What’s more impressive than making 2008 people drum in unison?
It’s a question that’s haunted the British psyche for four years now, ever since the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony offered a vision of an emergent China that was impressive, inspiring and a little bit scary. It was a form of regimented spectacle that threw down the gauntlet to a nation which – it turns out – finds it an insurmountable challenge to get 2008 security guards to turn up to work.
In the immortal words of Wesley Snipes:
The Olympics opening ceremonies tend to be very slick, and to project an image of our world as a weird Legoland sort of place. An Olympics opening ceremony is always in the sort of art I associate with airports – vaguely inspiring, vaguely corporate, vaguely abstract, totally apolitical. Lots of blue skies and images of shiny buildings. People in those pictures are props, standing there to demonstrate a sense of egalitarian, conformist, yet also moneymaking common purpose.
For a few hours, citizens and subjects of the two hundred and five nations of the Earth – the IOC recognise far more countries than any actual country does – parade around a stadium, and a very high proportion of the world’s population are all watching the same thing. I’m a big believer in the common humanity of all of us, in the idea that we’re all in this together, that there’s more that unites than divides us. I admire the effort the athletes put in, what churl wouldn’t? But there’s a certain suspension of disbelief – if not our entire critical apparatus – when we see, for example this time, the Syrian delegation and try to think of it apolitically in purely sporting terms. The mere fact there is a Palestinian delegation is beyond the pale for some.
And the paradox of it is that this is all about nationalism, national pride is at stake. This is unusual for some countries. The USA, for example, doesn’t engage in much international team sport. Another paradox is that the host nation has to be inclusive and welcoming blah blah, but the opening ceremony is basically there to make the case that, y’know, we’re way more awesome than whichever country it is you’ve shown up from.
The problem being that we British are instinctively ironic, instinctively suspicious of sunniness. We like our happiness to be tinged with darkness. While American comedians, for example, loved to be loved, yearn to be loved, the over-riding ambition of every British comedian is to be despised. We couldn’t really just parade around a stadium being cheerful celebrating. That’s not us at all.
If you want to define the British, here’s the best thing you can say: we’re not the sort of people who sit around defining ourselves. We’re a mess, a complete jumble. That’s not to say that other nations aren’t complex, or contradictory, or diverse, or whatever. De Gaulle once offered the observation about France ‘How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?’. Well, how can you sum up a nation that could be represented by Sherlock Holmes or Jordan? We’re Oliver Cromwell and Mr Bean, Nelson and Eddie the Eagle, Shakespeare and Fifty Shades of Grey blog woman. I mean, yeah, you’d want the Beatles in there, a Mini and some Monty Python, and the Queen’s going to be there, so that’s good, but after that things get far more problematic. We could go the druids route, we could go the Clockwork Orange one, they’d both be ‘just as British’, using some odd, entirely unBritish metric of measuring Britishness.
Whenever we do this sort of thing, it tends to go either into High Victorian pageantry or GLC era street parade. Or smashing the two of them together to make a mess. Point is: if you wanted to know what unites us as a nation, for four years it’s been the fervent belief that the London Olympic opening ceremony would be a car crash.
Danny Boyle came up with something interesting. A fantastically shambolic, messed up, oddly dark in places jumble of a thing that seemed at times to be his personal stream of consciousness of ‘oh yeah, that were good’. It was an opening ceremony, perhaps the first one ever, that invited a re-reading because there were nuances you’d only catch the second time around.
There was, pointedly, only one drummer, and she was doing her own thing. Everyone else was kind of doing their own thing, too. And the mixed messages! It started with Jerusalem, and a scene that was essentially a celebration of the Scouring of the Shire – the bit of The Lord of the Rings that’s so mean and depressing they left it out of the movie – complete with the forging of rings. And that’s a sequence where Teletubbyland was torn apart on the orders of a Tempest-quoting Isambard Kingdom Brunel who is … well, why not ask the New York Times:
“From the New York Times
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 28, 2012
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a Dickens character.”
The odd thing about the sequence … it had a percussive drumbeat but was oddly meandering. And it replaced an idyllic scene with an industrial one. Tore down paradise and put up a parking lot, as it were. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? What are you saying? What am I meant to be thinking? Ooh … TARDIS noise over Bohemian Rhapsody, Jetpacks! Sweet.
Watching this, I realised that this was the only possible way you can outmatch the Beijing ceremony. Getting 2008 people to drum in unison is pretty straightforward. Impressive, monolithic, but ultimately the message is one of conformity and there’s no real art there. There’s no way to react except say ‘wow, they got a lot of people to do the same thing’. The British ceremony required constant interpretation and explanation. It was the first opening ceremony you needed to Google. It was designed as ironic and difficult, in a medium that’s meant to be as controversial as a traffic sign. It made allusions I didn’t get in a show designed to make sense to any human being, even those watching a TV for the first time.
And then there came the James Bond bit. It started as, basically, an MTV Awards sequence with the ultimate celebrity cameo. And you think that’s all they’re going to do: have James Bond collect the Queen from the Palace, land in the stadium, escort her out and let the Games begin. Fun, yeah, and quite a cute joke and … holy moley, the Queen just pushed Bond out of the way and jumped out of the helicopter and is parachuting in.
Without a word, without even framing it as a question, the British ceremony just asked the entire world’s population one simple thing, and it’s this:
Which country would you rather live in?
Would you rather live in a country where your leaders make you do this:
Or would you rather live in a country where you make your leaders do this?
And, after four years of anxiety, we got the answer to our question. What’s more impressive than making two thousand and eight people drum in unison? Inviting a billion people to laugh at the same joke.