Jennings and Powell, thou should’st be living at this hour #openingceremony

30th July 2012

The terrific filmmaker, our friend and occasional collaborator Paul Tickell contributed this wonderful response to Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony as a ‘Comment’ to one of our posts over the weekend. But it deserves a far wider readership than that, and so as a first step towards that I am posting it here. Do please read…

Paul Tickell writes: Successful as he is I’ve never been entirely convinced by Danny Boyle as a film-maker. But what a show this was! So much to talk about, but first of all I’d like to home in on Blake and ‘Jerusalem’: thankfully it was a de-militarised zone. Often the poem ends up being used as a lugubrious marching song, a battle hymn vocalised by imperial triumphalists (enter stage right cheerleaders like the Michael Goves, the Niall Fergusons et al using the Churchillian tone to turn Blake the great Republican and political ‘terrorist’ into a sub-Kipling apologist of Empire, of the Dunkirk spirit and of just about anything else ‘British’ amenable to a reactionary agenda).

Boyle’s spectacle acknowledged Empire but with great percussion rather than fife-and-drum, so there was no kow-towing to imperialist fantasties, no jingoistic celebration – just as when it came to Industry, it was not only a story of Capital but of Labour too. For a change you really could believe you were living in a country where Marx and Engels lived and wrote – not just the usual supects like Jane Austen. There are bonnets and bonnets, and Boyle was going to have his bonnet – or rather his cake – and eat it.

He was even going to have a say in how the cake should be cut up and divided out – cue the NHS/Great Ormond sequences, the Welfare State shown in the magical light of a bedtime story: even in the quarantine of suffering there is hope, utopia even. And it is a utopia strived for everyday by ordinary people doing extraordinarily valuable things – cue the volunteers, real doctors and nurses, rendering the walk-on part central, heroic. Every extra is a star – cue the guard of honour for the entrance of the Olympic flame, not a thin red line in Ruritanian Busbys but a mass of construction workers in hard-hats.

This idea of the worker is there in another of the texts which informed this extravaganza, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. So often the discourse about the play revolves around lord and magus Prospero. Magic means power but the Master’s arts are reliant on the Slave. Prospero is nothing without the labour and lore of Caliban. His mother Sycorax is interestingly the mistress of another kind of more ancient magic whose origins are African/Algerian. And it is of course her island which Porspero is lording it over, European Renaissance hermetic magic ousting Afro-animism, with a little help from mercantile capitalism and its rapacious process of colonisation.

For the Olympics Boyle, together with his writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, has re-worked these themes of the play. All too often they are played down, as recent programmes on television have demonstrated. Trevor Nunn pooh-poohed discussion of slavery and empire as all hindsight, the gloss of schools of post-colonial studies. James Shapiro in his television outing didn’t even mention Caliban. Admittedly the historical narrative which the play draws on – about the wreck of the ‘Sea Venture’ on its way to Virginia – is about a time when the colony held no slaves. However, England by this point had been plying its slave trade for over 50 years. There are in fact plenty of references to slavery in the play and it’s part of the genius of Shakespeare to present Caliban as a mythical composite of slave, indentured labourer, and uprooted victim of the savage Tudorbethan enclosures. And he’s as much Irish as African as far as the references in the play go.

This hybrid polyglot side to our history felt very much part of Boyle’s spectacle – not in any tokenistic way but gloriously and without apology. It also felt as if a Radical History Workshop, presided over by the late Raphael Samuel, had got the gig to do a national pageant and immediately elected Boyle as its co-ordinator with Cottrell Boyce as assistant. These two certainly didn’t ignore history from on high (kick-off involved a fly-past) but what propelled the event was not the bird’s-eye view but the view from below – from the ground, even from within the ground where the revolutionary mole burrows and from where has sprung a whole continuing radical tradition of Diggers, Levellers, religious Dissenters and Non-conformists, Chartists, Suffragettes, and those more recent ‘good trouble-makers’, Punks. (If you want to see this Heresy of the Free Spirit in action, the point where English eccentric meets political utopian, then check out the Bruce Lacey retrospective at Camden Arts Centre).

Part of of the bird’s-eye view, history as High Church – the Archbishop of Canterbury was of course present, behind the Queen but sitting a little higher: this view from above just had to involve the royals. Short of another Civil War there is no getting away from them. But again it was done with aplomb and with little or no grovelling – thankfully there was no cue for a Starkey or a Schama who, whatever the acerbity of the one and the insights of the other, have on television bent the metaphorical knee and been very well rewarded for the accompanying tugged forelock.

