London Olympics Opening Ceremony: Vision of a Post-Imperial U.K.
Director Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for the 30th modern Olympic Games (London, 2012) did more than the usual celebration of the heritage of the host country. He presented a vision for a 21st C. British identity–a post-imperial Britain transformed into a multi-cultural union that celebrates workers and looks to heal the damage of a past dominated by Empire and the Industrial Revolution. Much of this was missed in the NBC coverage for the United States audience–with the dumbest commentators ever.
First, the U.S. audience didn’t even see the opening sequence which gave somber tribute to the victims of terrorism–not just to the British people who lost their lives on 7/7 (7 July 2005–bombings in the London Underground and on a double-decker bus), but to all victims of terrorism everywhere. It was not a cry for revenge, but a cry for an end to violence–a cry in the name of the victims for an end to bloodshed. One of the visuals in this was a poppy field–a reference to the poppies of Flanders Field in World War I. In the UK, the national Days of Remembrance begin with the wearing of poppy flowers in lapels.
Second, the ceremony proper was titled “Isles of Wonder,”–the plural refers to the nations that make up the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The actor Kenneth Branagh portrayed the engineer Brunel who helped launch the Industrial Revolution. He went to the foot of Glastonberry Tor, a symbol of pre-industrial Agrarian Britain and he spoke these lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
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; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
The first line is inscribed on the Olympic Bell forged at Whitechapel Bell Foundry–a symbol of the Industrial Revolution.
Children’s choirs sing songs chosen to represent each “nation” of the UK: For Northern Ireland, the tune was “Londonderry Aire,” with the words “Danny Boy”–a tune which unites all the factions of Ireland, Catholic and Protestant. For Wales, the tune is Cwm Rhondda sung with the English words “Bread of Heaven,” a beautiful Christian hymn that was also a favorite of Gandhi and used in social struggles around the world. For Scotland, the tune was “Flower of Scotland.” For England, the tune was “Jerusalem,” which is a hymn that protested the destruction of Agrarian Britain and a promise to heal the human and ecological costs of the Industrial Revolution “until we build Jerusalem in England’s fair and pleasant land.”
Then as Branagh/Brunel and his cronies gloat, the ceremony shows the destruction of the British countryside and the rise of factories–with oppressed workers. It also shows the social movements that arose to counter the Dickensian society (sadly, without any direct references to Charles Dickens): including the Suffragist Movement for “Votes for Women.”
The transformation continues –celebrating the electronic revolution created by the World Wide Web, invented by Britisher Tim Berners-Lee. It celebrated much of British musical culture and children’s literature. It especially celebrated the National Health Services–a shot at Tory plans to privatize the beloved system of healthcare. It showed the influx of immigration that transformed London into the most multi-cultural city in the world. The Olympic Cauldron created by the flames of others throughout the world.
It also had the typical British self-deprecating humor: James Bond escorting a sky-diving (not really) Queen Elizabeth II into the stadium; “Mr. Bean” daydreaming himself back into the 1924 “Chariots of Fire” British track and field team; a famously missed weather-report; the radio show “The Archers” which the British love as a soap opera about UK country life.
The United Kingdom doesn’t need to mourn its lost empire, Boyle is saying. As an empire in the 19th and much of the 20th C., the UK was hated around the world and hurt many of its people at home. But it has become a multi-cultural force for good. Post-imperial Britain is NOT living on past glory (no matter what U.S. Americans may thing), but is, today, even with its anachronistic monarchy and remaining class system, a beacon of hope for all peoples. Post-imperial Britain is the best Britain, yet.
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