A rose-tinted green and pleasant land

1 August 2012

The London 2012 Opening Ceremony was a nostalgic, idealised vision of England, writes Professor Paul Giles. [Image: Flickr/Department for Culture, Media and Sport]
The London 2012 Opening Ceremony was a nostalgic, idealised vision of England, writes Professor Paul Giles. [Image: Flickr/Department for Culture, Media and Sport]

History is always written backwards, reinterpreting the past in accordance with the preoccupations of the present, but by any standards Danny Boyle's designation of 1709 as the turning point of British history in the Olympics opening ceremony offered his worldwide audience an idiosyncratic view of the nation's past.

"At some point in their histories," wrote Boyle in his program notes, "most nations experience a revolution that changes everything about them," and he nominated as Britain's first revolutionary figure Abraham Darby, said to be the first man to use coke to smelt iron in a blast furnace.

Boyle thus ushered in a redemption narrative whereby the industrial "Pandemonium" of the 19th century, replete with sooty chimneys and downtrodden workers, ultimately gave way to the happier technological revolution powered by the world wide web, whose creator, Tim Berners-Lee, duly appeared on stage surrounded by a banner proclaiming "This Is For Everyone." It thus became clear that Boyle had chosen the starting point of "dark satanic mills" to tell a story of national progress, buttressed intellectually by references to John Milton and William Blake, whose 1804 poem and popular anthem Jerusalem was positioned at the heart of this ceremony as a symbolic harbinger of what its artistic director called "real freedom" and "true equality". The railways and steamships invented by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, improbably impersonated here by Kenneth Branagh, were represented as a mere prelude to the utopian realm of contemporary teenagers making dates through Facebook and revelling in the millennial world of social networking on a Saturday night.

Dramatic spectacles purporting to symbolise the state of a nation have a distinguished cultural lineage, stretching back from the court masques of the 17th century through Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, contracted in 1749 to prop up King George II at the end of an unpopular war, to the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London's Crystal Palace as a demonstration to the world of Britain's new industrial prowess. Such productions always have a meretricious quality, since it is generally not difficult to see what is left out.

In Boyle's extravaganza, for example, the complicated religious dimensions of the British state, their troubled connections to Ireland and to the monarchy, did not attract so much as a glancing reference, nor was there any acknowledgment of Britain's relation either to Europe or the commonwealth. Instead, taking his cue from Shakespeare's Tempest, Boyle represented Britain as if it were a magic island in the middle of nowhere, with the reverence given to Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, also suggesting a regressive, escapist dimension. Apart from traditional tributes to the English countryside, there was also a touching faith in new technology as a vehicle of social inclusion and cohesion, a means of accommodating not only the deaf and blind but also the dead, who through their photographs were said to be "digitally present". This theme of universal communication was also exemplified by the way the athletes on parade appeared to be taking as many photographs as the audience, with everyone in this charmed circle seemingly intent on storing everyone else in their memory banks.

Many aspects of Boyle's montage were agreeably iconoclastic, but there was also an air of benign assimilation, as things once thought edgy or provocative became visibly incorporated as part of the establishment. John Lennon's 1969 song Come Together, with its sardonic allusions to simultaneous orgasm, was here refurbished by the Arctic Monkeys as a hymn to universal harmony, supported by men on bicycles wearing plastic wings. This opening ceremony was controversial among some Conservative politicians in Britain, both for its idealisation of the National Health Service and for what one member of parliament called its "multicultural crap," but given the generally eulogistic responses to the spectacle, few critics have been willing to put their head above the parapet. There is, though, general agreement that the sporting nature of the occasion was overshadowed by its symbolic valence, with one observer in Brazil suggesting the flag-and-athlete parade is a "bit old fashioned" and that it should be livened up for Rio in 2016, perhaps, so she suggested, by making it naked.

In general, though, there is still a genteel, retro feel to the Olympic Games. In his speech, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, even evoked the old public school ethic as he hailed Britain as the place where "concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were first codified" and where "sport was first included as an educational tool in the school curriculum". It might seem incongruous to align an idiom more characteristic of Victorian headmasters with the progressive emphasis of a multicultural embrace, but the underlying impulse in each case is the same: a pedagogic focus on sport as embodying shared social values and on the playing field itself as an allegory for the spirit of a nation.

Like the Great Exhibition opened by Queen Victoria in May 1851, Boyle's pageant presented a particular view of Britain to the wider world; also like the Great Exhibition, however, it formed a telling snapshot of the country at a particular moment in history. Despite all the pyrotechnics associated with Boyle's nostalgic, idealised vision of England's "green and pleasant land," it is difficult to imagine such a retrograde collective fantasy having much purchase in the years ahead.

Paul Giles is the Challis professor of English in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

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