A double performing the role of Queen Elizabeth parachutes from the helicopter during the opening ceremony. (AFP)
• The man who wrote the script for the opening ceremony will not forget the most joyous, preposterous line he got to type. Frank Cottrell Boyce remembers: “We said to the Palace: ‘We can cut this quite cleverly or use a body double (for the pre-jump sequence) or whatever’. But they said: ‘No, she really wants to do it. It’s the first time she’s ever acted.’ So I had to write a script. I had to find out whether you put ‘The Queen’ or ‘Her Majesty’.” Then he typed his immortal line. “HER MAJESTY ... colon ... Good evening, Mr Bond.”
• The Daily Mail played on the James Bond theme to the hilt. The paper headlined: ‘The name’s Majesty, Her Majesty: Queen drops in to Olympic Stadium by parachute accompanied by James Bond (just WHO managed to persuade her to do that?)’
Britain has showed the rest of the world might can be light.
The hilariously quirky Olympic opening ceremony was a wild jumble of the celebratory and the fanciful; the conventional and the eccentric; and the frankly off-the-wall. The self-mocking spectacle helped Britain present itself as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.
The noisy, busy, witty, dizzying production somehow managed to feature a flock of sheep (plus a busy sheepdog), the Sex Pistols, Lord Voldemort, a suggestion that the Olympic rings were forged by British foundries during the Industrial Revolution, a group of people dressed like so many members of Sgt. Pepper’s band and some rustic hovels tended by rustic peasants.
Not to forget the paean to the National Health Service, a zany bunch of dancing nurses and bouncing sick children on huge hospital beds — an audacious slice that has already earned the ceremony a “leftie” label from a maverick Conservative MP. ( )
It is hard to imagine any other nation willing to make so much fun of itself on a global stage, in front of as many as a billion viewers. It takes nerve to look silly; the cheesy, kaleidoscopic history lesson that took Britain through its past was like a Bollywood version of a sixth-grade play.
Neither a nostalgic sweep through the past nor a bold vision of a brave new future, it was a sometimes slightly insane portrait of a country that has changed almost beyond measure since the last time it hosted the Games, in the grim post-war summer of 1948.
Britain was so poor then that it housed its athletes in old army barracks, made them bring their own towels and erected no buildings for the Games. The Olympics cost less than £750,000, turned a small profit and made the nation proud that it had managed to rise to the occasion in the face of such adversity.
There was that same sense of relief intermingled with self-satisfaction this time. But such was the grandeur of 2012, even in these tough economic times, that 80,000 people sat comfortably in a new Olympic Stadium, having travelled by sleek new bullet trains and special VIP road lanes to a new park that has completely transformed once-derelict east London.
The ceremony, conceived and directed by Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle, was two years in the making. Boyle explained that one of the reasons he agreed to direct the opening ceremony was that his late father was “an Olympics nut”. With poetic symmetry, it was also Frank Boyle’s birthday yesterday. He would have been 91 but he died 18 months ago.
A little rain fell, but it hardly mattered. The highlight for many will be Queen Elizabeth II’s appearance in a video. We see a tuxedoed James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, arrive at Buckingham Palace in a taxi. He strides purposefully through the corridors, past the corgis — one does a playful roll — and is ushered in by footmen into a large drawing room.
Who should be sitting at a desk attending to some documents but Her Majesty the Queen herself. Bond clears his throat.
“Good evening, Mr Bond,” says the real Her Majesty, as they leave together and climb into the helicopter. As the helicopter lifts off, it is also worth noting that the Queen is wearing a pale pink outfit.
Bond peers out of the window. Crowds cheer as the helicopter passes over familiar London landmarks — the royal personage can be seen waving from her window. As day turns to night, they are over the Olympic stadium when “Her Majesty” is seen tumbling out of the helicopter. A parachute opens. The BBC commentator, who is in on the act, notes this is an unusual royal arrival.
Cut to real time and the arrival of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh is announced inside the stadium. Boyle knows all about continuity. For, the Queen is wearing the same pink outfit she had on when she had met Bond in the sequence that had been filmed earlier.
As is the case almost every Olympics, much of the speculation around the ceremony centered on how Britain could possibly surpass the previous summer host, China. In 2008, Beijing used its awe-inspiring opening extravaganza to proclaim in no uncertain terms that it was here, it was rich, and the world better get used to it.
The Chinese government had so much to prove. The 2008 show was a paean to regimentation, discipline and collective self-effacement that was magnificent, awe-inspiring and unenviable.
But outdoing anyone else, particularly the new superpower China, was not the point for Britain that can never hope to re-create the glory days of its empire.
Britain confidently opted for a celebration of individuality, idiosyncrasy and even lunacy. Boyle favoured pop music, movies, make-believe and Britain’s top export commodity: celebrities. David Beckham, J. K. Rowling, Paul McCartney….
That the Olympics come at a time of deep economic malaise, with Britain teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession, made the scene a bit surreal, even defiant in the face of so much adversity.
Boyle said he did not want to seem extravagant, particularly in a time of economic trouble, as he was given the daunting task of trying to find a way for Britain to account for itself in this difficult moment in its long history. The country has always eagerly celebrated its past: its military victories, its kings and queens, its glorious cultural and intellectual achievements. But it has a harder time celebrating its present.
The opening ceremony was a tableau of national pride that studiously avoided bathos and easy excesses of patriotism. The ceremony seemed to suggest that the thing that is most British about the British is their anarchic spirit and their ability to laugh at themselves.
But bad taste is also a part of the British heritage. The imagery mixed the glory of a royal jubilee with the grottiness of a Manchester pub-crawl. Britain offered a display of humour and humbleness that can only stem from a deep-rooted sense of superiority.
When it comes to pick the winner, it is best to ask the rivals. French sports newspaper L’Equipe, wrote: “To offer a morsel of bravery with the bombastic music from the film Chariots of Fire, but to then turn it into humour thanks to Mr Bean; to show the Queen of England, as herself, but then to show her parachuting above the stadium…. The organisers of the London Games succeeded on Friday evening in creating enthusiasm with an opening ceremony that took the classic from such events and had fun with them.”
Over to China. Zhou Libo, a leading comedian, said: “2008 Beijing was solemn, 2012 London is humour. Solemnity and stateliness tells the world you are strong. Humour lets the world feel you are strong; it’s about confidence.”
Who knows how Britain will feel when the Olympics are over? But when the British athletes entered the stadium, they did so to a recording of David Bowie, a quintessential British oddity and supreme self-reinventer. “We can be heroes,” the song goes, “just for one day.”
Written with reports from Amit Roy in London, New York Times News Service, The Times, London, and The Daily Telegraph