Arise Sir Danny Boyle!
That was the common view on Twitter as a spectacular opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games unfolded on TV screens across the globe.
Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony celebrated Britain’s rich landscape, history, culture, sport and even the NHS and was done with typical panache from the Oscar winning director of ‘Shallow Grave’, ‘Tainspotting’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
It began with a high speed trek down the Thames a la the opening credits of ‘Shallow Grave’.
In the stadium, Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins awkwardly sounded a giant bell to mark the start of the Games and there were pastoral scenes of Maypole dancers, village cricketers, actual livestock, a water wheel, barley harvesters and a thatched cottage all to the strains of Elgar and haunting choral versions of ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Danny Boy’ sung in the Giant’s Causeway, ‘Flower of Scotland’ from Edinburgh Castle and ‘Cwm Rhondda’ from Rhossili Beach.
And then, the greenery gave way and belched smoke stack chimneys as Belfast-born Sir Kenneth Branagh turned up as Brunel (quoting from The Tempest) and led a sequence on the Industrial Revolution, culminating in a staggering recreation of the Olympic rings with molten steel.
It wasn’t exactly a triumphant celebration of Britain’s industrial heritage – it was contradictory, quirky and jaw dropping in its execution.
The appearance of Suffragettes alongside First World War soldiers, a platoon of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band members, Chelsea Pensioners and Jarrow marchers sent the Twittersphere into a frenzy. Was Boyle defiantly defending the right to protest while tipping a nod to British institutions?
A little light relief saw Queen Elizabeth make her acting debut in a short film as a Bond Girl alongside her corgis and Daniel Craig’s 007, leading to a fake parachute jump from a helicopter into the stadium – corny maybe, mischievous certainly but a bold stunt nevertheless.
This paved the way for the real entrance by the Royal Family and a rather touching rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Konas Signing Choir of deaf and hearing children as a Union flag carried by members of the Armed Services was hoisted up the flagpole.
And then, in a section which seemed to trigger the Mother of all Twitter spats between Tory MP Aidan Burley and the rest of Britain (or so it seemed), there was an unexpected and joyous celebration of the NHS as 600 staff and patients from Great Ormond Street Hospital also marked the country’s huge contribution to children’s literature on illuminated beds.
Was this the most brazenly political moment of the show? Was Boyle telling the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition on the biggest stage possible hands off a national treasure, the NHS?
Burley tweeted it was the most leftie ceremony he had ever seen (even more so than Beijing), prompting a torrent of criticism from former Labour MPs, celebrities and a rather bizarre election challenge from the footballer turned broadcaster Stan Collymore.
While Mike Oldfield played his classic ‘Tubular Bells’ (possibly an in-joke for movie buffs given its association with ‘The Exorcist’), JK Rowling quoted JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ and nightmare figures of children’s literature towered over the patients’ beds – Cruella de Vil, the Child Catcher, Captain Hook and Lord Voldemort from Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
And then Mary Poppins appeared in the stadium to chase all the nightmares away.
Not surprisingly, Boyle tipped a nod to classic British cinema with clips of ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’, ‘Gregory’s Girl’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Kes’ and, erm, ‘Mr Bean’s Holiday’ as Sir Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra through a performance of Vangelis’ theme from Hugh Hudson’s Oscar winning Olympic Games movie, ‘Chariots of Fire’.
I have to admit I struggle with Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, so I found his appearance in the orchestra rather irritating but this was very much a ceremony where you brought your own personal baggage to the party. No doubt Mr Bean’s appearance pleased many.
Arguably the most impressive section was Boyle’s nod to the Internet age and Britain’s contribution to pop culture.
Yes, it was surprising to see ‘Coronation Street’, Michael Fish and ‘Pot Black’ featuring in an Olympics opening ceremony (and indeed the ‘Eastenders’ opening credits earlier on) where they would mean little to audiences outside of the UK but it was strangely delightful.
Boyle’s celebration of British pop music was exhilarating – the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, David Bowie, Mud, the Jam, the Sex Pistols, the Specials, New Order, Blur, The Prodigy, Amy Winehouse, Dizee Rascal (appropriately rapping his hit single ‘Bonkers’ during the ceremony) all got an outing.
Amid all of this, we had a rendition of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ – an ironic nod to West Ham’s bid to take over the Olympic stadium or a touching tribute to the greatest Premiership club? I’d prefer to think the latter but I might be getting a bit partisan there…
It was also great to see Tim Berners Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web which has radically changed our lives, getting his moment in the spotlight.
And before the parade of athletes, there was a nice touch as Olympic ticket holders got to pay tribute to loved ones who had passed away with a photo montage as Emeli Sande sang ‘Abide With Me’.
In fairness to Boyle, he tried, along with his long time musical collaborators Underworld, to liven up what is normally a dull parade of athletes with his choice of music (the Bee Gees, Pet Shop Boys, U2 and Underworld’s music from ‘Trainspotting’ all featured).
The copper pieces which would eventually make up the cauldron also intrigued TV audiences.
The enthusiastic reception in London for Katie Taylor and the Irish team was a lump in the throat moment and a real measure of how far the relationship between Britain and Ireland has progressed – as was the generous decision by Britain to hold part of the torch relay in Dublin.
Meanwhile as the world’s first social media games unfolded, Billy Bragg defiantly tweeted during the parade of athletes: “You Tory toe rags had the Jubilee, we lefties are having the Olympics! Thank you, Danny Boyle.”
A typically raucous performance of ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ from the Arctic Monkeys followed by a mellow cover by them of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ was a pleasant surprise.
Then Boyle was back to creating his poignant spectacle, with Stephen Lawrence’s mother Doreen deservedly taking her place alongside Muhammad Ali and other distinguished bearers of the Olympic flag because of her tireless devotion to justice.
As for the final leg of the torch relay, well, we had a spectacular James Bond style motor boat ride down the Thames with a sharp suited David Beckham onboard.
Then a handover to Sir Steve Redgrave, which seemed appropriate given his phenomenal achievements.
And then finally, in another smart move, the handing over of the baton, well the torch, from a generation of Olympic champions – Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Mary Peters among them – to the next generation of Olympic heroes who lit the cauldron.
It may have lacked the jaw dropping theatricality of the Barcelona Games’ archer or Cathy Freeman lighting the flame in Sydney standing inside a ring of a fire on water. However it was a hugely positive message on which to close the ceremony.
And there was the obligatory singalong – Sir Paul McCartney wheeled out for Hey Jude.
Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony was bold, visually inventive, politically challenging, poignant at times and unashamedly British – a thrilling bundle of contradictions.
Rio and other future hosts have a tough act to follow.