Would Susan Boyle have been better suited than Danny Boyle?

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I wanted to enjoy the opening ceremony. Like many before the event, I feared the efforts of Locog would pale into humiliating nothingness compared with the almighty spectacle offered to the world at Beijing ’08, and I hoped, and hoped, and hoped, that the organisers would muster what was left of British wit and ingenuity to create something which, if incomparable to Beijing in scale, would outmatch it in brilliance.

My hopes were dashed, but the faint glimmers of inspiration I did notice during the ceremony were enough to appease me, and when I saw the Saturday morning papers hailing ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ I was happy to be in the minority in my dissatisfaction.

Better, I thought, for the press to put a brave face on the embarrassing display than to ignite the feeding frenzy that would inevitably result from any strident criticism of the ceremony. What a responsible bunch; who needs Leveson, eh? (Nobody, obviously, but that’s another story.)

The switch occurred on Monday morning. I’d already read about the torrent of indignation directed at the silly Aidan Burley MP over his tweets. Since this was a political spat, I stayed out of it.

But then came the Stephen Nolan Show, when the reasonable objections made by David Vance were roundly rebuked by all concerned, including Nolan the Impartial himself, as if Vance was a naughty schoolboy.

Suddenly it dawned on me, this isn’t a cover-up, they actually think Danny Boyle did a good job. Not only this, they’re castigating those who disagree.

Motivated purely by concern for my countrymen, who seem to have been hoodwinked, I now feel compelled to point out that the ceremony was, on its own terms, an utter shambles.

Let’s start at the beginning; the virtual trip down the Thames and into the Olympic stadium. The production quality for this and the rest of the pre-recorded segments of the show would not have been out of place in an episode of Merlin.

The Mr Bean skit, though a good idea, was particularly poor quality, if it had been uploaded as a homemade video on YouTube the ‘Likes’ bar would have been fully red.

We were then introduced to an English country idyll, not a bad theme to bank on, but one entirely spoilt by the disjointed displays of amateur theatrics which were impossible to follow and must have looked a mess for those in the stadium.

The transformation of this country scene into a stark industrial landscape was, I must say, my favourite part of the show, and by the time the Olympic ring had been forged I was convinced the worst was behind me.

Alas, the rails which had been laid by Brunel and his pack of industrialists came off with a clatter, and the swampy foundations upon which the ceremony had been built were exposed.

If the ceremony had suffered only from poor production quality and some ill-judged stage direction that would have been tolerable, but in fact it was the victim of a catastrophic thematic misfire.

Designed as it was by people with no understanding of British history, the ceremony entirely failed to celebrate the wonderful gifts which Britain has given to the world.

China made a stunning ceremony by celebrating some inventions which her people jealously guarded and which Westerners eventually discovered themselves; gunpowder, paper, type-setting, and the compass.Britain gave the world constitutional government, but our opening ceremony had an inflatable Voldemort doll.

This was the display of a country with absolutely no sense of itself. Over eleven minutes were devoted to a confusing mash-up of the NHS and children’s literature.

Fifteen minutes was given over to an equally bizarre pairing of pop music and the digital revolution interspersed with a cheap rom-com motif, these are dubious achievements in themselves, and certainly not ones that can be claimed only by the UK.

I don’t resent the inclusion of these displays, no doubt they form an important part of life in modern Britain, but do we really consider them to be as important as the industrial revolution, which also earned fifteen minutes?

This is to say nothing of the outright omissions. Literature: where was Shakespeare other than Branagh’s out of place extract from The Tempest? Where was Milton? Where was Wordsworth? Where was Tennyson?

History: what about the Magna Carta? What about the Bill of Rights and parliamentary sovereignty? What about Britain’s naval supremacy? All of these should have preceded the industrial revolution segment.

Political thought: where was Hobbes? Where was Locke? Hume? Smith?

Science: why wasn’t Newton sitting under that great tree which formed the centre piece at the beginning of the ceremony? Why wasn’t Robert Boyle featured? Or Darwin? Or Watson and Crick?

Team sports: this was arguably the most infuriating omission. Nowhere in the opening ceremony for the greatest sporting event in the world was it mentioned that Britain created and spread every major international team sport including football, cricket, rugby, and rowing.

In his speech Jacques Rogge described Britain as, ‘the birthplace of modern sport’, he might have added, ‘so why on earth didn’t you brag about it in your opening ceremony?’

The final insult was to wheel out the poor Queen, an act which was only necessary in order to distract us from the shoddiness of the rest of the show.

This move, presented as jolly amusement and a wry example of British tongue-in-cheek, actually revealed a country where nothing is sacred, and no institution can be left out of the national effort to crack a smile and appear unperturbed as the country falls down around us.

Like I said, the failure of the opening ceremony is not what bothers me, it is our collective failure to identify why the ceremony was so bad that bothers me.

Historians will refer to this opening ceremony as the moment when it became clear beyond all doubt that the British no longer knew who they were, or for what they stood, or how they had lasted so long.

