Sunday, July 29, 2012

When I waked I cried to dream again

Sunday. Day 2. All that sniping and griping is now being zealously replaced by the earnest business of being the best in archery or swimming or netball or road cycling or any one of a thousand events which got underway yesterday in "London" (which, presumably to help geolocate confused Americans, covers just about every venue).

While the athletes who paraded around the Olympic Stadium on Friday night get down to the business they've trained years for, the world is still gaping with awe over Danny Boyle's simply breathtaking £27 million opening ceremony, quite possibly the finest celebration of Britain I've ever seen - an incredible montage of our humour, our history, our irony, our endeavour, our creativity, our quirkiness, our social fabric, our contribution, our joyful cynicism and our sense of order.

Beijing had been about power, about projecting the economic and military might of China, presenting its credentials, as if contained in the most elaborate investors' brochure ever produced before an IPO. And it was, to an extent, about the future. London's opening ceremony pageant - Isles of Wonder was unashamedly about the past and the present. It was what, frankly, we do best. We dwell on our past glories like no other nation, which is just as well seeing as heritage is one of the United Kingdom's most lucrative coin-turning operations.

There have been the critics who've said that it lacked any vision of hope, of the future, but not intentionally wishing to state the obvious, who knows what the future will bring? Best to live in the moment, which is what Boyle's incredible show managed - using the past to get to where Britain is today, a vibrant, culturally diverse, creatively rich and socially complex nation. It may have once been the foundry of the world, but let's not get too carried away with all that, it still has something to give the world, and if that doesn't count, then, as an island, it is perfectly happy pleasing itself.

Olympic opening ceremonies can be mind-draggingly dull affairs, a lot of nationalistic pomp and ceremony, followed by a lot of flag-waving and grand speeches citing the Olympic spirit. This was a three hour version of Peter Blake's cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a pop art collage comprised of several thousand moving parts, 40 sheep, geese, goats, cows, chickens, ducks and horses, Yellow Submarines and a ton of hugely enjoyable in-jokes. I'm sure a good proportion of the global audience would have missed the irony of John Lydon spitting out "God save the Queen!", or the unintentional in-joke that Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean is now the country's second biggest export item after Nissan cars.

Come to think of it, I can't imagine any other host city applying humour to the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Most are rather po-faced about it, indulging in an evening of self-inflated pomposity. And then most other host cities don't have access to the most famous woman on the planet, HRH Queen Elizabeth, or the sheer nerve of inviting her to make her acting debut (how many monarchs - dead or alive - would you find yourself writing that line about?) in a James Bond sketch, combining two lucrative national identity properties in an hilarious deflation of the royal elevation. If it hasn't already, I'm sure it has already found itself alongside numerous Morecambe & Wise sketches (Glenda Jackson's Cleopatra, Angela Rippon's dancing, Shirley Bassey's big number...) as one to be replayed again and again and again.

For all of its multi-sensorial wonder, Danny Boyle applied his film maker's instinct to tell a simple story, albeit with a rich dialogue. If nothing else, it reflected his own canon in engrossing the audience, ensnaring the viewer with its invention, its stagecraft and its vision. By turns it charmed, made you chuckle and - without getting too Andy Murray about it - induce the odd moment of bloke-blub (eyes moist but a hearty chuckle - yes chaps, you know what I mean).

The tale of the Thames was a beautiful beginning, from its Gloucestershire source, through Battersea with the Floyd's pig floating over the power station, up to the stadium itself, blasting out the The Clash as it neared Stratford. The pastoral scenes giving way to the Industrial Revolution and a typically smug-looking Kenneth Brannagh (sorry, Sir Kenneth Brannagh) as Brunel (no, dumb colonials, he wasn't Abe Lincoln...) reading Caliban, the half-man, half-beast of The Tempest who declares "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises..." as he's about to kill a colonialist ruler who stole.

And then the "political" bit - a tribute to the NHS, to the amazing work of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the Welfare State. This, in case you weren't aware, was part of the "leftie, multi-cultural crap" soon-to-be-former Tory MP Aidan Burley (and currently the Conservative Member for the multi-cultural Cannock Chase in the Midlands) felt compelled to tell his Twitter followers, adding in a second (and, so it turns out, his penultimate) tweet, "The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen - more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?". Unsurprisingly, Tory whips couldn't close down his Twitter account fast enough. Twat.

It will probably come as no surprise, either, that music made the opening ceremony for me. The appearance of Mike Oldfield, performing Tubular Bells could have been so easily the equivalent of wheeling out Jasper Carrott to do his car insurance claims routine. But his grandiose, almost forty-year-old prog rock masterpiece has lost none of its loftiness and Oldfield, none of the precocious multi-instrumentalism that made the piece such a landmark when it first came out in 1973. And then we had Dame Evelyne Glennie, looking like a cross between Keith Moon and Gandalf, leading a 1000-strong pack of drummers in a pulsing beat to illustrate Britain's industrialisation and its economic evolution into global power.

Then we had The Arctic Monkeys, led by another example of precocious musical talent, Alex Turner, strutting their way through I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor and The Beatles' Come Together, Turner himself greased up like pre-Hamburg Lennon as Eddie Cochrane. And then, at the end, Britain's most eminent elder statesman of pop music, Sir Paul McCartney, cranking out Hey Jude. You can be cynical about this all you want, but the next time the Olympics come to Britain, Fab Four's membership will all be, sadly,  memories. And so what if the song got off to an odd start, with a backing track playing in. It's Macca. Legend.

The joy of the playlist during the slightly soppy girl-loses-phone-goes-on-Facebook-finds-bloke-reveals-WWW-inventor-in-home scene was like a Now That's What I Call British Music!. Snippets of The Who, The Specials, Eurythmics, The Kinks, Mud, New Order and Prodigy - a Brittanic jukebox that only scratched the surface of the music this one little island has given the world.

Like one of those tourist postcards you can buy in the gift shop at Westminster Abbey, there were the visual cues of London - the Pearly Kings and Queens and The Chelsea Pensioners, possibly the oldest participants in the entire event, still proudly marching in disciplined step, medals glinting in the Olympic Stadium's mesmerising lightshow. Don't know why, but that was a Murray Moment right there for me. Another was the forging and raising of the five burning Olympic rings, and the national anthem sung by deaf children, and Jerusalem and Abide With Me, and Eclipse as the fireworks erupted over East London.

Whatever happens next in the XXX Olympiad will, I'm afraid, be a mere runner up. The gold medal for audacity, spectacle and awesomeness has already been won. Along with, don't be surprised, a knighthood, eh Sir Danny?

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