London 2012 Opening Ceremony: Isles of Wonder – 27 July 2012
‘The centre of the world’ is a media hyperbole used too frequently to describe something that people from around the world are perceived to be focussed on. But last night’s breathtaking Olympic Opening Ceremony really was just that: a spectacle beheld by an estimated 4.8 billion people (meaning more individual eyes watched than the sum of all populations of all nations). And, taking place just over four miles virtually due north of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (Greenwich Park the Equestrian and Pentathlon venue for the Games), there’s no denying that, last night, E20 2ST really was the centre of the world.
Having seen an article about it on the Advertiser’s site and cycled past it on my way home from work, I decided to watch the coverage of the Opening Ceremony at a public showing in Kidwells Park, knowing if I couldn’t have the atmosphere of the Stadium, watching the show with even ‘only’ hundreds of others would be the next best thing. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘Big Screen’ proved to not be as ‘big’ as it was intended to be: some of the component square video panels had broken in transit, and hence the display was not at its full size nor at great quality. But, no matter: after a last minute dash to raid Sainsbury’s for copious supplies of chocolate, sweets, and drinks – embracing, thereby, the values of key Olympic sponsors – I sat with my friend Jake, waiting for the proceedings to get under way.
“Right, here we are, in
#KidwellsPark #Maidenhead, as darkness descends with five minutes to go. Go on #London, my love: blow the world away.”
— Andrew Burdett, tweet, 27 July 2012
After the poignancy of the slow, tender strings of Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, a stark contrast was presented with a great version of The Who’s Baba O’Reily. A fabulous countdown sequence was then presented, with each number from 50 represented by real-life things in London: a ’45 RPM’ sticker in a record shop, a Number 43 bus, a 30 mph speed restriction road sign, an 18+ neon light in a window, a ’14’ football shirt, 10 Downing Street’s front door, London N1 street names. In the park, the crowd were clapping with the beat and shouting out the final numbers, contributing to the great atmosphere.
That VT, though, was nothing on the one it introduced: the first in a series of films directed by The Isles of Wonder designer/coordinator Danny Boyle and produced by the BBC. In it, the River Thames is traced from its Gloucestershire source to London (via Henley), and then viewers travel into the Olympic Stadium flying around Elizabeth Tower, over the South Bank, diving underground into the Tube, and then through the canal in the Olympic Park. Images of modern British life were overlaid, and music including the instantly recognisable opening drum beat of the EastEnders theme tune and bars from punk-rock band Sex Pistols’s highly controversial 1977 track God Save The Queen was played. I was amazed.
Bradley Wiggins was chosen to begin the night’s entertainment by ringing the ‘Olympic Bell’, having won the Tour de France last Sunday. Cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – famous for crafting Big Ben and (to a much lesser extent) the one at St Luke’s Church – the new bell weighs 23 tons and measures 2 metres by 3 metres in size, making it the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world. I may well be wrong, but I don’t think it was intended to be a closing to this morning’s ringing of bells across the country. However, it was a nice moment, recognising a champion who, until recently, was relatively unknown.
In the first section of The Isles of Wonder, live animals and a model of Glastonbury Tor presented a traditionally idyllic image of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’. I thought it was great, with nods to the rainclouds that this year we’ve all become even more familiar with than normal, and with which we are as a nation synonymous with around the world.
There were youth choirs giving a cappella performances while ‘villagers’ worked around their model cottages. Beforehand, 70 live sheep had been herded into the Stadium, as an enumerating list, unintentionally resembling a popular English Christmas carol, also moved into the arena: ten chickens clucked, nine geese honked, some (eight, perhaps?) maids were a-milking… we knew we’d get to the appropriate loud chorus of “FIVE GO-LD RINGS!” later.
In the meantime, that great English hymn Jerusalem was sung live in the Stadium, but Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were represented too with pre-recorded performances of Londonderry Air, Oh Danny Boy, Flower of Scotland, and Bread of Heaven.
This vision was soon, though, as promised, to be destroyed, as a carriage rolled into the Stadium pulled by two cart horses. Stepping off it, Kenneth Branagh, dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, recited Caliban‘s Be Not Afeared speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”
— ‘Be Not Afeared’ speech from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, as recited by Kenneth Branagh at the Opening Ceremony, 27 July 2012
The 956 volunteer drummers started a fast-paced beat as the ‘Industrial Revolution’ began. The verdant countryside disappeared and in its place, tall smoking chimneys rose.
