By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com July 28, 2012 at 10:57AM
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.