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Review: Danny Boyle's Witty, Subversive & Spectacular Opening Ceremony For London 2012 Olympics Was A Triumph

by Oliver Lyttelton
July 28, 2012 10:57 AM
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We're not known for our love of sporting events here at The Playlist, but ever since it was announced that Danny Boyle would be the man in charge of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics (following in the footsteps of "Hero" director Zhang Yimou, who shepherded the Beijing events), we've been intrigued. After all, Boyle, as a recent Oscar winner for "Slumdog Millionaire," is a serious A-lister now, and could get any film he wanted made. And while he's kept his oar in, shooting thriller "Trance," with James McAvoy, last year (he'll finish post-production on it once the Olympics are done), it did mean giving over a year or so of his life to the event at a time when he's never had more cachet.

And Boyle had a particularly tough act to follow, given that the Beijing opening ceremony in 2008 was generally deemed to be the most spectacular ever, with 15,000 participants, and a budget of over $100 million. Could Boyle even hope to compete, with a quarter of the budget and a tenth of the volunteers, and make not only a home country that's not easily impressed happy, but also entertain a billion viewers around the world as well?

Yes, as it turns out. The director knocked it out of the park with a gloriously indiosyncratic spectacular that didn't try to beat Beijing at the same game, but instead emphasized a very British group of values that also felt like something from Boyle through and through.

We have to confess that we were going in expecting disaster. Boyle had unveiled his set a few weeks back, a pastoral mound that, as Jon Stewart described, looked like the Teletubbies inhabited it. And the warm up, featuring real livestock (12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, 70 sheep and three sheepdog), a ferris wheel and a period-dressed villagers, didn't inspire a huge amount of confidence; it looked, to be frank, like Hobbiton.

But if you were listening carefully to musician Frank Turner, who played his song "I Still Believe," you might have picked up a couple of hints of what Boyle was really intending. Two lines stand out. First, "come ye, come ye, to soulless corporate circus tops," the first suggestion of a subversive quality that would run throughout. And then the song's chorus, "Who'd have though that after all, something as simple as rock & roll would save us all."

We didn't have to wait long for the rock'n'roll; a video tour of Britain contained snippets of "London Calling" and the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen," boldly, and plenty more was to come. After Tour-De-France cyclist Bradley Wiggins rang the bell, Kenneth Branagh (a last minute replacement for stage star Mark Rylance, who pulled out after a family tragedy), as pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, complete with top hat and a non-PC cigar, emerged to read Caliban's speech from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," beginning "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises."

And suddenly, the huge tree atop the mount lifted up, and that pastoral landscape, which Boyle had cheekily suggested would be the setting for the whole show, was ripped up, as the industrial revolution got underway. Huge chimneys were erected and an enormous forge was revealed, just as suffragettes took to the field too, all to a thumping score by Boyle's "Trainspotting" colleagues Underworld. After a moment's pause for the dead of the two World Wars, symbolized by a single poppy, the drummers started up again, and a group in Sgt. Pepper jackets took to the field, along with a boat symbolizing the first West Indian immigrants to British shores, Chelsea pensioners and Cockney pearly kings and queens.

On the surface, it again felt Tolkien-inspired (the scouring of the Shire and all), but if anything, there was less ambivalence than you might expect; this was the glory of progress that came with technology, rather than a lamenting for an England that never was. Looking forward, rather than back, as it were -- if anything else, the biggest theme of the show. At the same time, there was something a little sinister about the whole thing, not least the marked, scarred appearance of the ground.

As one giant golden ring was forged and elevated, four others were flown in from across the stadium, and formed the Olympic symbol, which then poured sparks and fire over those watching. As one saw the close-up of the fire reflected in the goggles of a masked forger, one can only imagine that Boyle had a hand in the direction of the broadcast as well as its content; it was a highly filmic shot, and the cinematic quality carried across the show as a whole.

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  • Mario C.K. | August 1, 2012 10:49 AMReply

    The ceremony was really boring, with all those prerecorded videos (some of them a cheap version of the ones that appear in the Oscars night, others more suitable to the Eurovision Song Contest than to the Olympics), confusing content for non british viewers... I was expecting the show to be a memorable one but... what a dissapointment. Maybe it was due a low budget but twenty something million pounds doesn't seem cheap... Hope they do better at the closing one.

  • Fred Fudge | July 30, 2012 6:22 AMReply

    The smiley face wasn't an ecstacy reference. It's a child's face with a tear, and it's the logo of the Great Ormond Street Hospital (the acronym GOSH beneath it). A little research is always useful ... will help you out.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | July 30, 2012 7:00 AM

    I'm perfectly aware of both Great Ormond Street (it having saved the life of more than one person I know), and of its symbol. The smiley face was during the dance sequence, after the Six Pistols, set to New Order's Blue Monday. If you can watch it on iPlayer, it's at 1:02:42. Moral of the story: try and be confident in your own research before you condescendingly correct someone.