“watching this opening ceremony has made me realise how amazing britain actually is, wow”
— Danny Lee Frank, tweet, 27 July 2012
After a slowing of the music to remember the war dead, the pace picked up once more as the Chelsea pensioners (greeted by a large cheer from the Kidwells Park crowd), followed by actors representing pearly kings and queens, the 1936 Jarrow Crusade marchers, and the Windrush generation, marched in.
Four glowing orange rings were lowered from the ceiling to join one seemingly forged there and then on the ground, creating the symbol of the Olympics.
Yet some UK audiences (and I don’t doubt many others around the world) just weren’t realising Boyle’s work. My dear friend Madi tweeted: “i dont understand what this has to do with the olympics?”, shortly followed by: “like its good.. i just dont get it”. She wasn’t alone: Times writer Giles Coren‘s initial summary of the show was largely negative.
Again, though, all was to change, and the next VT initiated a much more widely-accessible section of the performance, with two of Britain’s most famous brands: 007 and The Royal Family.
“I’m in this slightly embarrassing position because I had to, having reported for The Times… and depending on where you live in the country you’ve got a piece by me saying ‘This is a load of inflated nonsense.’ and then a piece by me saying ‘This is the greatest night of my life.’.
“Early and late editions!
“I had to file at 9:45pm and, sort of, midnight, and because they have to get something for those editions […] In the end, you know, I thought ‘What’s going on? It’s ‘In The Night Garden’, it’s some sort of strange toddler park, and they’re running around in smocks.’, and then it sort of built and built and built and I filed this slightly cynical thing, and then […] I filed before there were toddlers doing summersaults on NHS beds, which made me cry, and then it was The Jam and I was jumping about in my seat and dancing as I typed.
“A huge rush, a most amazing night ever, and an incredible privilege to be there. Couple of hours later the newspaper dropped on my doormat and there was I, saying it was rubbish!
“A very confusing experience.”
“I thought it managed an impossible task of making one feel incredibly – I’m not a patriotic […] – but it made me feel incredibly proud to be British, for reasons I hadn’t really realised. The fact that we could serve up essentially the clichés about ourselves (to do with Blake and Shakespeare and the Queen and James Bond) and sort of laugh at them at the same time, and invite people to laugh, and make better jokes than they would make. And hop back and forth between laughter and tears like a great Shakespeare play was stunning.”
— Giles Coren, Times columnist, interview with ‘Today’, first broadcast live, 28 July 2012
In that second short film of the night, entitled Happy and Glorious and again produced by the BBC with direction from Boyle, Daniel Craig (in character as James Bond) is seen entering Buckingham Palace. There’s a subtle reference to four years’ hence by means of the class of Brazilian children, touring the inside of the building. Amazingly, the producers had gained permission to film the Queen’s own corgis, give her personal servant a starring role, while using the actual corridors of the grand palace as the setting. But the biggest surprise of all came when the uncanny lookalike for the Queen turned around. And spoke.
“Good evening, Mr Bond.” – perhaps one of the most famous lines in the world of British film.
There was no doubt about it. The Queen’s is arguably the most difficult voice to imitate convincingly. In a single moment the crowd realised that the woman depicting the Queen really was the lady herself.
Into a helicopter, under Tower Bridge, and off to the Stadium. Then, with a gentle nudge from Craig, the Queen (now played by Miss Marple actress Julia Mackenzie) was pushed out and, cutting to a live shot, she (or rather, stunt double Gary Connery) was seen parachuting down to the Park.
With the Queen seated, the Union Flag was raised by members of the Armed Services and all were requested to stand for the National Anthem.
The energy then resumed, over Mike Oldfield performing Tubular Bells, with dancing doctors and jiving nurses from Great Ormond Street Hospital wheeling in trolleys bearing patients. The illuminated beds spelt the initials of the children’s hospital (hence my pointing at the screen whilst remarking to a drifting Jake “Gosh! No, really, GOSH!”). The beds were then rearranged to spell the initials of our beloved free health service, the NHS, apparently baffling some conservative Americans.
Tributes to children’s literature followed, with JK Rowling reading the opening of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan as a 100-foot high version of her own creation, Voldemort, entered the arena with other book baddies, including the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang child catcher. The great and the good soon followed, though, with a host of umbrella-ed Marry Poppinses descending from the roof. After the excitement, a powerful image of a sleeping baby was presented.
