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.

Morry Gash/AP
The Olympic rings light up the stadium during the opening ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics Friday in London.

Supposedly, it was London’s bad fortune to be the next Summer Olympics host after Beijing. Who, after all, could top that opening ceremony? 

Instead, London offered China – and the rest of the world – a lesson.

Superpower? Been there, done that.

In an opening act rare among those in the history of Olympic opening ceremonies, the London organizers did something extraordinary: They were honest.

What other nation, in a moment of national glory that politicians pay billions of dollars to win, would allow such a view of their own country to be broadcast to the world?

One that has been there, done that, and no longer has anything to prove to anyone.

In a night that crackled with British music, literature, and humor – yes, that was the actual queen with 007 – it was an opening act about the Industrial Revolution that made this night as memorable as the one in Beijing four years ago.

Not for the pyrotechnics, which were impressive but not to be compared to Beijing, but for a story that dared to be heartbreaking – that invited the viewer to consider how the Industrial Revolution that began in English mills rippled out to change the English countryside, the world economy, and the human condition.

This, to say the least, was a change of pace from four years ago.

The brilliance of the opening act was in its initial subtlety – and perhaps impossible to fully appreciate on television. An hour before the ceremonies began, while the stadium was still silent but for the hum of the arriving crowd, the country village set in the center of the Olympic Stadium was inhabited.

Horses pulled carriages. Farmers actually harvested wheat. Boys played cricket. Girls danced around the maypole. When the live sheep entered, they got an ovation from the crowd.

Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the artistic force behind these opening ceremonies, was just setting us up. He was inviting us to become immersed and involved – to watch the pretty couple playing badminton, to witness soccer become rugby as the players picked up the ball and started bowling through each other with childlike enthusiasm.

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.

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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