Review Is In

Olympics Opening Ceremony Review: Hats Off, Danny Boy

It was antic, manic, magical, and mischievous—and thoroughly British. Simon Schama reviews the Olympic opening ceremonies.

Markus Schreiber / AP Photo

“Congratulations to Danny Boyle,” said Bob Costas at the end of the Olympics’ opening ceremonies Friday night, swiftly adding, lest he sound even a smidge Mittish, “Congratulations to the British people, too ... They did it right.”

But he didn’t fool anyone. Beneath the pancake and the blazer was a network veteran unmistakably yet desperately struggling with the primal urge to scream, “What the fuck was that?!”

That, Bob, was the way it can be done in a Britain where Elizabeth II (like the first queen of her name) gets to be a droll trouper, and the rest of the cast of thousands turn, unpredictably, antic, manic, sweetly loony, solemn, childish, magical (in the conjuring sense cued by The Tempest’s Caliban). Things that flew and things that blew, smoke and lights that flared, and lots and lots of history. It’s the way collapsed empires make peace with their fate: whimsically, affectionately, unsentimentally, secure enough for self-mockery.

Powers obsessed with their present or impending grandeur (or sophomorically threatened by rumors of decline) do opening ceremonies differently, humorlessly: much gorilla chest-beating disguised as epic; pumped-up self-congratulatory bombast, deploying vast numbers of bodies in perfect coordination in the service of kitsch folk ballet; synchronized smiling; selective allusions to precisely the popular homely traditions from which state and corporate power have sucked the lifeblood. A ghastly synthetic simulacrum of national unity, every leg in perfect alignment with the Overall Theme. That’s the way it’s been since Leni Riefenstahl invented the genre for Hitler’s 1936 Olympische Spiele. And though subsequent renditions have been less sinister, they’ve still had a kind of mechanical megalomania about them. You will mouth platitudes of universal brotherhood. You will celebrate the harmonious comity of the ripped.

There were touches of wild-eyed Wagnerian frenzy in Danny Boyle’s spectacle, too: plenty of Nibelungen hammering as a Thames of molten ore resolved into ... da-daaa, the RINGS! But though there was much machinery, Danny Boy was on to a different shtick entirely from ceremonies past. Where they have been seamless, faultless, heartless, Boyle’s was mischievously directionless, multitudinous, anarchic, reminiscent of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil productions that resist fixed vantage points—a poke in the eye for television productions that assume them. The pageant (for such it was) began with sundry groups of people (and livestock) wandering hither and thither in dreamy greensward doing whatever Boyle’s vision of Merrie England idyll invited: cricket, maypole dancing ... wot, no beer, skittles, or Nine Man Morris?

It’s a version of Happy Britannia which, of course, never existed. There was grunting poverty in the villages, just as not everyone sucked into the maw of the Industrial Revolution was doomed to perish of cholera or stump the hillside alleys with terminal rickets. But that (you want to remind the objecting pedants) wasn’t the point. A lovely tradition of the social pageant cum Christian mystery play has existed since the English Middle Ages, and that’s what Danny Boy made over for the modern digital moment. It’s history as written by the Social Democrat Fabian Society on which we drank deep when I was at school in the ’50s and ’60s, authored by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, G.D.H. Cole, R.H. Tawney, and the socialist romantic E.P Thompson, a history at once fiery and brotherly, full of laments for the dispossessed and uprooted but clear-eyed about the inevitability of the industrial age and the shameless rapacity of its plutocracy. Hey, anyone want to argue with that?

