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Saturday, 28 July 2012

A very British show

The Olympic opening ceremony has apparently attracted a fair amount of criticism in China, with comments such as "It was just so normal, not as glamorous as Beijing. After all, they only spent a fraction compared with Beijing Olympics" on Chinese social networks.

I think they are missing the point.

The opening ceremony of the Beijing games was unarguably spectacular, with 15000 performers - twice the number that participated in last night's ceremony - but it was a very different type of show, with very different motivations.

China is a country which is very aware of how it presents itself on the world stage, very careful of its image and its changing role in the international community.  It is highly unlikely that the Beijing opening ceremony was put together without a vast amount of political input and discussion, and the end result was an immaculately choreographed display of dazzling, theatrical perfection.  Even the apparently sentimental choice of a young child to sing the national flag into the stadium turned out to be a carefully considered attempt to project a very particular image, when it was revealed that the child taking part in the ceremony was in fact miming while another, less "perfect" child provided the vocals. 

Interestingly, the organisers were fairly open about their motivation.

"This is in the national interest. It is the image of our national music, national culture. Especially the entrance of our national flag; this is an extremely important, extremely serious matter," was the response of the ceremony's musical director.  "We made the decision that the voice we would use was Yang Peiyi's. The child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feelings, and expression."

This matter-of-fact offical response to what the rest of the world considered to be an embarrassing gaffe clearly demonstrates the fundamental difference between the Chinese and British approaches to this undoubtably important event.  While the Beijing organisers could not risk presenting any aspect of their culture as anything but flawless and dazzling, the British team, headed by Danny Boyle, produced a joyful, eclectic celebration of British history and culture, underpinned by a self-deprecating humour.

While China needed to emphasise the perfection and brilliance of their performers and the strength and dignity of their country, Britain was content to embrace every aspect of its history, the good, the bad and the imperfect.  The ceremony even began with something that had quite negative connotations - the decline of rural life and the growth of industrialism, symbolised by the erection of half a dozen dark, smoking chimneys.  Danny Boyle did not give this chapter of our history the Disney treatment.  We did not have Mary Poppins-style cheery sweeps singing "Link your elbows, step in time" on top of the chimneys.  Instead, the glowing Olympic rings were "manufactured" by crowds of dark, grimy figures labouring over the a representation of molten metal while wealthy industrialists looked on approvingly.  There was a very clear acceptance of the fact that these games, and the city itself, are here because of the back-breaking labour of generations of poor working people.

Danny Boyle did not flinch away from any aspect of our history, but he also picked out some key strands from the development of modern Britain.  There has been a good deal of speculation on social networking sites as to whether he included the substantial NHS segment as a dig at a goverment who have presided over cuts to that insititution.  I am doubtful, I have to say.  I think the NHS simply brought together a number of elements that he wanted to use - the history of the NHS itself, obviously, but also our strong tradition in children's medicine which in turn allowed for the introduction of stories from some of our most popular children's authors.  The child performers clearly had a ball - after all, who wouldn't want to bounce on a giant bed in the middle of a huge fireworks display while Mary Poppinses rained gently down from the sky?  It must have been like living one of your most surreal dreams. 

Even if you do take a cynical view of the inclusion of the NHS in the opening ceremony, this institution has played an undeniably huge part of the development of our society and it took a rightful place, central-stage in the opening ceremony.  It may well be that Danny Boyle was cleverer than either the cynics or the fans have given him credit for, and has produced a piece of theatre that operates on more than one level and appeals to very different viewpoints.

But it was the humour that really set this opening ceremony apart from anything we have seen before.  It suggests that Britain is a nation that, whatever its problems, is comfortable in its own skin.  We know where we came from and what we are, and we are, by and large, fine with the world seeing that.  Can you imagine the Beijing organisers putting the Chinese equivalent of Mr Bean into the middle of one of their most respected orchestras?  Or flooding the screen with text speak?  Or pretending to drop their head of state out of a helicopter?

For me the encapsulating moment of the whole thing was when the Queen, the actual, real Queen, uttered the words "Good evening, Mr Bond" before apparently climbing into a helicopter with Daniel Craig, corgis trotting at her heels.  If even the Queen was willing to engage in a little bit of gentle comedy under the eyes of the world, it says a good deal about the willingness of the British to laugh at themselves.

So, in response to the critics, no, perhaps we did not dazzle like the Chinese did.  Perhaps we did not jump up and down to remind the world that Britain is still "Great".  But instead we put on a display that said "This is us.  And we rather like us.  And we hope you do too."

It was a joyful, messy, proud start to what will hopefully be a great, great event.  I might have been feeling "Bah humbug" about the Olympic brand police, but I certainly don't have even a hint of "Bah" or "Humbug" about the games themselves.

[waves flag and wishes special good luck to Phelan Hill and Katherine Grainger of Team GB]

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