Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder was – as well as being, well, wonderful – truly a ‘Kennedy moment’. With a UK television audience peaking at 26.9 million and hundreds of millions more viewers right around the globe, its almost unqualified success as sporting curtain-raiser, artistic spectacle and cultural snapshot means that we will all remember the circumstances in which we watched it. Me? I was in a caravan in Fishguard.
What, precisely, we will remember is a moot point. Such was Boyle’s enormous breadth of vision – this was part of the beauty; for all but the most churlish, there really was something for everyone – that it is easy now, even at just half a year’s remove, to forget entire sections of the marathon broadcast. I can remember precisely the moment when my family made a collective decision to turn in to our berths. Like much of the rest of the nation, it was when McCartney murdered one of his own finest moments. But hey, if anyone has the right to sing ‘Hey Jude’ embarrassingly badly, it’s Sir Paul; it’s not as if the rest of us have never done it. And by then, it was nearly one o’clock in the morning; as I recall Isles of Wonder had more than captivated a nation, it had won over the world.
Personally, my favourite moment was during the Frankie and June say… thanks Tim section, when the multicultural melange of dancers formed the shape of the symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. There had already been celebrations of what from an Establishment standpoint might be considered an ‘alternative history of Britain’ (and therefore, from the people’s perspective, simply the history of Britain). The suffragettes, the Jarrow marchers, the arrival of the Empire Windrush had all featured, celebrations of Britain’s women, working classes and ethnic minorities. Conservative MP Aiden Burley infamously tweeted that it was ‘leftie multicultural crap’, a statement I was not aware of until the following day and in which I took a great deal of strangely perverse pleasure. ‘Bring back the red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones,’ he had continued, as if, of all people, Keith Richards and The Bard of Avon would leap to the defence of an arch-reactionary out of step with almost the whole of the rest of the country.
There was no denying, of course, that in telling a story of Britain to which we could all relate – the Queen and the Sex Pistols, Dizzee Rascal and ‘The Archers’, ‘Abide With Me’ and the lesbian kiss from Brookside – Boyle had crafted something that was inherently egalitarian and inclusive, but that was precisely the point. Even David Cameron dismissed the naysayers out of hand, for this was a ceremony aimed at David Cameron the Smiths fan, not David Cameron the systematic destroyer of public services. Because the Prime Minister is a human being, as is – contrary to what the Pistols would have you believe – the Queen. Danny Boyle proved that too. I am no monarchist, but I’ll be honest with you, Mrs Windsor went up in my estimation when she jumped out of that helicopter.
a story of Britain to which we could all relate – the Queen and the Sex Pistols, Dizzee Rascal and ‘The Archers’, ‘Abide With Me’ and the lesbian kiss from Brookside
There was, of course, a barb for the PM in the section devoted to the celebration of the National Health Service. And why not? If you’re given £27m to produce a gigantic advert for the nation, you might as well celebrate what’s good about it. A bizarre concoction of children’s literature fantasy – another Great British institution – widescreen, epic theatre, and what most people know as the theme music to The Exorcist, ‘Second to the right, and straight on till morning’ was both a paean to the role of nurses in society and one in the eye for anyone who thinks universal healthcare is a step on the road to the Soviet Union. God knows what they made of it in the anti-Obamacare Republican heartlands of America.
The only disappointment for me was that the spectacle of trampolining sick children was not followed by any references to schools. Whilst the NHS, and nurses in particular, remain, rightly, almost sacrosanct – holy cows of British pride – teachers and the state education system retain a position as fair game for criticism and a convenient doorstep on which to leave most of society’s ills. Isles of Wonder would have been a good platform to celebrate the hard work of many public servants, but particularly the people to whom we entrust our children’s well-being as well as academic, social, personal and moral development. An inspirational English teacher could have read Caliban’s ‘Be not afeared’ speech, rather than, bizarrely, Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
There were dull moments too – Mr Bean is alright, but did such a stage really warrant Rowan Atkinson detracting attention from the London Symphony Orchestra for a full five minute interlude – and depending on your age and set of cultural references, much of the ceremony was utterly baffling. That, of course, was part of the fun for a British audience, having a chuckle about what Johnny Foreigner would be making of Frankie and June or Michael Fish failing to predict the 1987 hurricane. When a globally renowned figure did turn up, in the form of David Beckham cruising down the Thames with a smug grin on his face, you almost expected Alan Hansen to pop up and say, ‘You’ll never light anything with kids.’
What ultimately made the ceremony an unqualified global success – Boyle’s reinvention of what an opening ceremony is, what it can be, what it can do, met with almost universal praise across the world – was the universal leveller of music. As the less successful, less admired closing ceremony also showed (to a lesser extent), if there is one place where Britannia still rules, it is in popular music, although, admittedly – Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal aside – there was little truly contemporary music on show. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones both celebrated half-centuries this year, and it was they who provided the ubiquitous touchstones for the evening. Even the Arctic Monkeys covered ‘Come Together’.
Boyle’s wonderland – with its Glastonbury Tor, its rings forged in fire and even its romanticised agrarians – was a welcome fillip for a nation that had forgotten what it had to really be proud about
And in a year when in most other areas – politics, the economy and the media, and even culture, sport and the arts – it seemed that life in Britain was getting worse not better, more fractured and disparate, frantic and distorted, Boyle’s wonderland – with its Glastonbury Tor, its rings forged in fire and even its romanticised agrarians – was a welcome fillip for a nation that had forgotten what it had to really be proud about. Yes, there was Wiggo, Jessica and Mo, but there was also that coming together, that cheeky ‘Ban the Bomb’ – and a lot of laughter in that caravan in Fishguard.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis