I didn’t have high hopes for the Opening Ceremony. As well as being the birthplace of football and The Beatles, Britain is also home to bashful modesty. American-style jingoism is most uncouth, so how is a country so reluctant to puff out its chest meant to indulge itself in ceremony?
Well, firstly through Bradley Wiggins – the most down-to-earth sporting champion since his comrade in sideburns Doug Walters – chiming the Olympic bell. Then, as if the cast of thousands had caught Wiggins-mania, a bevvy of mutton-chopped battlers prosecute the Industrial Revolution at the command of Kenneth Branagh’s Isambard Brunel (who continues the facial hair theme). It’s safe to say that London 2012 is the first and last time smoke stacks have been celebrated so vividly, particularly head-scratching in an era of environmental concern over climate change, but I digress.
While a group of English kids sing ‘Jerusalem’, they cut to some Northern Irish kids belting out ‘Danny Boy’ on the Giant’s Causeway, some wee Scottish bairns performing ‘Flower of Scotland’, and some Welsh kids smash out ‘Bread of Heaven’ on a beach – all of this with those nations’ respective rugby highlights playing intermittently, and not a skerrick of irony that the Scots were singing about defeating the English Army in the 1300s, and that the majority of people north of Carlisle vehemently oppose Caledonia forming part of Team GB.
Just when things were getting too serious, Daniel Craig – or James Bond – rubs shoulders with the Queen and parachutes into the stadium with his tongue firmly in his cheek, as if minutes of taking its national identity so seriously needed to be alleviated by taking a bit of mickey.
Back to serious. Here’s the Queen, being sung the national anthem (including a rarely-heard second verse much like Australia’s own ‘Beneath our radiant Southern Cross’) by a group of kids in pyjamas (couldn’t they be bothered getting dressed?).
Before you have time to catch your breath, Mike Oldfield is playing tubular bells to celebrate the NHS – the National Health Service, which must have confused the hell out of the American viewers who so fiercely resisted ObamaCare – while those same kids jump on bed-shaped trampolines. It’s about as confusing to watch as it is to retell in words.
And then like magic, JK Rowling appears to read ‘Peter Pan’ as several boogeymen appear to frighten a little girl who looks like Pippy Longstocking, before Mary Poppins descends to save the day. Meanwhile, Eddie McGuire tells us that all 600 volunteer dancers work for the NHS – not a good time to get sick in London if all the nurses are in the East End having a jig.
Seems like we’re back to serious again, with some stuffy composer wheeled out to play ‘Chariots of Fire’ … until Mr Bean takes the stage. Rowan Atkinson does a sterling job on the keyboards, and an even better job of delivering the wry English humour that could have been so easily lost at an event like this.
Director Danny Boyle seems intent on cramming in as many pop culture references as possible, as ‘Blackadder’, Harry Hill and ‘Oliver’ make brief appearances in a neon-themed performance designed to illustrate that the Olympics is down wiv da kulcha of da kidz, innit (although, carefully omitting any reference to facebook or iPhones, rather, focusing plenty of attention on Samsung’s official product).
Apparently that Tube ride was a time machine through 50 years of the British recording industry and I’m devastated that neither Billy Ocean nor Dexys Midnight Runners get a guernsey. In a nod to West Ham’s immense contribution to English culture, the two teenage protagonists re-unite to the anthemic ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ before Dizzee Rascal goes bonkers and the Britons give themselves another pat on the back by reminding the world that some geezer named Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet.
Here come the athletes, led customarily by Greece, who surprise everyone by affording the bus fare to London considering their current economic conditions. The opening few countries – Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, et al. – sound like the lyrics of Kokomo, before Australia – led by Lauren Jackson, a superb choice considering her elite standing within basketball – march the track in their Dunlop Volleys (the AOC must have been on a budget).
American Samoa look casual in thongs, while Botswana, Congo and Equitorial Guinea are much more formal in their suits, resembling cadet accountants. In their flat caps and grey outfit, the Bulgarian athletes look like Shawshank prisoners.
South America missed the memo about British weather because Colombia, Chile and Paraguay have turned up in broad-brimmed hats. Czech Republic are much more appropriately dressed in Wellingtons and carrying brollies.
Thankfully, North Korea have been given the correct flag. Finland are disguised in grey camouflage while Dominica stick out in their picnic blanket vests. A shirtless, oiled-up Fijian judo-er walks out to the BeeGees’ ‘Staying Alive’, yet another perplexing choice of music in the wake of the Pet Shop Boys and Amy Winehouse.
South Korea hit the lead in the ‘best hat’ category before Kyrgyzstan claim the gold with a white stovepipe number. The German uniforms are either pink or blue, depending on your gender (the ladies were wearing pink, if you were wondering). If France took off their blazers they could play Australia in a game of cricket, with both nations sporting all white.
Ashley Cole is masquerading as Mozambique flag bearer Kurt Couto before Leila McKinnon calls New Zealand a “great country”, one can only assume sarcastically. Russia seem to be wearing akubras, and America parade berets, each as inexplicable as the other. The world’s largest human Pau Gasol leads the resplendent Spanish and finally the gilt-edged British enter the arena to the raptures of the crowd.
With all the athletes inside the stadium, the Arctic Monkeys (who would be more fitting at the Winter Olympics … get it?) play a couple of tunes, and Jacques Rogge and Seb Coe kept their speeches thankfully short. The attention turns to a Bond-esque David Beckham delivering the flame via speed boat, for a handful of future Olympians to light the clutch of metallic petals – one for each nation – that comprise the Olympic torch. Sir Paul McCartney’s performance was only briefly disrupted by mismatched lip-syncing, but redeemed by the rousing rounds of ‘na na na na na’ that brought the ceremony to a close.
For Boyle, London 2012 will sit proudly alongside ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ on his career’s mantlepiece. It wasn’t hugely polished – there certainly weren’t any kid-swaps in the name of aesthetics – but it was loaded with a kind of droll charm that most nations could never muster. Beijing was glossy and ran like clockwork but London’s opening ceremony left China in the dust. Let’s hope the rest of the Games lives up to its curtain raiser.