Britain: this is for everyone

Last night’s Olympic opening ceremony was stunning. A glorious jumble of references and spectacles, mixing globally-popular elements with winking in-jokes for the British viewers. It spoke in enormous mile-high symbols of our history and life – not just in the bombast and belligerence of Bond and the Queen arriving by parachute, but also in the careful choice of the Brookside lesbian kiss and the Tardis noise materialising during Bohemian Rhapsody. These are huge chunks of culture, full of their own meaning and carrying their own symbolism; forging them into an event that had its own identity and was not overwhelmed by its parts is an incredible achievement. Danny Boyle should be proud.

Some critics have complained that last night’s ceremony was too political, too much like propaganda – missing the fact that by its nature every Olympic opening ceremony is political, is propaganda. The real complaint is that it was not propaganda they agreed with – and that is fine. An event as enormous as this, as powerfully charged with anticipation and with significance, couldn’t ever hope to please everyone.

But the symbols chosen for celebration were for everyone. The NHS is for everyone. The Queen, James Bond, Mr Bean, the internet, technology, suffrage, kissing, Mary Poppins, Kes, Dizzee Rascal. The opening, pastoral and construction scenes showed clear class delineations; the joyous riot of music and popular culture that grew from it showed disparate, distinct but equal individuals. There’s a vision of utopia there, and it is neither homogenous nor segregated.

It’s easy to throw around words like “vibrant” and “young” and waffle about the British sense of humour and post-Empire faded greatness. That doesn’t come close to the heart of what happened last night. It ought to be impossible to articulate a national identity so full of contradictions. But in four words, there’s a valiant attempt: this is for everyone. Inclusive, open, supportive but not prescriptive, with humility and quiet confidence, and without the belief that everyone’s necessarily going to want it. Everyone gets a turn. Oh, and with permission to be as eccentric, cynical and sarcastic as you like so long as you’re not being mean.

In the end, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony did what politicians and sponsors couldn’t do (not even with Mitt Romney’s help). It united much of the country, even those bits of it that couldn’t care less about the sport and remain deeply cynical about the money, the sponsorship and the eventual outcome. It made people proud. It gave the Olympics a different meaning. This is why culture matters, and why storytelling is important: it makes meaning. Without it, we’re just a collection of people. With it, we get to be British.

14 thoughts on “Britain: this is for everyone

  1. Totally agree. Many have stated that it couldn’t and wasn’t trying to beat China’s ceremony – I think it blew it away. Thousands of regimented communistic drumming? yawn. I think Boyle’s opener was a game changer, we’ll see more use of film, made for screen, ceremonies in the future and less regimented streamer twirling

  2. Thank you all! Glad it resonated with people – I rarely feel much connection to the idea of Britishness, and this was a peculiar thing to try to encapsulate. Benji Lanyardo on Twitter yesterday said that he’s always felt otherness more than Britishness, but that during the ceremony he started to feel like they were the same. Think that’s a fascinating thing.

  3. dunno, as a non brit I found it drawn out and confusing.. something simpler, and more focused around the games rather than a spotlight for GB would have been nicer.

  4. Started Tweeting about it in full cynicism mode – ended by watching it and cheering.

    A few missed occasions (No Heavy Metal? and Yaketty Sax should have been somewhere) but there was always going to be sides missing.

    My favourite point has to be my non-British friends asking if we were all on drugs, and just replying with “That’s just being British”. :)

  5. So with all that money sloshing around, still they asked for volunteers. Hmm.
    Anyone know whether Rowan “Barclaycard” Atkinson, Branagh, Macca and all the other celebs were asked to volunteer their time too? Just wonderin’.

  6. I am one of those cynical people you spoke about towards the end of this piece and you were spot on, loved the Ceremony much to the surprise of everyone who knows me…lol. Great piece

  7. Excellent summary of events.

    I was slightly cynical of Danny Boyle’s appointment but having seen the result I am now rather shame-faced. I’ve not met anyone yet who was not impressed by the ceremony and the worst I’ve heard is that it was too British which I regard as a positive comment.

    What other country could have Dr Who and Mr Bean in their ceremony and be praised for it?

    @jonathan q – as with all ceremonies in foreign countries (the Māori Haka in New Zealand for instance) you won’t ‘get’ all of the references but the commentary should make up for this.

  8. The most complaints I had during the ceremony (I’m in America, btw) is the US television commentary. The newcasters in charge explained every piece of symbolism and then added very unfunny banter in between. I made a joke early on that they would explain what Harry Potter was during the giant Voldemort (which I had heard about earlier in the day) and guess what — they actually explained what Harry Potter was. I started just yelling at them to shut up about a third of the way through. So yeah, kind of disappointing.

What do you think?