By Sanjay Suri
Slumdog Millionaire established Danny Boyle as a master of cliché well executed. The opening ceremony for the Olympics turned out to be a reality show in that popular but dubious tradition.
The opening ceremony serialised in snippets the producers’ sense of the best of Britain. The idea itself is sound, and no quarrel with that. These are always occasions for the host nation to show itself off, to show the world its quintessential best that has defined it. And so the idea of the idyllic countryside, the industrial revolution, the Beatles and whatever is associated with the best of Britain would be quite naturally, and industrially, the stuff of a show like this.
Boyle might even have presented Empire, but that would hardly have gone down well with the world, and much of the previously colonised world, sitting right there. There is no argument with the content chosen, but that it should have been presented in rather obvious and frequently dull manner was not quite the best of British.
What was intended as a cerebral sort of circus was not particularly cerebral, and not always great circus either. Just too often through the evening, the opening ceremony that had been long awaited presented itself as a stage lesson in history for simple students. An idea works only as well as the doing of it.
Some of the effects were no doubt well executed. West End theatre is quite good at stage effects. In that sense the ceremony was more West End than cinema of the recent Boyle kind. And Boyle is essentially a West End man, and to the theatre he has recently returned, at the West End, quite besides theatre of this Olympian kind.
The theatre show ran through a range of acts and scenes from pre-industrial countryside to the world wide web – presented as the latest in serial British gifts to the world. It was shown, though, as the visual equivalent of a listing rather than a compelling telling of a story.
The listing felt so much like a checklist. Countryside? Yes, see the helium-stuffed paper cloud like a recent purchase from Ikea, the milkmaids playing with apples, the sheep, the meadows, that little hill, never forgetting the good ole’ yeomen. The meadows rolled a bit too, who can say it wasn’t all there from the start.
Enter horse and cart. And rugby. A horse-drawn omnibus. Shakespeare. The Victorian gentlemen, and ladies. Then the chimneys rising to mark the Industrial Revolution. Later the Beatles, Mary Poppins descending with the umbrella, the youth of the seventies, and of now.
All arguably representative and telling, and a reasonable encapsulation. We sat noting the points of history dutifully covered in this properly sequential presentation. We noted the correctness, and the order. And the Britishness of it, and the Britishness of each gift to the world. On then to the next slide presented for us note.
There were moments when the listing itself seemed of uncertain interest. The show went on tediously a bit with the National Health Service. Not, on the face of it, of great interest to the world, or to the Brits. Unless the choice of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) was presented to attract patients from abroad – the hospital itself works strenuously to bring in foreign patients, and their money. That would be in line with the national push to squeeze money opportunities out of the Olympics. But a hook to that end at the Olympics? Gosh.
The alternation of theatre out there with the television screen (and the screens at the stadium) did work on television; it gave us some lighter moments like James Bond with the Queen. And Rowan Atkinson. And no doubt an audience of a billion plus is greater than an audience of 60,000 in a stadium. But this also meant a much interrupted show that surrendered the strength that would come from continuity at one place. It became in spells a bad play with way too many intervals.
The best that could ever be said about this opening ceremony, more than any enjoyment of the show itself, would be that it should work for Britain the way it was intended to, at least a little. When it took on the Olympics, it won itself that stage to show itself off. And Britain has almost never needed a show of this kind more than it does now, with the economy contracting far more in the second quarter than in the first, and far more than expected. Britain needs the Olympics to deliver a lot more than medals.
Tellingly, the Mini, the once classic British car that drove up to a modern house arrived in its now German manifestation. The other British classics, the Jaguar and the Land Rover made no appearance, thanks perhaps to a certain Parsi gentleman. Too much of the best of British is in the past, too little that is promising today.
When finally the British sports contingent walked in, the camera picked on a Queen busy with her nails, looking rather bored, and in no cheering mood. She was not amused, understandably. God save the unsmiling Queen.