The Olympic Opening Ceremony: the best, most expensive in-joke in history

Poplifer is not a fan of most Olympic  opening ceremonies. Think of the trashiest tourist shop at an airport, give it a fascist twist and stadium scale, and away you go – fireworks, flags and kids in militarised lines, a celebration of SFX, spectacle and little else. Well, Danny Boyle’s only gone and blown the bloody doors off….


If you didn’t quite that last reference (The Italain Job, Michael Caine), that’s because you probably had to be British or have lived in Britain to have done so. Much like last night’s opening ceremony to the London 2012 Olympic Games. This is not a criticism. Danny Boyle’s splendidly idiosyncratic, parochial opening ceremony was littered with references which required footnotes, political points which didn’t and a joy and pride which was engrossing. Even for the most hardened cynic (I’m looking at you, Neil), it proved irresistible. It was bloody marvellous.

There will be plenty of gushing, plenty of talk of a redefined national identity and this is welcome. So are the counter-arguments, that it’s all-consuming Britishness will have confused or alienated the alleged 4 billion non-British viewers. Such meaty topics belong to other writers, other blogs. Below is Poplifer’s brief explanatory guide to perhaps the best, and certainly the most expensive, in-joke ever told, designed for puzzled foreignors, Brits wanting to remember it in all its odd glory and Brits who can’t actually remember it at all through the hungover fog .

  • Poplifer talked of the cobbled street opening to Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave only yesterday. The same trick was pulled last night – just swap cobbles for the River Thames and Leftfield for an Underworld soundscape. The floating pig needs no explanation to Pink Floyd fans but the cascading drumbeat was from Eastenders, a long running dourfest of a soap that 20 million watch, while the harpsichord was the South Bank Show theme, a long running arts review that 23 people watch. By the time we had reached the stadium gates, we had charted 50 years of London pop (even lil Lily Allen got a look in). If you feared that was it for pop references, you were magnificently mistaken. That was the crust free triangle of a cucumber sandwich (a very British snack which rich people eat) before the massive Cornish Pasty to follow (a very British snack which poor people eat and rich people tax).
  • The game was cricket; the dance was Morris; the lambchops were Kenneth Brannagh’s; the words were Shakespeare and the submarines were yellow. The provocative but essential display of hard labour, exploitation and achievement to explain the Industrial Revolution was an antidote to the colonial guilt or bombastic fervour that occupy each furthest edge of the British political spectrum. That the colour was brought by an army of Sergeant Pepper Beatles and the Windrush to end the sequence was a fitting nod to where pop culture came from and why it was so joyously embraced in Britain.

Brannagh as Brunel. Yes, that it is an actual hill.

  • The NHS/ Children’s Fiction section celebrated the villains and the heroes. A giant Voldemort defeated by a band of flying Mary Poppins requires no explanation. The NHS does however, for some reasons. It’s this thing where people pay taxes and these taxes are used to ensure that when you are ill, you get treated and hopefully made better and you don’t get a bill. A beautifully simple idea currently being undone by our current incompetent Government – who, incidentally, inherited Danny Boyle as master of ceremonies, a rare example of them not destroying everything they touch.
  • Not that they were happy about it. This NHS sequence produced a superb Twitter ruckus. Conservative/Tory/Republican MP Aiden Burley thought it was all too much. Describing the ceremony as ‘more left wing than Beijing’s in 2008’ and ‘multi-cultural crap’ (presumably he forgot that Olympic opening ceremonies are not no so much multi-cultural as all-cultural). Burley massively misjudged the mood which the ceremony was provoking. A tsunami of abuse in 140 characters fell down on Burley’s pugnacious idiocy. This included a challenge from ex-footballer Stan Collymore, one of Burley’s constituents no less, to stand against him at the next election. Stan has already received Poplifer’s endorsement and an offer to leaflet drop. No, really.

A little bit of politics.

  • ‘The Queen, James Bond – meh.’ Neil.
  • The digital sequence was spectacular. In it, a girl from a mixed race family (bloody multiculturalism and black and white people having sex) went on a date and lost her phone and her boyfriend – a black lad in a ‘Frankie Says’ tee-shirt. Yes, the opening ceremony did use Frankie’s ‘when you wanna come’ as a bridge between sequences. This narrative was of course just a canvas on which to project a hugely enjoyable montage of TV/Pop/Film culture that flitted across the decades at such pace, with such force, with such abandon, it was not so much a Poplifer highlight as a Poplifer sensory overload. There was too much. Too much. It was a binge and somewhere in the middle of this orgiastic celebration of pop culture, many of the world’s less progressive nations accidentally broadcast its first lesbian kiss. Dizzee Rascal, fittingly, concluded it all – the local hero, on local ground, with a smile that covered a postcode.
  • The Barratt home house at the centre of this sequence was lifted to reveal Sir Tim Berners-Lee sat a humble desk in front of a computer (couldn’t decifer whether it was a Mac or a PC). Upon the audience, his core message projected: ‘This is for everyone.’ Berners-Lee’s gift to the world was the Internet. A gift given, forgoing share issues and intellectual property rights, Berners-Lee walked away from billions and in so doing opened up the world (insert 21st century history here). I’m welling up now.
  • ‘Mr Bean – meh. The kids loved it though.’ Chris
  • Doreen Lawrence’s son was murdered by a bunch of racist thugs on the streets of South London. These thugs were kept from justice by an ‘institutionally rascist’ police force and Doreen’s belligerent, unrelenting campaigning changed a law, a police force, and the justice system. She carried the Olympic flag.
  • The Arctic Monkeys nailed it.
  • Sir Paul McCartney probably didn’t but hey, he still left us fuzzed up.

So, far, the response has been almost universally positive. Poplifer will make no attempt to go against this flow. The Olympic Ceremony is both a projection of national identity and an invitation to the world. Last night, Boyle merged the two – inviting the world to enjoy and contribute to British culture and in so doing made the most reaffirming point of all -this invitation is open to all, sincerely made and permanent.



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