Saturday, July 28, 2012

London's Olympic Opening Ceremony Unwrapped - for the Benefit of the Rest of the World

American sprinter Michael Johnson summarised the issue when asked on the BBC whether the rest of the world would "get" the messages of London's Olympic opening ceremony. Since he worked and travelled here often, Johnson replied, he felt he could appreciate it at a cultural level, but he thought that many of his fellow Americans and the rest of the world would not.

Or, as one contributor put it on Twitter: "This is just plain weird."
So, without further ado, here is the opening ceremony unwrapped, for an international audience.

The key to interpreting director Danny Boyle's extravaganza, in my view, is to understand the opening scene. While the crowds filtered into the stadium in the hours before the official start, they were greeted with a stadium filled not with ranked masses of drummers or dancers, but by a green field on which grazed sheep, cattle and goats, tended by farmers and labourers dressed in outfits reminiscent of pre-industrial Britain. Bearded gentlemen played cricket on a village green; white clouds floated gently over the idyllic pastoral scene.

source: gorgeaux

The official opening of the ceremony involved the singing of the traditional English anthem Jerusalem, supplemented by national songs of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Written by nineteenth-century poet, artist and mystic William Blake, the words of his poem And Did Those Feet were put to music by Hubert Parry in 1916. The song - known ever since simply as Jerusalem - has come to be widely adopted as an unofficial national anthem for England, sung regularly at international sports matches, and even at the wedding in 2011 of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

The poem has been sung at party conferences by several of the main political parties since the second world war. The song Jerusalem has come to be seen as critical of the damaging effects of industrialisation and of the consolidation of economic power by a landed, industrial and ecclesiastical elite. Blake, raised as a Moravian, was a life-long critic of the established Church of England. In place of such a history, Jerusalem articulates an alternative vision of England - one shaped at every level by the mysterious presence of Christ.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

Drawing on mythical themes such as the visitation of Jesus as a youth to the British Isles, accompanied by his supposed-uncle Joseph of Arimathea, the poem combines religious, mystical and political themes and has come to be seen as expressing a longing for a just, political and economic settlement in the British Isles, infused with Christian ideals.

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land

This imagery was not lost on the British audience last night. Phillip Blond, author of the influential book Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we can Fix It, was tweeting lyrical throughout the ceremony. The political think-tanker, economist and one-time theologian enthusiastically tweeted of the opening scene's imagery representing

"A pre-enclosure and pre-capitalist haven - this is already so political - magnificent - romanticism at our heart."

Daily Telegraph blogger Tim Stanley, meanwhile writes of the opening scene's depiction of

"The brutal uprooting of rural Britain. Was this written by GK Chesterton? It's fantastic."

Blond affirms this interpretation of British history:

"It's essentially a Catholic theory of British history" which sees "enclosure as the original crime." 

The idea that the enclosure of common agricultural lands from the 16th to 19th centuries is a root of much of Britain's current economic problems was explored in the early twentieth century by Roman Catholic social theorists such as Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. More recently, socialist historian EP Thompson argued in his The Making of the English Working Class that "Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery."
It is perhaps not coincidental to learn that Boyle himself was raised in a Catholic household in the north of England and was at one time considering attending seminary to become a priest.
Much else that followed in last night's Olympic extravaganza was a re-telling of this British story. The achievements of the industrial revolution, for instance, were set alongside the fruits of its ugly expression in the efficiency of modern warfare.

The idea that the common assets of the British working class have been appropriated by their rulers continued through the ceremony's subsequent tableaux. Although framed in terms of children's fairy tales, dreams and nightmares, the lengthy section filled with nurses, pyjama-clad children in hospital beds, and frightening apparitions appeared linked to the story of the enclosures. The message was that Britain's greatest human asset - its National Health Service - is under threat from dark forces.

Source: Julie70

The allusion to the highly controversial NHS reform bill recently passed through Parliament - which gives greater access to the Service to private companies, and which was strongly opposed by all of the main professional medical organisations - will not have been lost on a British public widely dissatisfied with the legislation brought in under the current coalition government. The implication that J.K Rowling's Lord Voldemort could be compared to health secretary Andrew Lansley was both excruciating and exquisite.

That a fictional character - the magical Mary Poppins - was instrumental in driving away the threats to the sick children illustrates an additional strand within Boyle's ceremony, namely that of the British romantic tradition. As blogger Cath Elliott noted:

"So Mary Poppins bravely fought off the tories and saved the NHS. Or something."

Romanticism was a key element in William Blake's creative work, expressed in part in Boyle's opening ceremony through humour. Rowan Atkinson, James Bond and the Queen parachuting into the stadium were all part of this tradition of self-deprecating British humour. Mr Bean also performed the first scripted fart at an Olympic opening ceremony. Blond again:

"And it just gets better - this is the true Britain - romantic, visionary and arcadian - and very very funny." 

Comparisons with the opening ceremony in Beijing four years earlier are inevitable and the contrast between creative London's story-telling and formal massed ranks of well-drilled citizens could not have been greater.

The ceremony was visionary in the best sense of the word - even as William Blake saw visions throughout his unconventional life. Here was a view of modern Britain with Christian and egalitarian roots, overcoming the forces that would create a harsher, more oppressive future.

William Blake's etching/watercolour "Anci...
William Blake's etching/watercolour "Ancient of Days" ( Wikipedia)

The young artist George Richmond was at the bedside of his visionary mentor and friend William Blake when he died in 1827 and describes the scene in moving detail:

He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see and expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ.
– Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.

Danny Boyle has expressed things slightly differently: "We can build Jerusalem. And it will be for everyone."

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Joan Barleycorn said...

Interesting take on the ceremony. Let's hope it helps to drive away some of the darker forces chiselling at the roots of the Welfare State.

An unexpected celebration of our culture.


Al Shaw said...


Thanks for commenting Joan.