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

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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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