World, Sport

Danny Boyle’s Olympic vision: The £27-million nervous breakdown

By Kevin Bloom 14 June 2012

Earlier this week, one of the strangest headlines of 2012 graced British newsstands: “Olympic opening ceremony will recreate countryside with real animals”. But the strangest thing about it was that the subeditors, for a change, weren’t being funny. What has film director Danny Boyle gone and done with the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games? By KEVIN BLOOM

It reads like a pastoral nursery rhyme, a farmyard ditty your five-year-old might sing while whirling around in a circle with all the other five-year-olds: two goats, three sheepdogs, three cows, nine geese, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, 12 horses, 70 sheep. The sheepdogs are there to shepherd the sheep, the cows are there to… you get the picture. But it’s not a nursery rhyme, it’s the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, as revealed to the world after months of secrecy earlier this week. The question is: why? 

One of the answers is that the £27-million show will be more a “narrative” than an extravaganza, and the animals—each one real, in number and in type exactly like those mentioned above—will all play their assigned roles. There will also be real grass, real ploughs and slightly less real clouds (to supply rain if there is none so as to ensure a “real” British atmosphere). The question still is: why?

Perhaps we now need to go to the literature. First, of course, there is Shakespeare. The three-hour ceremony will be titled “Isles of Wonder,” based on a speech by Caliban in The Tempest. To be referenced throughout the four ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic games, and to be inscribed on the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world, it goes (in full) like this:


“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,

Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again”


Then there is William Blake, specifically the poem “Jerusalem”, the last stanza of which goes like this:


“I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.”


Like the river pageant during the queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it suddenly becomes clear: director Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony is meant to evoke an England of the imagination, a romantic vision that its citizens apparently relate to but, in truth, does not exist. This is no longer “cool Britannia”, it’s a reversion to a safe and childlike utopia, a national “looking back” that smacks of deep-seated existential angst.

It’s all there in Caliban’s introductory gambit, “Be not afeard…” Meaning that there is something to be afeard of. Thing is, the noises the isle is full of are not “the sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not,” they are the noises of bank balances dropping to the floor, of stores slamming forever shut, of landlords banging on the door. And the “thousand twangling instruments” are the failed financial models that brought the kingdom to this point. 

The nostalgia for earlier, happier times is as see-through and desperate as a Greek cabinet minister on budget day. You have to hand it to the Greeks, though, the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympics was really something. Held in the Athenian suburb of Maroussi, it began with a 28-second countdown—one second per Olympics held since Athens last hosted the modern games. 

The countdown was paced by two drummers mimicking the sound of an amplified heartbeat. One drummer was located inside the stadium, and one was projected on to the stadium screen from his perch in Olympia, the site of the ancient games. The ceremony was a source of major acclaim in the international press, and featured a giant pool with slip-proof iridescent fiberglass flooring that drained its water in two minutes, Emmy Award-winning lighting, and an ingenious network of automated cabling. It was all very adult.

As was the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At a reported cost of over $100 million, it was held in a stadium that has since become a primary tourist stop. Steven Spielberg called the show “the grandest spectacle of the new millennium”, and the American Film Institute selected it as one of their “Eight Moments of Significance” of 2008.  

Ironically, Beijing was also the first Olympic opening ceremony to use weather modification technology to “prevent” rainfall. The metaphorical distance between a host nation that creates inclement weather and one that foils it seems a great subject for a post-graduate thesis—something like, “The Rain Games: Precipitation in Theory and in Practice”. But more to the point is why Boyle thinks we should care about his farmland England.  

If the Olympics are meant to celebrate the coming together of humanity, if this is the one time every four years when the species is supposed to rejoice in its diversity as opposed to skulking about angrily in it, then how do we—and by “we” what’s meant is the 500 million viewers who are expected to watch the ceremony on TV—find a point of commonality in the UK’s myopic meltdown?

As Jonathan Jones noted in the Guardian recently: “There’s something very 1930s about all this. When we remember the Depression, we see the vicious hyper-nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini as nightmares never to be repeated—yet democratic countries too became inward-looking and self-obsessed in that age of austerity. British artists harped on about the landscape. Novelists feasted on British eccentricity. Now, in this new age of austerity, imaginations are once more preoccupied with homegrown qualities and known landscapes. Isn’t the Olympics meant to be bigger and more generous than that?”

It is, no doubt, and it’s unclear why nobody informed Danny Boyle. Maybe, with film credits to his name like Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, he expected a bigger budget? Maybe he’ll surprise us all on the night and pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat (although, with Elgar and Underworld on the bill, that’s unlikely)? Maybe, as per Blake, he really does intend to build Jerusalem in England’s “green and pleasant land”? 

Ahem. How that one got through the screening committee is anybody’s guess. It’s always easy to be cynical from the sidelines, and from the proud pictures of the unveiling it’s apparent that Boyle put a lot of thought and love into his plans, but the Olympic Games—and especially its opening ceremonies—are meant to be about symbols. When you have children’s petting zoos, wistful nostalgia and one of the most divided cities on Earth as your markers, it’s plain you’ve got the symbols wrong. DM 

Read more:

“The Olympics are exposing Britain as a self-obsessed nation,” in the Guardian

Photo: Danny Boyle (Reuters)


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