achieved by gazing into the abyss below. The tree depicts England’s ethnic heritage (Anglo-Saxon) and its adoption of the Christian faith. It recalls the 8th-century English poem, The Dream of the Rood, which tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion from the perspective of the cross; remembering it was once a tree, it feels pain as the nails enter its wood. Just like Boyle’s show, the poem was clever propaganda (this Christian overlay on Anglo-Saxon myth worked – nobody worships Woden any more).

Opening ceremony

The hole beneath the tree. In a remarkable sequence the tree is winched above the Tor to reveal a gaping hole below, out of which flood hundreds of industrial workers who literally tear up the countryside (24,000m2 of real grass and wildflowers on a stage set nearly 4m above the stadium floor). This hole symbolises the abyss, a bottomless pit of ideas, good and bad. It speaks of England’s creativity and risk-taking verve.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel. After Churchill, Brunel is our most popular Briton; here, in place of Scotsman James Watt, he is cast as the founder of the Industrial Revolution. Brunel is iconic, a symbol of engineering nous. This is history, Hollywood style, so Boyle is on familiar ground.

The smoke stacks. High-powered fans inflated the seven 30m-high fabric chimneys from stage trapdoors in one of the few spectacular moments conceived as a response to Beijing’s ceremony four years before. And, just like the boastful Chinese set pieces exploring the creation of paper, printing and gunpowder, this was the English showing off, retorting: ‘Industrial revolution? Hello?’

The cauldron. Thomas Heatherwick’s cauldron is a fine example of that very rare thing – English art nouveau. Like B of the Bang and the Shanghai Pavilion, it is one of his dandelion twists; 204 copper ‘petals’ on spindly stalks, when alight, enclose to form an elevated flaming cauldron. To be dismantled when the Games end, each petal (ephemeral icons of inclusive low-carbon design) will return to the competing nation that ‘donated’ it.

The top-hatted industrialists vogue-ing like Madonna. Quite simply, a tragic mistake by Boyle. Funny though. And very English in its own special way.

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