How sweet it is, then, that while redundantly Communist China gave us impeccable corporate entertainment, the Brits delivered what may be the last of the great socialist pageants. A bit—a very small bit—of Bard cued up the insular sorcery, but the real presiding genius of the proceedings was the revolutionary enthusiast William Blake, whose evangelical call to arms, “Jerusalem,” was present in no less than three places during the proceedings, even if all of them were given a Poppinsian spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. An angelic voice piped Hubert Parry’s melody (composed during the First World War, another Boyle moment) to put heart into the mutilated cannon fodder. But the music and the heart of the enchantment—including that ancient oak—was set at Glastonbury Tor (as the nervous Costa kept reading from his script with no clue whatsoever why he was supposed to). Glastonbury isn’t just the site of the most spectacular rock-and-mud fest Britain mounts every other year. It was also, according to the legend that inspired Blake, the place to which Jesus returned to confront the hellmouth of the industrial “satanic mills.” The “Chariots of Fire” (adorably sent up by Rowan Atkinson) weren’t harnessed for long-distance Olympic running—they were Blake’s war wagons for social justice. I don’t actually think that when Boyle had the kid warble, “Bring me my bow of burning gold/Bring me my arrows of desire,” he was anticipating the hordes of disgruntled who arrived at the archery competition that very morning, lured by online information that it was “unticketed,” only to discover that that meant no entrance. But then the same verse goes on, “Bring me my spear/Those clouds unfold/Bring me my chariots of fire.” And sure enough, Boylean clouds did unfold right there in the stadium.

There was a lot of Potter at work here. Not Harry despite, the blow-up Voldemort and J.K. Rowling reading from somewhere remote, but the late, great Dennis Potter: the unrepentant lefty, Orwellian satirist, and fiendishly inventive playwright whose The Singing Detective (with Michael Gambon turning in a staggering piece of acting) is still one of the great free-form masterpieces of modern television, by turns suicidally bitter and redemptively sweet and constantly harking back to Potter’s own childhood up trees in the half sylvan, half industrial Forest of Dean, not such a different place from the hillsides of Boyle’s Lancashire. No one does the darkness of childhood, its realm of startled pathos, its deep hauntings, like the Brits, from Alice and Peter Pan to Harry P., all of whom had an airing in the show, along with Kes (another glory of English cinema) and Bill Forsyth’s adorable Gregory’s Girl. But The Singing Detective also featured scenes in which nurses and doctors treating Potter/Detective’s hideous case of psoriasis break without warning into song-and-dance routines. And so they did in the Olympic Stadium in what was in every sense a fantastic encomium to the National Health Service, invoked by conservative radio blowhards as the very Belial of socialized medicine, whose pallid, compromised, endlessly diluted version Mitt Romney introduced into Massachusetts before he decided (to the shame of the sinner) that his creation was the institutional equivalent of the anti-Christ and a totalitarian conspiracy to uproot American liberty. So whatever else Bob Costas tells me over the next two weeks, it was his voiced reminder that J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, handed over the royalties from his story to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children (one of Britain’s best loved places) that will stick in the memory.

Even when you thought he let all this go, Boyle didn’t and couldn’t. The kids in his artless little texting rock romance were very much the color and style of what Britain is like now (and so much the better for it), and their adventure began with Paul Weller and the Jam’s “Going Underground,” which almost (not quite) reconciled me to the endless donging of Mike Oldfield’s tubular bells. The teen romance went on a bit long and, like the amorous pups, lost its way a bit, but when you saw in the midst of it Tim Berners-Lee sitting and tapping like a wizard of Oz who was not fake at all but altogether the Real Thing, the pops of delight kept on coming. And if you made it all the way from Belarus to Zimbabwe (not such a distance ideologically, alas) via the stripey Swedes (whoa, guys, not a good look), the grimly beret-capped outfits of Team America, and the Ziggy Stardust–meets–Boy Scout Camp camp of the Brits, you were rewarded with two wonderful moments of finale, a fluttery flight of cycle-born doves, and then, in a stunning coup, the mysterious petal-shaped copper bowls receiving their lick of fire and rising into an immense flower of flame at the heart of the stadium.

What Danny Boyle and his team achieved in this was to break open the formula that was getting dinosaur-like in the lumbering immensity of its brainlessness. That’s what the British are still good at: tearing up the convention, starting over, letting the imagination rip, summoning the inner child.

So if they were watching (and you bet they were), no one among his counterparts in Rio, host of the 2016 Games, should be saying, “Oh, oh, how do I do something like that?” What they should be saying—and knowing Brazilian designers of spectacle, I can guarantee you they are—is this: “Just watch while we do something utterly unlike that.”

Bring on their carnival.