Imagine the culture war the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony would unleash now | Charlotte Higgin
Iit still makes me cry. Especially, perhaps, the very first moments, before it really began, when skeins of wispy blue cloth rippled over the excited crowd to the sound of Nimrod’s Enigma Variations – Elgar in his truest, melancholy state. Thinking about it now, it really was the music of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics 10 years ago today, which was at the heart of Danny Boyle’s brilliant and bonkers production. He went all the way from Handel to Hey Jude, to David Bowie and Dizzee Rascal. There was a boy soprano singing Jerusalem. There were the Sex Pistols. It was by turns boastful, ecstatic, angry, cheeky and thoughtful, setting the tone for everything. Incredibly skillfully performed, the ceremony was, at the same time, delightfully anarchic.
I wrote at the time that the ceremony had forged a new mythology for Britain. It did: it was a national story that managed to weave together the NHS and the industrial revolution, the maypoles and Windrush, the suffragettes and cricket, Fawlty Towers and Blake, The Tempest and punk. It was (for me) thankfully low on military glory, but it didn’t fail to include the Red Arrows and Winston Churchill: his statue in Parliament Square was seen waving his cane at James Bond and the Queen by Daniel Craig while apparently in a helicopter from Buckingham Palace before parachuting into the stadium.
It was a mythology that capitalized on benign national stereotypes: it didn’t take itself too seriously, back in the days before Boris Johnson ruined himself by not taking himself too seriously. It focused on what Britons can be proud of (pop music, the invention of the web, universal health and children’s literature). It felt inclusive, although putting together the UK of it all by way of Danny Boy and Flower of Scotland and Cwm Rhondda was a bit contrived.
Yeah, well. Remember how everyone laughed at a Tory MP called Aidan Burley for tweeting that it was ‘left-wing multicultural shit’ (a man who was sacked as a ministerial aide for attending at a Nazi-themed bachelor party)? It was as if he completely misread the mood of the audience. From 2022’s perspective, however, he feels like a time traveler from the future. I have no doubt that if the ceremony were to take place now, the agitators would be everywhere in the same vein, not to mention the theme of cricket and the Dambusters and Chelsea pensioners, the obviously cautious attempts to be encyclopaedic.
It is often said (and I guess I said it myself) that what Britain needs now is a post-imperial narrative as confident as that of the opening ceremony of the Olympics in 2012. But it’s all too easy to dismiss this era as antediluvian: as a golden moment before the traumas of the Scottish referendums and Brexit; before JK Rowling (who read Peter Pan that night) became divisive; before the Conservatives’ right turn.
But Britain was already well into the fracking process. In an interview in early summer 2012, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, announced her desire to create “a really hostile environment for illegal migration” – the same “hostile environment” that would target the Windrush families honored at the opening ceremony; the same hostile environment that flowered grotesquely in the Rwanda deportation plan. Above all, the financial crisis had triggered profound changes in British society. Inequalities, and especially generational inequalities, were widening. The stage was set for the rise of identity politics, which sharpen when there is less economically to do.
The opening ceremony of the Olympics was seductive. He chose a tricky path through a thicket to present a heartwarming narrative that is somehow funny and true, but at the same time golden and polished and intensely selective. To create a myth is to tell a story that may contain a deep truth, but it is also, often, to remove elements that threaten the good development of the story.
An ancient Greek myth told in Aeschylus’ Oresteia illustrates this process in a beautiful, literal and dramatic way. It’s a story about how a series of seemingly endless revenge family murders are finally solved through a reasoned judicial process, providing a moving origin story for Athenian democracy. The Furies, the terrifying female deities who pursue those who kill their family members, argued that Orestes, who is in the dock, should be punished for the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra. But the goddess Athena, who holds the casting vote in the trial, accepts the outrageous patriarchal argument that Orestes didn’t really kill a family member, since mothers are just vessels, not parents, for their children. babies: Orestes is acquitted and the tit-for-tat killing pattern comes to an end. To deal with the Furies’ rage, Athena transforms them into “Gentiles” and they are safely contained under the Areopagus hill of Athens. Symbolically, then, the matriarchal order is crushed. But they are still there in the story, like the sullen unconscious of the city.
Myth, ultimately, cannot quite eradicate them; and maybe he doesn’t want to. The same goes for the 2012 Opening Ceremony, if you choose to read it in relation to itself. “The island is full of noises”, as Kenneth Branagh told us that evening: but just like in The Tempest, a play that foreshadows the anxieties of the empire, all these sounds are not insignificant, and many them are scary.
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