This article can also be viewed on Matthew Symington’s blog the Kit Cat Club.

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About Author

Matthew is a journalist based in Dungannon who blogs in his spare time. Educated at the Royal School Dungannon and the University of Cambridge, he recently completed his NCTJ Diploma at Belfast Metropolitan College. All views expressed in this column are those of Matthew alone.


  1. “…every major international team sport including … rowing.”
    Really?  Britain invented the major international team sport of rowing?  I’m no historian, but I’m going to hazard a guess that people had figured out how to row prior to England getting involved.  Also, major international team sport?!

    Oh, hold on, you went to Cambridge.  Now that explains how you came up with most of that.  Good for you son, hope you’re doing well for yourself.

  2. Elaine Somers on

    I have to agree with a lot of this.  Within the first ten minutes, I felt myself wondering what the hell it was all about.  I looked over at my husband and he shrugged his shoulders in agreement.  Thankfully, it began to improve with an impressive performance by Kenneth Brannagh.  The sequence with the NHS once more had me baffled and it seemed rather incongrous to have it included with Harry Potter.  Mr Bean was, of course, his usual, amusing self, but it wasn’t funny enough to make me laugh out loud.  The Bond scene was magic simply because it showed the Queen possessed the sense of humour we don’t normally see.  After that………I fell asleep.  My husband described his acute embarassment at the performance of Paul McCartney although informed me that I had, in fact, missed the most impressive part of the evening – the lighting ceremony.  I subsequently watched that for myself and agreed it was brilliant.  On reflection, I’m just glad it’s all over, I sincerely hope that GB does benefit from all of it.  I am reminded, however, of the taxi driver who drove us round Athens pointing out the sites which had cost a fortune and had, in his opinion, destroyed part of their economy.  Let’s just hope this is not the case for London.

  3. I don’t understand the reference to Susan Boyle in the headline – she’s not mentioned once in the body of the article.   I was very impressed by the opening ceremony and its celebration of British people – rather than rulers – and while the ‘Magna Carta’ et al could also have been included in the celebration, the choices that were made stood up and the show gelled effectively.    I think Danny Boyle did a good job and I applaud him for it.  I don’t know if Susan Boyle, a fine singer, has the same skillset as the Oscar winning director but I think it’s a cheap shot to bring her into the headline when it clearly has only the most tenuous link to the article. 

  4. Where was Hobbes? Where was Locke? Where was Robert Boyle? Where was Milton? Anyone can come up with a list of their favourite philosophers/scientists/authors and plead for their inclusion. Anyone with a mite of intelligence would also realise that an opening ceremony is supposed to be entertaining. Perhaps Boyle considered Hobbes but concluded ‘nasty, brutish and short’ wasn’t exactly the mood he was looking for. Yes it was flawed but I’d rather have that than another sterile, committee-organised show like Beijing. 


  5. This was a brilliant show, enjoyed by my whole family aged 6-89. There was something for everyone and I’ve watched it 3 times already! My daughter was at the show and she loved it too! A most enjoyable night’s entertainment. AND the games are brilliant too!

  6. Matthew Symington on

    Thank you all for your comments.

    misterbaz: These men are certainly not my favourite of anything,
    but they are widely recognized as some of the most important thinkers and
    scientists in Britain and the West. I agree that the opening ceremony should
    have been entertaining. Assuming for a moment that the ceremony we saw actually
    was entertaining, I do not see why it wouldn’t have been even more so with the
    inclusion of all the things I mentioned. If Danny Boyle can create theatre from
    the NHS then he can certainly do the same using other achievements from Britain’s

    Dave Miller: I believe the sport of rowing as we currently know
    it was created at Eton. However I’m always interested to learn more about
    history so if you can tell me otherwise I’d be happy to hear it.

    Concubhar O Liathain: I’m not sure if your query was
    directed at me, but I’m afraid I don’t write headlines. Headlines are written
    by editors, the journalists just write the copy.

    • I’m still somewhat curious to know what makes rowing a major international team sport.  I’d be keen to see any sort of statistical analysis which suggests rowing as a major international team sport.  Are there more rowers in the world than, I don’t know, bowls players?

      As for the ceremony as a whole – old England, industrial revolution, NHS, children’s literature, celebrated persons, modern Britain.  Those were the broad themes for me.  And I think they captured British life pretty well.  Maybe you’d have preferred an homage to Thatcher?  I don’t know, you’re just coming across a bit Daily Mail-ey.

      • Lanarichardson on

        Of course rowing is a major international team sport just like any other. If you need statistics to validate that; there are 135 member countries in the International Rowing Federation. (Just 43 countries are members of World Bowls by the way.)

        But then again, that’s just the sort of ignorance I’d expect from someone who has to bring Thatcher and the Daily Mail into a disagreement to make it seem like the piece has some evil right-wing agenda. 

        Although I disagree with some bits I think this is very well written. And whilst I feel the ceremony was over-hyped and under-produced I’m just glad that everyone else liked it