That opening ceremony
Guest article by PETER STARK
Anyone viewing the opening of the Olympics might have thought they had stumbled into an elaborate piece of Sixties guerilla theatre. The introduction was feted in advance as a pageant of English history. If this is true it was a highly idiosyncratic Marxist interpretation, in which most of the salient events were simply overlooked as having no relevance to a prevailing dogma.
It began with some youthful choirs in villages, at some indeterminate 14th-17th century period, in a rural England, singing Blake’s late 18th century Jerusalem, Britain’s unofficial anthem, to the tune of Sir Hubert Parry’s 1916 composition and Elgar’s 1922 orchestration. Paradise before the snake had taken up residence – innocent rurals. There was an absence of cities as if there were an assumption that there weren’t any before the 19th century. No royal conflicts, no 1066, no Magna Carta, no Wars of the Roses, no Tudors, no Armada, no Stuarts, no Marlborough, no British Empire, no abolition of slavery, no Wolfe, Nelson, Wellington or Napoleonic wars, no Second World War, although there was a hint of a First World War in which the common man was massacred by the stupidity of the ruling classes, no Churchill… but the examples are too many, the list endless.
History was bunk and had been abolished. What was allowed to survive was A People’s History, a derisive image of an England in the epoch of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” with a group of men, representing amoral capitalists, procuring wealth and top hats at the expense of an oppressed working class. Kenneth Branagh, as a stovepipe-hatted version of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, began by lugubriously quoting Caliban in The Tempest –
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”
and then transmogrifying into a capitalist wandering about energetically with a frightening fixed grin, rubbing his hands at every new dark Satanic mill available if there was a profit in it. The oppressed workers moved with the jerky motions of robots (compare for originality with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and Peter Brook’s Marat Sade among others).
The skies then darkened and a number of tall chimney stacks rose phallically to dominate the pillaged land of the stadium with the handful of top-hatted capitalists still rushing here and there excited at the prospect of further profits, wrung from the sweat of honest toilers’ brows. That was the Industrial Revolution that was… Nevertheless the chimneys excited intense applause among the sensation-starved spectators.
Somewhere along the line, English history apparently attained its apogee in the form of the National Health Service (the letters NHS were emblazoned on the ground) – ironically since the present government is panting at the prospect of reining in and ultimately destroying it. A large number of wounded soldiers were tended to by voluptuous maternal nurses in fetching late Victorian to Edwardian uniforms, ready to minister to the heroes home from the trenches, something like the film version of A Farewell to Arms, perhaps with a dash of Dennis Potter erotic phantasy thrown in (Pennies from Heaven). The routinely slipshod bureaucratic methods and delays more familiar to the NHS’s unfortunate victims of today were absent from this idyll.
Clearly Danny Boyle felt a new history of England was required – the apparachik version. Never mind the old saw that those who cannot learn the lessons of history are condemned to re-live it – history itself had been abolished as an assault on working class sensibilities, just as Shakespeare was abolished in the Chinese Cultural Revolution because there were too many kings.
As if having a sudden second thought, a reminder of modern, or ‘contemporary’ Britain was demonstrated in the person of the latest James Bond with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. They board a helicopter – this being shown on a screen in the stadium – and the helicopter takes in the buildings of tourist London on its way to the Games where two doubles for Bond and the Queen parachute into the stadium. Shortly afterwards the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh make their appearance to open the Games. The role of the Queen requires some evaluation. While she obviously has a more playful aspect than might at first be suspected by her loyal citizenry, her alliance here with a phantasy figure from the film world (forget about the books) seems to suggest a disenchantment with pomp and ceremony and the implicit assumption that it’s all just cinema anyway.
We were also invited to admire the best-selling author of the Harry Potter books (A hundred million readers or two can’t be wrong), as well as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the revolutionary world wide web in a cameo role. Then there was Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, dreaming of winning a race, another modern British ornament – all apparently examples of the best of modern Britain in the winners’ stalls.
Certain pop musicians also stood for something. In the Sixties there was a period when pop music really showed promise of becoming a new art form. Followers of different types of music, strangers, frequently came to blows over attitude as exemplified in their musical preferences. However it was soon all taken over by the formulaic money-makers, as are most things – look what they did with the miraculous invention of television – and now it’s difficult to tell if you’re in a club or an elevator, so banal is the push-button music competing to pluck your heart strings. Some of these singers, then, and their happily dancing fans were part of the Boyle perspective – though it was not clear what was the point, other than that they existed, so they had better be included.
In summary, the opening displayed a familiar feel of insincere concern for the poor, combined with a glib semi-educated finger-snapping commercialism. It might seem that the recession stricken newly impoverished punch-drunk English were suffering from some sort of collective nervous breakdown in which any semblance of reality had at all costs to be suppressed. In truth, an unlikely wave of patriotism seemed to have recently swept the nation. This was not the stalwart, my-country-right-or-wrong variant which made Samuel Johnson snarl – but rather a kind of sorrow and sympathy for the old nag, so long maligned, so weary, so abused by the kleptocracies of politicians and bankers and yet others that had battened on her helpless twitching carcass, as if despite everything they would not abandon her now in her hour of utmost need. And perhaps they were right and Olde Englande deserved better.
Meanwhile, the Chinese on the podium looked politely away and remained unfathomable, while taking another gold and looking for a palanquin. They knew who was in the driving seat now.
PETER STARK is a London-based poet and freelance writer