  • Impartial_Guy | July 30, 2012 5:56 AMReply

    What a loud of rubbish. Worst opening ceremony in living memory and totally crass, lacks artistic merit and amateurish like a poorly edited home video that would embarrass Harry Hill.

  • Impartial?? | July 30, 2012 10:34 AM

    You mean load of rubbish?

    All of you haters just have no sense of creativity, humour and British eccentricity.

  • sheila | July 30, 2012 3:48 AMReply

    Never have I seen a prouder time for Great britain. Danny Boyle produced a 'people pleaser' and a monumental display of Great Britain's part in the evolution of world - that will prove iifficult to match. He brought together mind, body and souls of peoples all over the world. All nations must have felt the warmth of that welcome. Even if they were oblivious to the tributes, -it was the rightly called 'The Greatest Show on Earth.' I don't know if he realises the influences he has shed upon old and young - yet! My mind went back to the war years and how a tiny island united to defeat a rebel that threatened our future. You showcased us a strong, formidable body of people to be reconned with. You did us proud Danny and from a people's perspective. Magic!

  • jingmei | July 30, 2012 2:32 AMReply

    I missed it. But learned Arctic Monkeys in that as well, have to makp up.

  • Brenda | July 29, 2012 11:26 PMReply

    That was horrible. When the commentator stated they actually put a sulfur smell in the air so it smelled like a factory - I just had to laugh. Man I can drive thru Gary and open my window and get a whiff - all that for free. But who would want to? China was a hard act to follow but in four years anything will top this fiasco.

  • Bollocks | July 30, 2012 10:43 AM

    Fiasco?? Really??
    You clearly wanted a spectacular yet soulless show just like Beijing, instead of one fused with humour, eccentricity, intelligence, and actually yes... Incredible spectacle as well!
    China could only do stunts and hire 10000 people to march completely and freakily in sync, because their cultural references weren't as far reaching as Britains'.
    What a dull critique.

  • Drew | July 29, 2012 10:33 AMReply

    Easily the Britishest thing Oli has ever written. Well done sir! I too loved it.

  • Todd | July 29, 2012 3:09 AMReply

    Sorry, I was dissapointed of this opening. I love some parts -James Bond sequence-, but I loathe others -The music references and the stupid reference of "love from a cell phone" look like a "hommage" of MTV. Again, maybe I'm biased, but I remember the beauty and resemblance from Athens and the colorful show of Barcelona and this didn't look memorable or beautiful for international audiences. Even i love more the Pan American Games' opening shows in Rio and Guadalajara.

  • Sure | July 30, 2012 10:48 AM

    The reason why the show was so quintessentially British was because only a country like GB (and the US) has so many cultural references that have actually reached and affected the entire world. That's what amazing - the fact that such a tiny island has so many internationally celebrated exports. Without the world wide web, you wouldn't be able to post your misjudged comment.

  • Lucy | July 28, 2012 8:39 PMReply

    I really enjoyed it. I loved the part where they took the meadow away and all those workers came out from the tree after Kenneth said the quote from The Tempest, the music was outstanding during that entire thing and I loved the rings. It kind of reminded me of the LOTR. The only thing I didn't like that much was the blow up Voldemort, Hook, and the creepy baby during the hospital part. The creepy baby was well just creepy. I loved seeing JK Rowling though. :)

  • Stevo the Magnificent | July 29, 2012 12:58 AM

    Only in modern and morally bankrupt Great Britain could a young boy in a dress, scenes of transvestites, lesbian kisses, and a ten-minute ode to socialized healthcare (which has killed more people than it's saved) be considered relevant for the Olympics opening ceremony, sad indeed...

  • Glass | July 28, 2012 5:12 PMReply

    I loved it, but there's a total divide I see with Brits and the rest of the world - for the most part, British people were jizzing their pants over it, but the rest of the world was pretty much saying 'meh.' or 'wat.' And Danny Boyle's twitter went from 6,000 followers to 111,000 in one night.

  • Sexton Blake | July 29, 2012 8:37 AM

    Morally bankrupt? Scenes of a young boy in a dress, tranvestites, lesbian kisses and the ten-minute ode to our wonderful socialised healthcare show that we are a modern, moral people - unlike the Biblicist gay/women/anyone nom-white hating flat earthers so prevalent in certain American states.

  • pudding | July 28, 2012 7:50 PM

    Looking at his Twitter I'm getting the vibe thats not him tweeting. Some of the earlier tweets are quotes from random interviews. Also as recently as yesterday, he was 'following' genuine accounts like Rosario Dawson and Zack Snyder, but not anymore...

  • Brett | July 28, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    So, the Playlist, a blog that likes to think it focuses on music and movies totally neglected to mention Paul McCartney closing the ceremony? Arctic Monkeys get a mention for covering a Beatles song, but when an actual member of the original group sings "Hey Jude" we totally miss it. Wow.