James Bond took the Queen up and away in his helicopter – literally a bird’s-eye view. Here we have a link – admittedly rather fanciful on my part – to the high or hermetic magic of Prospero. Many scholars argue that Shakespeare based his character on mathematician and magus John Dee who amongst other things coined the phrase ‘British Empire’ in order to legitimise Elizabeth I’s colonial adventures – violent expropriations, annexation and even death if you were on the receiving end of them.

While in Bohemia Dee also did a bit of spying, sending coded letters back to spy-master Walsingham in London signed ‘007’ – and over three centuries later inspiring Ian Fleming’s secret agent who in his own devil-may-care way also has the chore of keeping the top brass informed… On the night Harry Potter completed the trinity of fictional Wizards with Prospero (Dee) and Bond. Standing behind them of course are their real creators: Shakespeare, Fleming, and Rowling. (Jake Arnott has fun with this sort of mish-mash, presided over by Aleister Crowley, in his new novel House of Rumour.)

There are clues as to what might have drawn Boyle to the magical traditions of our isles. Certainly whatever you think of his films, he is thankfully no stodgy naturalist, the mode which bedevils a lot of British film-making. I cannot imagine Boyle for example taking the recent perverse decision to do Wuthering Heights as ultra-realism, ironing out into documentary literalness the novel’s immersion in the Gothic and the Sublime.

Boyle himself in interview gave us clues as to the lure of magic – or certainly of magical realism British-style (anyone for Michael Powell?). He cites the Humphrey Jennings’ book Pandaemonium as a key to how the scenario was constructed. The Jennings is a compilation of writings from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century about man and machine, capital and labour. But probably more than Pandaemonium as a source-book with its quotations from Milton and Blake, it’s the sensibility of Jennings himself and colleagues of his like Grierson and Cavalcanti who helped to inform Boyle’s vision for the Olympics.

These were writers and directors involved in Mass Observation, a huge experiment in social history from below, as well as being directors who saw themselves as ‘poets of the people’. Boyle can claim something of that mantle. His evening of marvels felt aspirational and celebratory while keeping an unflinching eye on truths which though obvious are rarely aired – about money coming from muck, of wealth more often than not from the pain and suffering of those who labour – many of them in the chains of slavery to further the dubious cause of Empire. On the night we saw the fires which forged the manacles and the kind of utopian-political fire which might break them forever.

Jennings liked a good fire – his portrayal of the Blitz feels like its flames bring all the horrors of hell but also the chance for transformation. Boyle’s flames felt like this –  from those of the Industrial Sublime to those in the Prodigy’s Firestarter. (I almost forgot to mention the wit of it all). Fitting then that the Olympic flame should have been such an engineering feat and coup de theatre. Prospero would have been pleased – and so too would Sycorax, not to mention the Bard whose voodoo aesthetics brought these characters into being.

Although Boyle’s vision was panoramic and inclusive, I am sure that some of its singularity springs from his background: Irish, working-class, Catholic and north of England. Many in Britain share one or more of these attributes, Cottrell Boyce included; and what was revealed on the night is that it is as valid a way to be British as any.

Lastly I cannot help but think of the flames which burned almost this time last year in Tottenham, not a million miles away from the Olympic site. There is no way that the opening ceremony addressed itself directly to this sort of fire. On the other hand it provided a vision of Britain whereby at least the right questions might be asked about these events rather than them being dismissed as criminality pure and simple and swept under the carpet. Fires having been started, you need to find a way of putting them out so they don’t recur. This means trying to understand the causes. Maybe the poetic understanding of this great spectacle will be of help.

Image: St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz, photographed on 29 December 1940; courtesy of the LIFE archive hosted by Google.


  1. Helene says:

    This was a great production … no doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed every minute of it or thought it was without flaws.

    Some of it was boring, some of it needed explanations from the news anchors (my feeling is that if something needs explanations, it needs to be re-thought to consider a wider audience … not everyone watching was British). But that’s been my criticism about most Olympics’ opening ceremonies, so London was no different in that regard.

    I’m still miffed that the cauldron is buried deep within the Olympic Stadium, out of view of thousands who populate London’s various neighborhoods.

    In past Olympics, the cauldron has served as a source of pride for the host city and as a beacon to all around, drawing in everyone to the site that, in the sporting world, is pretty much ‘ground zero’ of the planet for two weeks. Making it’s view available only to ticket-holders seems rather elitist, especially when the organizing committee branded this as the Olympics for everyone.

    This was the one opening ceremony among many that I managed to stay awake until the end, so I believe that says a lot. Considering everything, Danny Boyle and his thousands of volunteers (especially the volunteers) did a very good job. Kudos all around to all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *