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Opening Ceremony London 2012: wit and charm on a midsummer's night

The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Summer Olympics offered China – and the world – a lesson. And yes, it crackled with British music, literature, and humor.

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Then the show started, and the world changed. Piece by piece, the village was dismantled as top-hatted men chewed cigars and smiled. Smokestacks rose and forges glowed red hot as smoke filled the stadium – a picture of the grime and glory of Victorian England.

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It was both tragedy and spectacle, and from it (probably to the International Olympic Committee’s dismay) came the five Olympic rings. As they joined overhead, a shower of sparks rained down on the soot-faced workers below, and London had its Beijing moment – but one far more poignant, because it told a narrative that binds the entire world, and did not shrink in the telling of it.

Be British for a day

Throughout the rest of opening ceremony, Boyle did not seek to wow – or even cow – the world. Instead, he invited us all to be British for a day.

And it was rather enjoyable.

A fleet of flying Mary Poppinses scared off Lord Voldemort with a little help from J.K. Rowling. Mr. Bean played Chariots of Fire (badly), while dreaming of outpacing Olympic runners on the beach. And we learned that we all like to head bang to "Bohemian Rhapsody."

As the ceremonies went on, the show became more perfunctory, with Paul McCartney making what seemed to be an obligatory appearance. David Beckham got to drive a boat carrying the flame. But the flame-lighting, too, had a sense of anticlimax to it, as seven young athletes – chosen by living British Olympic medalists and embodying the Games’ motto of “inspire a generation” – lit scores of long-necked pipes, that rose to form a caldron of sorts in the middle of the stadium. (Where that caldron will go when the javelin starts, we have no idea.)

As in the opening sequence, the latter portions of the ceremony were at their best when they were raw and unapologetic, such as the decision to serenade the Olympians at the end of the parade of nations with the shrieking guitars of the Arctic Monkeys.

This was not the Olympics as they have been sold to us, and there was a freshness in that. 

So, too, when Boyle made the rather bold decision to greet the arrival of the British team with David Bowie’s “Heroes.” In another time and another context, perhaps, it would have seemed crass nationalism.

But by then, Boyle had brought us all along, and we, too, wanted them all to be heroes. 


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