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London Olympics 2012: Opening ceremony review

London Olympics 2012

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DANNY Boyle promised something for everyone at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olypmics in London and he duly delivered a three-hour show that sometimes had too much going on.

A visual tour-de-force befitting the man behind such films as Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and Sunshine, this was an opening ceremony that sought to inform and entertain, to reflect British history from the industrial revolution through to the digital one.

In doing so, it reflected change against adversity, a nation’s gradual move to multi-cultural diversity, endeavour and achievement, both technological and pop cultural.

There were countless references, some of which brought a laugh, others a cringe… and some of which genuinely moved. So, what worked and what didn’t?

The positives

The initial look of the green pastures and rolling hills may have resembled something out of Middle Earth but it provided a feast for the eyes as numerous scenes of classic British life – from cricket playing to Morris dancing, while sheep grazed – played out. It immediately set the tone for the scope of Boyle’s ambition.

Kenneth Branagh playing pioneering British civil and mechanical engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel brought a touch of class and dramatic gravitas as he read a stirring speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The sight of villagers and farmers rolling up the green turf as towering smokestacks sprouted from the ground around them made for an impressive spectacle, as well as lending the celebratory mood a darker undercurrent befitting a lot of the director’s cinematic work.

The cast of thousands of volunteers who took part, which leant the ceremony a personal, ‘of the people’ feel.

The tribute to the NHS and (in particular) Great Ormond Street Hospital, which was beautifully realised by hundreds of children in their pyjamas sitting atop brightly lit beds, while nurses – in classic uniform – tended to them… and Mike Oldfield playing Tubular Bells as a backdrop. Say what you will about the current state of the NHS, it has a proud history that is the envy of countless other nations.

The literary tribute, which first saw scary giant villains rising from the stage (from Cruella de Vil to Lord Voldemort) to terrorise children reading their books by torchlight from under their sheets, before being banished by a flock of swooping Mary Poppins. If that wasn’t thrilling enough as a visual spectacle, then JK Rowling, arguably the world’s most successful author, read from JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

A rousing version of Chariots of Fire, albeit with Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean character threatening to throw a spanner in the works.

The performance by The Arctic Monkeys, who belted out a rousing version of I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor and a cover of Come Together, the latter of which served as a back-up to the stunning scenes of a group of cyclists wearing illuminated wings to represent the doves at the early Olympics in ancient Greece.

The fireworks, which brought things to a grandstanding finale.

And, perhaps most memorably and in the true spirit of the games, the lighting of the Olympic torch itself… for rather than handing the honour to a single figure to light, Steve Redgrave (who carried it into the stadium after collecting it from David Beckham outside) passed it onto a group of young athletes who are in line for the next Olympics to perform the honour, thereby underlining the “Inspire a Generation” theme.

The negatives and not so greats…

The sheer scale of the spectacle meant that no one – from the thousands assembled inside the stadium to the billions watching on TV at home – could see ALL that was going on, particularly during the three parts labeled The Green and Pleasant Land, Pandemonium and Frankie and June Say Thanks to Tim. Sometimes, it was a beautiful chaos but you had to feel sorry for the cameramen trying to keep up or the performers, many of whose work probably went unnoticed.

The cost. At a rumoured £27 million, one would still have to work hard to justify the bill, especially at this time of economic instability and uncertainty. It seemed ironic that the last time the Olympics were held in Britain, in 1948, they were dubbed the austerity games. A little more austerity may have gone a long way to easing this current generation out of recession, without detracting from the reason everyone was really assembled: to see the athletes themselves, who had to wait for an hour and a quarter before making their entrance (and some of whom had to miss out due to sporting commitments early the next day).

If the first two segments of Boyle’s three-part drama were generally impressive, the last – Frankie and June Say Thanks to Tim – faltered as it attempted to tell the story of an average family and a teen romance. It felt cheesy, complete with pop culture references and an attempt to pay tribute to the films, TV and music that has inspired recent generations. While musical references included The Who, The Beatles and The Stones, there were equally notable absentees, such as Oasis, Elton John and Duran Duran (ironically playing live in Hyde Park to represent the sound of Britain). Why, too, did some of the screen images feature American cinema? Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody featured a Wayne’s World clip, while blink and you may have missed shots of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and others.

Did we really need Mr Bean to take a part in proceedings? And while the TV cameras obviously had a blast focusing on his humour (which included inadvertent sneezing and a fart joke), it did rather take the sheen off of the performers who did such great justice to the Vangelis’ classic theme to Chariots of Fire.

James Bond (aka Daniel Craig) at the Palace, featuring a cameo from Her Majesty The Queen, may have been a show-stopping moment for a lot of world viewers, but it was also one that wasn’t without a high cringe-inducing factor.

Paul McCartney singing Hey Jude…. sometimes you wonder if this country has no one else to turn to for key moments. Having already brought the Jubilee Concert to a rousing close, McCartney did it again for the opening ceremony. But why not give someone else a go? Elton John has plenty of crowd-pleasers in his arsenal… so do The Rolling Stones. But that’s just a personal criticism.

Overview

Overall, however, if millions has to be spent on an opening night party designed to ‘advertise Britain’ to the rest of the world, Boyle pulled off the duty in suitably stellar fashion.

The opening ceremony contained a nice sense of history, a touch of irreverence, a dark under-current and a celebratory, feel-good exuberance. It delivered the required spectacle and did more than enough to make a nation feel proud.

See what the rest of the critical world had to say

Related: Isles of Wonder – Music For The Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games now available to download