On Sir Danny Boyle.

Some things are very hard to translate. Take, for example, the title of one of the director Danny Boyle’s movies, Trainspotting. The concept of grown men having a hobby which consists of standing about station yards all day writing the serial numbers of trains in a little book for fun isn’t one which can easily be conveyed in the space of one film title. Wisely the Russians, at least, never tried and called it the extremely descriptive On The Needle instead. Sensible, but a shame, as the title of Trainspotting was always one of writer Irvine Welsh’s better ideas.  A hobby which other people consider perverted and which isolates them from the rest of society but which brings a certain amount of joy to the participants? The parallel is beautifully drawn. Anyway.

For this reason, when it came to the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, also directed by Danny Boyle, you had been expecting the usual clichés, suitably scaled up. After starting with a relay of all the sports invented in the uk (all of them, so that would have taken a while) followed by a bit of crowd participation where all the spectators would have ritually consumed a portion of fish and chips with a chaser of warm beer, ten competing male voice choirs would sing circled by walls of kilt wearing bagpipe players piping surrounded by an army of cavorting morris dancers and leprechauns  giving way people dressed as double decker buses, tube trains and black cabs rendering the experience of being stuck in a traffic jam through the medium of interpretive dance under the gaze of acrobats dressed as pigeons flinging themselves from one London landmark to the next before Shakespeare lights the flame having been carried in at the head of a parade of all the famous Britons ever. Sort of thing.

It would have looked a bit silly after Beijing had done basically the same but bigger, better, and with considerably more dragons and fireworks, but people around the world would have recognised it, and so, rather wearily, would the Brits.

But just before the show started you saw an interview with Danny Boyle, who said that what he’d tried to do is make the ceremony all about the people of Britain, and while watching, increasingly incredulously, you could see that he was quite serious about that. You were not, initially, that sure that the Industrial Revolution is something that should be showcased to the world as our finest moment, but that was because you still had the budget Beijing model in your head at that point. The Industrial Revolution is not, of course, Britain’s finest moment. It does, however, have a good claim to be the one which most changed or affected ordinary people’s lives, at home and, for that matter, abroad.

It was also a nice touch to acknowledge the construction workers for the Olympic park, and to frame one of the more boastful elements to the extravaganza (all teh music is belong to uz) in a way that made it familiar to many people. It certainly bought a mistily nostalgic tear to our eye. And a master stroke to pick out the NHS as an institution which every British person relies on and which is almost universally approved of, cheap shots from the Daily Mail notwithstanding. Plus that had the added thrill of  potentially making certain sections of American society splutter. Nothing unites a nation like sticking two fingers up at certain sections of the USA. Of course this is nothing to the delight from being responsible for the first lesbian kiss on Saudi Arabian TV. Shame American TV edited that bit out too.

Best of all, though, was the way that those lighting the flame were… nobodies. Nobodies who might become somebodies and who had been chosen and were supported by some of the very best British sporting bodies, but who, right then, could have been anybody of those watching. Well, anybody of those watching *cough* twenty *cough* years ago, assuming playing the double bass and reading are on the verge of being made Olympic sports.

In fact, the way the youth theme was a bit more than a token inclusion of a few kids here and there was nice too, especially the way the Games are being talked of in terms of its legacy for future generations. Smiling youngsters are always a reason to be cheerful.

But more than this, the thing that made you bounce up and down in glee was the way that this show was clearly made for the people of Britain and damn the confusion this might sow amongst all foreign spectators. Take Jerusalem for example, the song that opened the spectacle. As it was being sung, and the entire British audience was getting all misty eyed and murmuring ‘green and pleasant land’ in the appropriate place, you had this splendid feeling that all around the world commentators were sucking in their breaths and attempting to explain that when British people are feeling really sentimental and patriotic this is the song they turn to, rather than, say, God Save the Queen. Or, perhaps, not trying to explain but wondering why the Brits, who hitherto have not come across as a particularly religious bunch, are starting off with a hymn. Of course, it helps that the words are written by William Blake* and the tune is pretty cool. Actually perhaps Jerusalem didn’t need explaining. Perhaps everyone everywhere gets goosebumps when they hear it. You certainly hope the Abide With Me segment produced that effect, regardless of whether people knew the song previously.

You also liked the way that, in keeping with the achievable greatness by the people for the people theme, some of the other musical acts were on the local rather than legendary side. Not just the kids choirs (ahhhhhhhhhhhhh). You are pretty sure that everybody in the UK recognises the Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal, but in Bumfuck USA, or Joppaburg Russia, or Shirishima, Japan? Perhaps not. Good songs though. Fun songs. Hopefully everybody enjoyed them.

