A magnificently kooky feast of glorious, British kitsch
We Australians do a fair turn in kitsch, as evidenced by the lawnmowers and Hills Hoists at the Sydney 2000 Olympic opening ceremony and the flying tram at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. But those kitschy fragments were nothing compared to last night.
The London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was wall-to-wall kitsch. This was the large scale, globally-televised equivalent of Mrs Slocombe’s hair or Tim Brooke-Taylor’s Union Jack boxer shorts in The Goodies.
Olympic host cities have the opportunity to tell us something about their countries in their opening ceremonies, which is the world’s most-watched TV event. Sydney’s ceremony was about youthful optimism, and though we didn’t know it at the time, the message had extra resonance given it was the last Games before 9/11 and the era of the War on Terror.
Athens, predictably but memorably, portrayed the ancient history of the Mediterranean and the Olympic Games themselves. Beijing, too, drew on ancient culture, if only to divert global attention from some of the more unpalatable and not-for-discussion aspects of China’s latter day history.
And London? London was all about a nation which for much of its history has been powerful and innovative but above all deliciously barmy.
“In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight,” IOC president Jacques Rogge told the crowd. “This great, sports-loving country is widely recognised as the birthplace of modern sport.”
Indeed it has. A huge proportion of the world’s most popular sports originated in Britain. And let’s face it, you had to be pretty mad to invent cricket, or golf, or to kick a pig’s bladder from one end of a paddock to the other in the medieval pastime that eventually became soccer.
And so, a procession of scenes unfolded in the middle of the spanking new 80,000 seat Olympic stadium which paid homage both to Britain’s resourcefulness and its sheer, unfettered kookiness.
There was Mary Poppins. There was Voldemort and the dementors from Harry Potter. There was the history of the industrial revolution, with a cigar-smoking Kenneth Branagh performing a star turn as the contented capitalist overseeing the transformation of the green and pleasant land into a Dickensian landscape of smokestacks and steel forges.
In true British form, there were even snippets of toilet humour. The ceremony contained references to snot, burps, sardines, the dysfunctional British train system and – wait for it – foul play! At the Olympics! Well I never.
Only the Brits could have come up with the sequence where Mr Bean tripped up the runners in the Chariots of Fire beach running sequence. In one sense, it was positively unBritish, given that fair play is a distinctly British concept. Then again, the ability to be self-mocking is perhaps an even more British trait.
The lengthy segment celebrating Britain’s National Health Service was a nod to Britain’s non-sporting cultural influences on the world. You can only assume Danny Boyle chose not to illustrate the evolution of the Westminster system of parliament because the props were too cumbersome.
But the best bits were the pop culture, even if at times the constant references to texting made the entire shenanigans look like a smartphone ad. It was great to see the music of bands as diverse as The Rolling Stones, New Order and Queen celebrated. And speaking of Her Majesty, this was surely the only Sex Pistols gig the 86 year old monarch has ever attended.
The Queen deserves much credit too for allowing herself to be part of a big event like this in more than her usual ribbon-cutting sense. Only Queen Elizabeth, alone of all the elected and unelected leaders in the world, could retain her dignity after “parachuting” into the stadium alongside James Bond.
The athletes marched, as athletes tend to do on these nights, with Australian flagbearer Lauren Jackson looking radiant. Noted fashion expert Eddie McGuire said they looked “so retro yet so fresh and vital in their Sportscraft outfits”. By the way, would it kill the guy to learn to pronounce the letter ”L” in Austraya?
And then, the torch lighting. Seven teenage British athletes shared the job, and if you wanted to draw a long bow, you could easily have argued that organisers wanted to send the world a positive message about its youth after the London riots last year.
Maybe’s that reading too much into it. At any rate, the whole opening event was a riot in the positive sense of the word. The opening ceremony achieved precisely what opening ceremonies are supposed to do, which is to condense years of history into hours with the aid of papier maché and eager kiddies, and to whet the world’s appetite for the sporting feast ahead.
Even the weather stayed fine. This really was a kooky night.
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