Almost the best thing about Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony was the running Twitter commentary. From Marcus Stead: ‘Ah, here we go, NHS worship. One of the most overrated things about Britain. Expensive, unreliable, regularly lets patients down.’ From Miss Annesley: ‘I think “Voldemort runs the NHS” is the moral of this story.’ And from Mr Ranty: ‘Stafford Hospital is second from the left, the one with 450 dead patients.’
Not getting into the spirit of things is something we British do well. It’s instilled in us from an early age — usually during our first visit to the pantomime where the nasty, scary bully man on stage insists we join in with cries of ‘Behind you!’ and ‘Oh, no you didn’t!’ and all we want to do is curl up in our seat and hide until all the compulsory, communal ‘fun’ bit goes away.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy any of the Danny Boyle show. On the contrary, I enjoyed quite a lot of it. I liked: the fact that Isambard Kingdom Brunel got to have his cigar (though it seemed a lot smaller than the one he smoked in those photographs); the beatific smile on Kenneth (Brunel) Branagh’s face as the dark satanic mills erupted through the turf of the Hobbity prelapsarian idyll; the Queen gamely playing herself in the James Bond sequence; the Mr Bean — and generally I hate Mr Bean — Chariots of Fire spoof; the music.
There’s a certain type of Speccie reader who takes enormous relish in his loathing and ignorance of any popular music written after 1950. All I can say is, if you’re one of them you’re wrong. Boyle was quite right to include an extended medley of British pop from the Beatles through ‘Tubular Bells’ to punk and dance because, like it or not, this is one of those few things at which we remain utterly world-class. So even if it sounded a frightful racket to your untutored ears (and I would concede, much though I love him, that Dizzee Rascal is an acquired taste), you need to think of it in terms of one of those war dances performed by cannibal warriors on Papua New Guinea: Boyle was simply demonstrating that our plumed headdresses were more colourful and our penis gourds more resplendently enormous than those of all the rival tribes.
I noticed from quite a few of the tweets from my American friends that the defiant, quirky Britishness of the whole affair (e.g., the footage of weatherman Michael Fish assuring us there was going to be no hurricane) was something foreigners really didn’t get at all. This made me feel oddly proud: much as I imagine Rod Liddle and co. feel at Millwall matches when they chant: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care.’
But what made me feel less proud was the stuff that came after Boyle’s entertainment — the formal, framing, official rigmarole which reminded you that this wasn’t really a British event at all. It was an Olympic event, which is something completely different.
There were dark hints of this earlier in the shots showing our monarch having to suffer being seated next to — and on equal terms with — the president of the International Olympic Committee. Yeah, all right, so Jacques Rogge did make an ostentatious point of clapping Her Maj grovellingly and effusively. But that’s what they do, canny, imperialistic foreign powers, when they occupy you. They pay homage to your chieftains the better to suborn you. There’s no doubt, though, who’s really in charge for their signs are everywhere: the five rings of Sauron.
This all became vividly clear towards the end when the period of nationalistic licence tolerated by the IOC (i.e. Boyle’s segment) drew to a close to be replaced by sequences more akin to the Eurovision song contest as choreographed by Stalin.
‘Why do we put up with this stuff? WHY? This is NOT British,’ I kept thinking, as a voice intoned announcements in elegant Frog (nice, but not our language) in the background. I mean, I can quite see why they don’t have any problem with this massed-trooping-compulsory-jollity-in-a-stadium nonsense in continental Europe because being invaded and occupied is part of their routine. Same applies, obviously, in totalitarian capitols like Beijing or Moscow. But in London? Oi! No!
Particularly creepy, I thought, were the scenes where various representatives of the Olympic Family (TM) — the third adjudicator for the women’s beach volleyball, the chief sanitary supervisor for the Olympic village toilets, whatever — had to mount a podium and solemnly vow that they would not involve themselves in any doping or cheating. Again, I thought, this is wrong wrong wrong. It’s all about compliance; regulation; Ordnung; grand affirmations of the supposed collective will — perfect for fascist states but absolutely nothing to do with the amateur sporting spirit. If it were really about the amateur sporting spirit all that not-cheating and not-doping stuff would be unspoken — a given.
And that Danny Boyle stuff — that was just a sop, a distraction designed to fool us into thinking these Olympics we’ve wasted a gazillion pounds of our money on were in any way our show. But they weren’t. They were just the revue the PoWs are grudgingly allowed to put on by their sour-faced, humourless captors. Altogether now: ‘I belong to Colditz. Dear old Colditz Schloss....’