It wasn’t all in jokes though. In your experience it is very hard to predict what people abroad will have heard of about other countries. Ask a Russian, for example, who the most famous English language writers are and they will say Shakespeare, Dickens, Robbie Burns, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jerome K Jerome, Jack London and O Henry.** But you reckon that in terms of international recognition the Queen, James Bond, Mr Bean, David Beckham and Paul McCartney are about as sure a bet as it is possible to have, and cleverly sprinkled amongst the obscure references to radio soap operas or the inventor of the World Wide Web. And while you appreciated the feel that parts of the spectacle had been prepared just for you and yours, you feel confident that nobody, but nobody could fail to have grinned happily at Beckham grinning happily as he powered the speedboat down the Thames, or been a little bit joyful that the measured announcement that Simon Rattle would be conducting a classical performance of Chariots of Fire, which certainly had you wondering if it was time to put the kettle on, turned out to be a bit of sly misdirection as Rowan Atkinson took centre stage*** and surely ABSOLUTELY EVERYBODY EVERYWHERE spat their coffee all over their TV screens when the white haired actor hired to do yet another stand in job for the Queen turned round and turned out to ACTUALLY BE THE QUEEN.

You’d have loved to have been in on the pitch to Buckingham Palace for that one****, and ever since you have been imagining the director of Her usual Christmas address to the nation turning, hurt, and asking ‘Why did You Majesty never jump out of a helicopter for me?’ to the reply ‘One was never asked before.’

You realise you haven’t said much about the athletes. Actually you enjoyed that too. Especially Team GB’s golden armpits. You also found yourself genuinely moved that each country had bought in a piece of the contraption that went to making up the Olympic flame. How cool was that? Even if the women doing the carrying were in their nighties. It was getting late by that point of course.

Anyway. Very few things make you admit that ou are proud to be British, but this did. It was wonderful. Even the bits you haven’t mentioned. You really would like to thank everybody involved. Especially Danny Boyle. It was so not what you were expecting.

The acrobats dressed as pigeons were there though.


*Foreigners are permitted to say ‘who?’ at this point.

**Brits are permitted to say ‘who?’ at this point. Americans less so.

***Even if some of them were wondering what the business on the beach was actually about.

****And, as moving as it turned out to be, for the follow up suggestion that her national anthem be performed by a choir who were guaranteed to sing loudly out of tune.


10 thoughts on “On Sir Danny Boyle.

  1. Hilarious assessment! Did love the Mr Bean skit, though it wasn’t perhaps the most respectful of the orchestra playing just then! Now on to the actual games…

  2. GL says:

    As a non-Brit living in Britain for more than a decade, I was actually a bit unhappy about the ceremony. I’m not a fan of these sort of shows (nor of musicals), and I probably come at it from “further left”, but… I found the Jerusalem/Danny Boy/Flowers a politically-correct mishmash of songs that simply don’t belong with each other. Also, the industrial revolution bit was very bleak and dickensian, discounting the fact that it was also an age of unbridled prosperity Britain has not experienced since — in a clear day, clean buildings in central Manchester look like they’re made of gold!

    And to top it off, Boyle proposed a view of British youth as entirely non-white and even non-Asian, which is the worst possible lie. I don’t know which committee came up with that, I can’t understand how somebody who made Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire could be so wilfully clueless about the ethnic composition of working-class Britain in this century.

    • Well it wasn’t so much what specifically was included – difficult to get it absolutely right in every respect (me, I’d have had teachers as the representatives of the untold masses of public servants even if that would sacrifice a bit of needling the American right), as that the things that were included were in the British idiom rather than the international one. I mean you might not agree with Jerusalem, but there’s no denying it’s a song which is absolutely embedded in the experience of being British (or, possibly, English). Tbh I was quite surprised it got included because I’d have said that far from being politically correct it’s religious and very flag wavy and it’s unusual to find those two things so unabashedly celebrated in an official context. Basically despite any flaws, it was a lot closer to my actual experience of Britishness than I was expecting it to be. That’s what impressed me.

      I am prepared to admit though that I never quite recovered from the delight of THE QUEEN JUMPING OUT OF THE HELICOPTER though. It might have skewed my judgement. Go on, admit it that bit was sheer genius.

  3. I watched it here in France and it went down pretty well. Funnily enough my husband did ask why had they started with Mass when they sang Jerusalem, but the point is it really was a celebration of Britain and the British. It actually doesn’t matter that other people may not have understood the meaning of everything buth I think everyone enjoyed the show nonetheless.

    • Actually, another reason why I’m glad we didn’t go with the dancing red postboxes version because, really it is a bit patronising to assume that this is the only thing the world can appreciate.

  4. It was truly a work of genius. I got misty eyed several times, particularly when the crowd just would not stop cheering the volunteers who had made the event happen, and I found the forging of the rings from the industrial revolution section jaw-dropping. The whole thing was multi-cultural, multi-generational, eclectic, a bit random, and as you say, so British.

    The moment I started to lose it, though, was the moment when I realised that the group of ‘nobodies’ was going to light the cauldron in a literal passing of the torch. And when the petals began to converge, I was done for. Beautiful both aesthetically and symbolically.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s