Ten more on Danny’s Britain

29th July 2012

My post yesterday picking out ten great online pieces about the Olympics opening ceremony was this blog’s most popular post for months and months. In part as a consequence of the remarkable interest that prompted, and also because I remain totally fascinated by the event and the reactions it has provoked (can someone organise a conference about it, and quickly, please?), here is another bunch of pieces with further analysis. (Incidentally, did you see that the BBC are going to re-run the whole thing on the afternoon of 18 August?) First off, however, something that is totally great, courtesy of Reuters Photography Blog – a time-lapse of shots by photographer Pawel Kopcyznski that encapsulates the whole ceremony in just over a minute – it’s astonishing how all-embracing and evocative it already feels.

11. Opening ceremony a celebration – of protest and dissent: Alex Wolff for Sports Illustrated cheers for the centrality of protest in Danny Boyle’s extravaganza – ‘To speak one’s mind or assert one’s rights is as irrepressible a human instinct as running or jumping. Of that, let us be not afeared.’

12. London 2012 – the experts’ view of the Olympic opening ceremony: the Telegraph has sought the responses of promotor Harvey Goldsmith, choreographer Arlene Phillips, comedy writer David Quantick, music journalist Mick Brown and historian Mary Beard, who says ‘It recognised all kinds of things that people care about – from Amy Winehouse to CND marches – and it let them into the story as symbols that can stand for Britain, and have played their own part in shaping our history. It was a really alert reading of what matters to people in Britain today – from JK Rowling to the NHS – and because of that Boyle managed to inspire pride where finger-wagging governments have failed.’

13. Tim Berners-Lee and 2001/2010 – open and closed: jaggeree blogs about the appearance of the creator of the World Wide Web in the midst of the ceremony – ‘In the middle of all of the symbolism of the Opening Ceremony about the industrial revolution and now the digital revolution and against the backdrop of the commercial aspects of the games, which have definitely been about constraint of intellectual property and restriction of choice, it felt like a defining and hopeful moment, albeit one we should cherish, treasure and defend.’

14. An open letter to Danny Boyle…: at Louder than War music writer John Robb pens an eloquent fan missive – ‘this was about as punk rock as it gets. That is punk rock as it was in the first place – a punk rock of big gestures, surreal art, edgy music and a powerful message that jolted you awake. Taking the message to heart of the establishment. This was situationism at work. The Queen acting in a mind blowing surreal play that made a powerful political statement from industrial revolution to, apparently (according to LTW reader Terry Clarke) during the Emilie Sande’s performance of the FA cup favourite Abide With Me, there were 96 – note, 96 – dancers, ( a reference to the Hillsborough 96 for whom we have just been touring, with the Clash’s Mick Jones in the fight for justice).’

15. Caliban’s dream – on Danny Boyle’s London opening ceremonies: the blog Pages and Lights focusses on the use of the lines from The Tempest to make some good points – ‘The sexiness, drive, and visual slickness of the big performance really come not from the notably ethnic young people and their electric grins but from the middle-aged nerd with a fast computer and a net worth of $50 million.  Are we supposed to receive that sequence as silly or devastatingly clever?  Fabulously multiracial or uncomfortably controlling, with Berners-Lee a modern Prospero?  About British ingenuity or big-money Big Brother? Such questions create the unsettling, self-undermining effects of Boyle’s opening ceremonies, which used the tools of art to wriggle free from simple nationalist celebration and pompously Olympian self-congratulation.’

16. The Olympic opening ceremony – being Boyled: at the blog Cultural Snow Tim Footman argues that recuperation was the name of the game – ‘Baudrillard would have argued that we’re simply blinded by the razzmatazz and spectacle of the whole thing, that obscures and eventually supplants the reality, including historical reality. And sure, there were lots of fireworks. But there’s also a sense that the very real spirit of subversion and nonconformism and sheer bloody-mindedness in British history has been appropriated; what Debord and the Situationists called recuperation. Yes, there were bits of the Stones and Bowie and the Sex Pistols and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, music that shocked and disturbed when it came out. But punk rockers became a posse of outsized marionettes, far more funny than scary. It all came through the door marked HERITAGE.’

17. The day we saw our mad, fantastical dreams come true: screenwriter and Team Danny member Frank Cottrell Boyce reflects for the Guardianon the morning after – ‘There’s a dystopian aspect to the Olympic Park – the security, the Orwellian notices (“We are proud to accept only Visa”) – but in the heart of it, Danny had built some kind of Utopia, a society run on goodwill. Which is of course how Olympic sports work. For every superstar Usain Bolt there are hundreds who have been carried there by the kindness and loyalty of family and friends. My nephew Alex – a prospect for 2016 – is one of them. As Danny wrote in his introduction to the brochure: “We can build Jerusalem, and it will be for everyone.” He’ll hate me for saying this but he has a very Catholic sense that yes, this is a fallen world, but you can find grace and beauty in its darkest corners – even if you chop off your arm to do so.’

18. Product placement at London 2012 ceremony :here’s an angle you might not have thought about – which brands were visible during the ceremony in front of a global audience estimated at one billion? Erik at Brands & Films has some of the answers – ‘The Italian team was dressed by Giorgio Armani. Their kit came with a twist: the Italian master included the full lyrics of the national anthem on the inside of the opening ceremony jacket and on the official team sweatshirt. Also, all athletes received an Armani suitcase filled with 50 pieces of the dark blue and white line. Great move by Armani and the Italian Olympic Committee.’

19. Outside the stadium: Jon Day at the London Review of Books blog on cycling as part of the opening ceremony and in Critical Mass on Friday evening, when 160 or so – ‘an Olympic peloton’s worth’ – were arrested; ‘Most of the cyclists were released over the next few hours, while Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish zipped round Surrey failing to win medals in the Olympic road cycling race. Their bail conditions specify that they’re not to go within 100 yards of any Olympic venue, not to enter any Olympic-only carriageway, and not to enter the London borough of Newham with a cycle. The “people’s games”have begun.’

20. Let’s build on the triumph and hope of Danny Boyle’s night: an Observer editorial – ‘very gently and very, very cautiously, it is worth looking for some small shafts of substance amid the strobe lighting. Boyle’s lore took in Shakespeare, Milton, Brunel and Tim Berners-Lee. It sought to sum up a country – a very multicultural land manifestly – which had played a full part in world literature, world construction, world invention (even if very few of those feats are taught in our core curriculum these days). It was anxious to show us, in short, that we’d mattered – and hint that we could perhaps matter again. It offered a fleeting feeling of national self-identity and self-worth as well as Mr Bean.’



  1. Paul Tickell says:

    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 tv 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 tv 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 in 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).

    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 tv 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 PANDEMONIUM as a key to how the scenario was constructed. The Jennings is a compilation of writings from the 17 to the 19c about man and machine, capital and labour. But probably more than PANDEMONIUM 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’s 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.

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