Being British: The London 2012 Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games is going to be one hot mess of a spectacle.
That is, if all news reports as of this posting are to be believed. And therein lies a problem with coverage of a massive media event in which tens of thousands of performers, staffers, security, and volunteers are taking part, and at which rehearsals are open to select members of the public: there’s a fine line between reportage and speculation, between anchoring a story with hard facts and sketchy details, between making audiences aware of a story’s own shortcomings and unashamedly trolling for pageviews. It’s a wonder that Sebastian Coe, head of LOCOG (London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) even bothered to sign off a Tweet with #savethesurprise. Coe should recognize that, in an information landscape driven by the engine of social media and fueled by unnamed sources and cameraphone artifacts uploaded to YouTube, keeping everything under wraps is (nearly) impossible.
As other Antenna writers have noted, the media texts surrounding the 2012 London games serve to brand Britain. And the opening ceremony seems to be no different. But what sort of “Britishness” might be on display? I raise this question with the caveat that, come Friday, July 27, some of what I’m about to explore might not be entirely accurate.
Based on aerial paparazzi photos of the Olympic Stadium during the construction of the ceremony, and on its reveal in June 2012 , artistic director Danny Boyle’s vision for the opening ceremony seems like it has come straight from the mouth of one of the unnamed children babbling at @PreschoolGems. There will be geese, goats, horses, cows, people playing cricket on a village green, farmers tilling the soil, maypole dancers, factories, an oak tree, and clouds that produce rain. Not to mention recreations of Glastonbury Tor, the River Thames, and the Houses of Parliament. Boyle seems like Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008), the obsessive director who recreates the minutiae of his New York life in an abandoned warehouse in Manhattan. (An apt comparison, for, according to reports, Boyle’s crew is arguing with the crew that will be filming the sporting events over the placement of their cameras. And besides, what is London’s Olympic stadium when it’s not being used but an empty warehouse in London’s East End?) Another promotional text, the BBC’s London 2012 trailer, similarly riffs on the idea Boyle is deploying, that of “Stadium UK,” wherein the nation (literally) comes together in a giant stadium.
Stephen Daldry, Boyle’s executive producer, has said the ceremony will be “a journey that will celebrate who we are, who we were and indeed who we wish to be.” It’s fascinating to map that formulation on the reported tripartite structure of the ceremony, called “Isles of Wonder” (more on that below), which will celebrate Britain’s “green and pleasant land,” demonstrate the “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial revolution, and segue into Mod(ern), contemporary, and future British life.
Except the lyrics to “Jerusalem” (the song developed around William Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time,” which is probably its better-known iteration), from where the titles of the ceremony come, celebrate England, not Britain. The music and musicians attached to the opening ceremony are overwhelmingly English. The cultural events promised to be highlighted, from the high-culture Proms and the cricket match to the low-culture Glastonbury Festival, are quintessentially English. Maypoles topped with daffodil, flax, and thistle and short films of choirs singing “Cwm Rhondda,” “Danny Boy,” and “Flower of Scotland” seem like insufficient tribute to the three other British countries that aren’t England. Indeed, in spite of Boyle’s stress on the inclusivity of the opening ceremony, what ultimately is elided is Britishness.
Yet, for all intents, the Britishness that gets replaced with Englishness in the ceremony promises to be a specific kind of Englishness. In spite of the slow gentrification of the East End that the Olympic stadium promises, most of the performers hail from the East End, known in the (inter)national imagination as a working-class, poverty-stricken, and crime-ridden area. Of course, Boyle giving work to the un- or under-employed could be read through the same lens as his work with “real” slum children in Slumdog Millionaire (2008); that is to say that he’s ultimately exploiting them with this patronizing gesture. There is a strange disconnect between the fact that rehearsals for a ceremony costing the British public 27 million pounds ($42 million) are taking place in the Ford Dagenham plant, site of the strike that led to the Equal Pay Act 1970, the first British legislation aimed at ending pay discrimination based on gender. But that’s part and parcel of Boyle’s interest. While he’s certainly no longer the same tyro that wowed critics with Trainspotting (1996), his work has been largely consistent, in that he’s invested in giving the marginalized a voice.
This same interest in the marginalized is inherent in the title of the ceremony, “Isles of Wonder,” Boyle’s squinted-eye interpretation of a line spoken by the monster Caliban from The Tempest. Here, Boyle, perhaps unwittingly, sees the ceremony to be an expression of his radical politics. Yes, the monologue in which Caliban speaks the line, “Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” celebrates the beauty of the island, but he delivers the monologue immediately before he plots to destroy his master Prospero. And yes, in the narrative of the play, Caliban’s revolution may ultimately be ineffective, but it’s revolution nonetheless.
It’s important to note that the first line from the quote above will be engraved on the largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world, which will feature prominently in the ceremony. It’s not idle fancy to hope that the ringing of this bell can mean both a celebration of Britishness and a collective yell by a great British son seething with populist anger.