The best was still to come, though, as the coverage of a performance of Vangelis’s rousing Chariots of Fire theme played by the London Symphony Orchestra, closed in on the synthesiser player’s hands, repeating the same underlying quaver note. As the camera panned to the musician’s face, it became obvious that this keyboardist was in fact an imposter: Rowan Atkinson, playing a version of his comic creation Mr Bean.
In a hilarious sketch, performed in typical Atkinson style, the character showed boredom at his ‘second fiddle’ role, perhaps jealous of the grander parts played by his fellow musicians, then needing to sneeze without a handkerchief. Dozing off, his envisaged himself running as part of that famous film scene on the beach at West Sands, St Andrew’s, before being left in the distance by the other runners. In front of the tracking shot, a car sped by shown to be carrying Mr Bean, meaning he finished first. Cue the ‘musician’ waking up, finding himself the last remaining player, and stopping abruptly. An angry-looking Sir Simon Rattle gave Bean a wide berth, forcing him to look at the final page of the score, revealing the grand arpeggio to close the piece – unfortunately ruined by an ‘accidental’ note that sounded like a blown raspberry!
It revolved around a peculiarly British sense of humour, but with Mr Bean recognisable all over the world, it was in fact another clever gateway back into the action for those who may have become disconnected.
#RowanAtkinson, I love you.”
— Andrew Burdett, tweet, 27 July 2012
Next up, a section on digital Britain. There were clips from various sit-coms projected onto the side of a large house in the centre of the stage, which a girl left to be greeted, rather bizarrely, by dancers waving strange colourful glowstick things. The Tube, which, let’s be honest, keeps London going, was celebrated with the use of the pixel-paddles in the audience (allowing the whole of the seating area of the arena to become a giant video wall) displaying the insides of the Underground. The music used, inevitably, was The Jam’s Going Underground.
That wasn’t the only popular song used in this section: in fact, there was a montage of British popular music as a young couple travel through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. My Generation faded to Satisfaction, followed by music from Millie, the Beatles, Mud, the Specials, David Bowie, Queen, and more of the Pistols, then New Order, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and then finally the Prodigy’s Firestarter with a burst of flames.
As the couple kissed, clips of other famous snogs were played (including a second’s worth of the 2011 Royal Wedding ‘balcony scene’).
“But maybe you shouldn’t have been able to interpret it that much, because it was about wonder.
“The theme of the show was to take things that we’re very familiar with, and make them seem again wonderful to us: the things that you know about the industrial revolution and the internet, and say ‘Aren’t these things astonishing, that we live in the middle of?’ and to kind of re-polish the pattern of life. So maybe it’s alright that you were a little bit bewildered.”
— Frank Cottrell Boyce, screenwriter of the Opening Ceremony, discussion on ‘Today’, first broadcast 28 July 2012
It wasn’t bad at all, but the graphics and choreography of this technology-meets-a-western-version-of-Slumdog Millionaire section made it, for me, the weakest part of the show – sadly, an unwitting reflection on the state of our position in the post-war technological world.
That said, when the house ascended to reveal Briton Sir Tim Berners-Lee (recognised as the inventor of the internet), the whole house rose – he received a standing ovation from audience members. From his iPhone, a device famed for its internet connectivity, he then sent a tweet with the words: “This is for everyone”.
At 10:10pm, a montage (again edited by the BBC) showed the highlights of the last 69 days of the mammoth Olympic Torch Relay – I thought it looked like a kind of extended version of the opening of my own film of Day 53 – before going seamlessly into a live shot from Tower Bridge, as David Beckham was shown driving the Torch by speedboat with England footballer Jade Bailey on the last day, Day 70, of the relay.
Back at the Stadium, the English-speaking announcer then said: “Ladies and gentlemen, please pause to respect our memorial wall for friends and family of those in the Stadium who cannot be here tonight.” Over a short clip from Brian Eno’s haunting yet bliss instrumental track An Ending – Ascent, images of the faces of loved ones (reportedly brought along by audience members) were shown in a short slideshow. It was not without controversy, though: quite rightly, I think, there were complaints that there’d been not even a vague effort to remember those who died in the Munich massacre. Hazel Irvine, commentating for the BBC, did improve the situation though, by making the silence more inclusive: “The excitement of that moment in Singapore seven years ago when London won the Games was tempered with great sorrow the very next day, with the events of the seventh of July of that year. The moving wall of memories remembering those who are no longer here to share in this wonderful event, and this is a calming and reflecting pause after the exuberance of the last hour and a quarter.” I then thought of my grandparents: all four of them were alive in 2005, none of them are still around today. I’m sure I was not alone in this small act of remembrance.
Emili Sandé gave a virtually flawless unaccompanied rendition of the hymn Abide With Me, during which more dancing – this time much slower and more peaceful – took place.
At 10:20pm, the athletes’ parade began, which saw the 204 nations – led by Greece, as is traditional, and with an excited host Team GB bringing up the rear – process in the Stadium. The parade took the best part of an-hour-and-three-quarters, meaning the vast majority of the Kidwells Park crowd decided to pack up and go home during that time, but there was national delight when Sir Chris Hoy, as was announced earlier this week, finally carried the flag in for our team (appropriately to David Bowie’s Heroes) and deposited it with the others on the model of Glastonbury Tor, all under 7 billion (one for each member of Earth’s population) pieces of ticker tape.
“Oh my god were still on the letter A“
— Ben Spurgeon, tweet, 27 July 2012
“Wow. It is a small world.”
— Joe Turnbull, tweet, 27 July 2012
“Seriously 204 nations? pic.twitter.com/dYAeTQOH”
— Lucy Allen, tweet, 27 July 2012
“[Zimbabwe] should change their name to A1zimbabwe like a taxi firm”
— Ruth Willo, tweet in reply to Jeremy Vine’s suggestion of the irritation surely felt by Zimbabweans, 27 July 2012
“when great britain comes on.. after the 3 hour wait for tom daly. pic.twitter.com/LHkPYAPi”
— Madi Keay, tweet, 27 July 2012
Despite the extreme length of the formalities, I waited for all 204 nations to arrive so and was rewarded with the Artic Monkeys’s great set, Jacques Rogge’s and Seb Coe’s speeches, the Queen officially opening the Games, the brilliant fireworks, and Paul McCartney’s tremendous close to the night. I’ll never forget being one of just half-a-dozen or so still in the park but not caring, as I sang along merrily to the ‘Naa na na na-na-na naaah’ chorus of Hey Jude.
“It’s like that moment in the restaurant where everyone starts thinking about the bill.”
— Jeremy Vine, tweet, 28 July 2012
One more thing: the final torchbearer. The Olympic flame was greeted by the canal by Sir Steven Geoffrey Redgrave (dubbed “our greatest Olympian of all time” by one commentator), who’d done a great job of keeping quiet about his involvement with the most widely-speculated duty. By the time Sir Steve had run the Torch the distance to the Stadium, past a fitting honour guard from 500 of the construction workers who built the Olympic Park, it had lapped up some 12,800 miles.
But Sir Steve did not light the cauldron. That honour was given to seven young people, expected to be among the next generation of Olympic athletes, as nominated by the last generation.
- Callum Airlie, 17, was nominated by Shirley Robertson.
- Jordan Duckitt, 18, was nominated by Duncan Goodhew.
- Desiree Henry, 16, was nominated by Daley Thompson.
- Katie Kirk, 18, was nominated by Dame Mary Peters.
- Aidan Reynolds, 18, was nominated by Lynn Davies.
- Adelle Tracey, 19, was nominated by Dame Kelly Holmes.
- Cameron MacRitichie, 19, was nominated by Sir Steve Redgrave.
This last section of the night was perhaps the most closely-guarded secret – so secretive, in fact, that at least two of the youngsters didn’t even tell their parents why they suddenly, since last Thursday, could no longer go away on holiday with their families.
On Tuesday, talking to BBC Sport, Sir Matthew Pinsent was asked for his thoughts on who or what may light the flame: “I think there’s a very decent line of theory that says London have done very unexpected things so far so I think they might steer away from an athlete or a sporting icon completely, and do a young person or someone from the East End. […] Or the other theory is the mechanism: everyone thinks of the archer in ’92. It could be something fancy in the way the flame gets into the torch.”
In fact, we had both: surprises in both the people chose to ignite the cauldron, and in the cauldron’s ignition.
204 copper ‘petals’ representing the 204 nations, once lit, rose to come together as one giant flame, symbolising the peaceful union of countries for the Olympics. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, it was not big: it measured only 8.5 metres high. It was not heavy: its mass was a mere 5 per cent of the weight of the 300-tonne cauldron in Beijing. What it most definitely was, though, was incredibly beautiful.
“We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn’t try to be even bigger than the last ones.”, he said. “This incredible event has 204 nations coming together, so we had a child from each country bringing these copper polished objects in. At the end of the Games, this cauldron will dismantle itself and radiate back down to the ground and each of those copper pieces take away by each nation and put in a national Olympic cabinet somewhere.”
Post-Script: Closing Thoughts
I think we put on a show to be proud of. As someone on Twitter put it (far more eloquently than I): “Every detail thought through. Everyone represented. This ceremony is a triumph of inclusion, a subject lesson in the strength of diversity.” And that it was. There were the beautiful touches like the 500 builders lining the tunnel; the inclusion of athletes of past, present, and future games; and the touching brief pause for those who “rejoice with us but on another shore and in [an even brighter!] light”. Having learnt lessons from the Diamond Jubilee, the BBC were spot-on with the quality and quantity of their commentary, aside from one moment where Ms Irvine bafflingly chipped in with “Literally passing the Torch” to Huw Edwards’s insightful comments about the honour of the cauldron-lighting being passed from the celebrated to the potential athletes. However, the scale of its impact on my enjoyment of the production was like a single broken pixel on one of the thousands of paddles in the Stadium – negligible.
Yes, it was expensive, at £27 million just for this show alone. But as the overnight UK audience figures came in, it worked out at roughly £1 per person to watch the spectacle. (Not bad, by any means, for nearly four hours’ worth of entertainment. OK, I’ll admit that includes the parade…)
But seriously, I bet you’d have struggled to find anything else worth watching last night: the greatest show on Earth was on. And, truth be told, it’s only just getting started.
“To everyone in this stadium attending our opening ceremony, to every athlete waiting, ready, prepared to take part in these Games, to everyone in every city and village in the world watching as we begin, welcome to London.
“Welcome to the 2012 Olympic Games. Welcome from every one of us.
“I’ve never been so proud to be British and to be a part of the Olympic movement.
“The Olympics bring together the people of the world in harmony and friendship to celebrate what is best about mankind.
“All my life I have loved sport. There is a truth to sport, a purity, drama, and intensity. London 2012 will inspire a generation.
“To the athletes gathered here I say that to you is given something precious, to run faster, to jump higher, to be stronger. To my fellow countrymen I say thank you for making all of this possible.
“In the next two weeks we will show all that made London one of the greatest cities in the world – the only city to have welcomed the Games three times.
“Each time the world has face turbulence and trouble and each time the Games have been a triumph. Our history as a thriving commercial centre has prepared us for today. For every Briton, just as for the competitors, this is our time.
“One day we will tell our children and grandchildren that when our time came we did it right. Let us determine – all of us, all over the world – that London 2012 will see the very best of us.”
— Lord Sebastian Coe, Locog Chairman, closing speech of the Opening Ceremony, 28 July 2012
“We did indeed “do it right”, Seb. That’s sadly it for
#TheGreatestShowOnEarth. Goodnight London (and the world), good luck @TfLofficial. X”
— Andrew Burdett, tweet, 28 July 2012
“Danny Boyle triumphs /
stunning welcome to the world /
let the games begin
#haiku #openingceremony #Olympics2012 #London2012″
— Phil Bray, tweet, 28 July 2012
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the bit with maypoles. And sheep and cows and geese. And carthorses. And children in hospital beds. And mystery firelighters. And Beckham in a speedboat and the Queen as a Bond girl. And ‘Abide With Me’. And little bits of the best pop songs ever, so loud and seemingly forever, so that you can’t write up there in the press seats for dancing.
“But wouldn’t it be funny if that WERE the end?! If that was it? If there were to be no running and jumping and ball games? […] Would it have been worth it? You know, it would. Nobody is as funny as Rowan Atkinson or as good in a suit as Daniel Craig or as smiley as David Beckham or as Earth-shatteringly famous as the Queen.
“Only we can do this with our culture. Only we can play it straight, silly, tragic, funny, sad, funny again. Only we descendants of Shakespeare and Milton, Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, Ant and Dec.
“It was all so left of centre and democratic and global, yet posh, elitist and parochial. Just like you and me.
“I was worried that there was too much self-parody, that the world might be laughing at us. But they were laughing with us. They were silently awed. And if we don’t win a single medal, it won’t matter. Because we had this. For this is the end of the beginning. And what a beginning it was.”
— Giles Coren, extracts from his writing for final editions of The Times, 28 July 2012