Oscars all round for a patriotic feelgood fantasy
Published in: Daily Mail
You really have to feel some pity for the poor foreign correspondents. By their own account, many of them found Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony at the Olympics utterly baffling. Dancing NHS nurses? A giant Franken-baby? And who or what was this Isambard Kingdom Brunel?
The show was surely impenetrable to such folk because it was so very British. And the British are distinctive by being so . . . well, truly distinctive. They are highly individualistic, refusing to be pigeonholed and with a wonderfully anarchic streak. And never more so than in their sense of humour and creative vision.
In the attempt to convey just this, Boyle succeeded brilliantly. Beijing this most definitely was not.
This was the very antithesis of that regimented display of synchronised subservience. This was patriotism at its most quirky, shot through with surrealist humour and manic energy.
It was hardly surprising that so many were just blown away by Boyle’s extravaganza. Just as sheer spectacle, it was magnificent.
The staging was superbly dramatic, the choreography flawless and the lighting effects simply sensational. The bicycling doves and the Olympic cauldron composed of 204 single flames were concepts of showmanship genius.
But in addition, the thing that made it so quintessentially British was its exuberant idiosyncrasy. There was the eccentric procession, in short order, of farmyard animals, Victorian industrialists, suffragettes, mass production Sergeant Peppers and Mary Poppinses, rappers, and (in person) the British inventor of the worldwide web, Tim Berners-Lee.
Above all, there was the brilliant coup de theatre of the Queen herself — plus corgis — meeting ‘James Bond’, then apparently parachuting from a helicopter into the stadium just before she took her seat.
That image, more than any other, has gone round the world and cemented the Queen as not merely the remote and majestic symbol of the nation, but as a thoroughly good sport who shares the British national characteristic of not taking anything too seriously — including herself.
The singular but essentially benign nature of Britain was caught in the opening lines of the show, when Kenneth Branagh (dressed for some reason as Brunel) spoke Caliban’s words from Shakespeare’s Tempest: ‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.’
But from these glorious words, spoken against the stirring backdrop of Elgar — that most patriotic of English composers — what then unfolded was in truth little more than a generous-minded but fundamentally sentimental series of fantasies.
The show’s theme, it was made clear early on from the exquisite singing of William Blake’s iconic anthem, was to be all about building Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land.
Unfortunately, what was then paraded was a succession of stereotypes, all managing to offer — as stereotypes usually do — merely one side of a more complex picture.
So we had for starters a bucolic scene of merry medieval peasants, and men playing cricket — giving way to a stunningly produced but deeply tendentious image of cloth-capped workers slaving in the inferno of the Industrial Revolution.
But life in the Middle Ages wasn’t a rural idyll of dancing round maypoles, it was marked by ignorance, savagery and terrible poverty and hardship.
The Industrial Revolution, in turn, wasn’t a hell of harsh-faced bosses and oppressed workers, but happened to be the engine of progress and modernity that produced the affluence we all enjoy today.
The idea that industrialists are heartless tyrants and workers are helpless victims is, frankly, a fantasy that belongs to crude Left-wing agit-prop.
It sits particularly ill with a Britain plagued by irresponsible trades union activity, and where the Mayor of London recently resorted to bribing railway workers to induce them to call off strike action which threatened the smooth running of the Games themselves.
Perhaps most eyebrows were raised, however, over Boyle’s sequence celebrating the NHS. Not only did this seem a piece of gratuitous political propaganda, but it embodied the most painful fantasy of all. For Boyle’s NHS was a place where the nurses wore starched caps and sick children were cured.
While hospitals such as Great Ormond Street do magnificent work, the NHS has long been collapsing under the weight of its own misplaced founding faith — that health care, no matter what its constantly spiralling cost, can be available free at the point of use for all people at all times.
The result is that for too many, a British hospital is a place to be avoided if you are old (in which case you may be starved to death) or too inarticulate to insist on proper treatment, or simply want to avoid infection. Far from ideals evolved by those starched caps of a previous age, too much nursing has lost sight of its original compassionate calling.
But for Boyle and many others, the NHS is an ineradicable symbol of all that is good about Britain — because the myth that it gave birth to altruism and that, without it, the poor will be left to die, goes very deep.
The NHS was always an impossible dream. But then, Left-wing thinking is driven almost entirely by such Utopian fantasies. As a result it creates cartoon villains who it thinks thwart such ideals, while sanitising favoured groups — both such villains and heroes were on display in Boyle’s show.
In similar vein, it celebrated the Sixties as an age of liberation. In fact, that period fatally subverted the Britain of morality, self-discipline and tradition.
With images from Boyle’s own films flashed up on stage (surely some questionable product placement here?) the Sixties tableau culminated in an ‘all-you-need-is-love’ celebration of lifestyle choice — the doctrine that in fact did so much to replace love by self-interest, and condemned countless children to the misery of fractured family life.
Nevertheless, if Boyle’s intention was to provide a snapshot of Britain today, this is indeed what he so spectacularly achieved.
He did not deliver a projection of how Britain once was, nor indeed of how it should be, but how it now is.
Was it dripping with political correctness? Certainly. Was it suffused with sentimentality and clichés? Of course. How could it not be? For that is what Britain has become.
In today’s Britain, objectivity has given way to emotion. Reality has been replaced by the creative imagination. Truth has been supplanted by wishful thinking. Anyone who dissents from any of these orthodoxies is treated as a pariah.
Those for whom this is anathema, for whom the loss of the Britain they once knew and loved causes real anguish, felt Danny Boyle’s ceremony was an affront.
But even as one surveys the slow car crash of British society, it is hard not to be moved by the character from the Tempest whose words launched the show, but whose full symbolism Boyle maybe never spotted.
Caliban is a deformed, violent and anti-social monster — but he is also a poignant figure, who dreamed of riches and when he woke up finding nothing had changed, ‘cried to dream again’.
The British people desperately want to have pride in their country. With so many of the ties that once bound them to their homeland now snapped, they nevertheless still yearn to belong to, and share, an inspiring national project.
Danny Boyle has given them Caliban’s dream — a Utopian vision of Britain. He gave them the brilliance and wit of his spectacle. He also gave them something else: the fantasy of an inclusive, generous, warm-hearted, joyful image of themselves.
Boyle’s genius was to create this fantasy of goodness, this triumph of hope over experience, of heart over head. This was patriotism as a feelgood movie. Oscars all round.