  • Nolan | July 28, 2012 5:05 PM

    maybe because, I don't know, McCartney sounded awful.

  • jessie | July 28, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    A spectacularly messy, fun, overview of the 20th century. The Olympics don't need reverential
    treatment, they represent humanity at their worst and their best. Danny Boyle, crowd handler
    extraordinaire, did the job! What's next? Can't wait to see...

  • Michael | July 28, 2012 3:34 PMReply

    I thought it was awful. I actually did enjoy the post-apocalyptic industrial nightmare part of it, but the Bond/Queen sequence and the Mr. Bean parts were the absolute worst. I also did not enjoy the silly text message dance sequence. I'm not a Boyle fan so I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but the whole thing looked like something Mr. G from Summer Heights High would have staged.

  • Jenny | July 29, 2012 1:58 AM

    Your Mr. G comment was awesome - nice one.

  • Nanda | July 28, 2012 3:02 PMReply

    It was fantastic... Visually stunning. I love every moment and so did my family and friends. We enjoyed all the English cultural references and were so impress with how imaginative the show was. After all is taking place there so it fitted it perfectly. Unique and entertaining.. Yes, very memorable and lovely indeed.

  • Real | July 28, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    It was phenomenal. It wasn't perfectly synchronised and sanitised but it was beautiful, memorable, imaginative, fun and we had the best damn music of any Olympics ceremony EVER especially that incredible Underworld/Dame Evelyn Glennie piece during the fantastic Industrial Revolution and forging of the rings sequence.

    It was so British and I'm sure half the world were scratching their heads at various references-still can't quite believe we got a clip from underapprecaited 'Desmond's', the infamous Brookside lesbian kiss or the "Going for an English" skit fromGGM to name but a few!-but I loved it. Danny Boyle and all involved especially the thousands upon thousands of volunteers did us proud.

    But BBC please sort your camera angles out. We missed out on a lot of the incredible visuls becasue of some bizarre camera choices.

  • Alonso | July 28, 2012 1:06 PMReply

    Can't believe the motherfucking DOCTOR wasn't involved in the show somehow. Hell, even the Tardis would have worked somewhere in all that.

  • Helen | July 30, 2012 6:08 AM

    @ Alonso

    The tardis was featured.

    You obviously weren't paying attention...

  • Silk | July 28, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    It was awfull... A terrible opening! Without history and honnor!

  • Bigjok | July 28, 2012 4:12 PM

    Pray tell what's this honnor you speak off

  • BigBelly | July 28, 2012 12:45 PMReply

    During the Industrial part: Where were the dying children who worked the factories? Why weren't dead children actors carried out of the stadium? Where were the men who died young from work-related illness, who left their wives and children penniless without homes? Where was the artistic expression for the vast air and water pollution that still surrounds Great Britain. No wonder they needed to show their children's health system. Danny Boyle: this was a career killer.

  • Lincoln | July 28, 2012 11:47 AMReply

    Also, anyone want to bet it will be SIR Danny Boyle by the end of the year?

  • Tom | July 28, 2012 11:31 AMReply

    "Triumph"? God, you're so pretentious. Who calls things "a triumph" in the real world? It was like watching a bad Lord of the Rings trilogy stage play. I cringed and felt embarrassed for the Brits all night. I don't know what was worst -- Paul McCarthy's scratchy, terrible singing at the end, or the inclusion of their silly Queen. God God, UK, grow up and join the rest of the 21st century, will ya?

  • Ha | July 30, 2012 10:57 AM

    Join the 21st century?? And what invent something like the world wide web that has enabled you to publish your immature and pathetic ramblings?? Oh that's right we did. And not to mention entertain you with our explosion of culture in literature, film and music.

  • TonyC | July 28, 2012 5:40 PM

    @TOM 11:31 If growing up means we have to be in the same place as you, we'll stay where we are thanks. So proud of what Danny Boyle delivered. No need to feel embarrassed for the Brits, as it seems like we're pretty happy.

  • Lincoln | July 28, 2012 12:01 PM

    Don't let the Brits hear you calling the Queen silly.

    Also, on trying to decide what country is silly, need I remind you that about half of the United States is considering voting for a man who put (ridiculously overchinned) caricatures of his face on pins when he "saved" the Olympics?

  • Soren | July 28, 2012 11:53 AM

    Yes, how dare they include their national icons? And don’t use words like “triumph”! You should have said “cool”. There’s no two-letter /f/ sound in “cool”. Pretentious “ph” and all its madness! Damn if I don’t really know what the word “triumph” is making a pretence to, of course. Harumph-harumph-bugger-grumph!

  • Chris | July 28, 2012 11:52 AM

    Life must be difficult for you.

  • Lincoln | July 28, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    Has anyone been able to confirm whether that was indeed The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding as the Childsnatcher?

  • Sexton Blake | July 28, 2012 11:11 AMReply

    Take that, Mr Romney!

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