Triumph Of The Willing: The 2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony

Given that, over the past year, somebody has popped up on the BBC once every ten seconds to tell us “the wait is almost over,” it’s hard to believe that we have now emerged blinking on the other side, and finally put Danny Boyle’s Olympics Opening Ceremony behind us.

All the same, as the global TV audience struggles to digest the particular feast that was laid before it last night, it’s still too early to tackle what it was all supposed to mean. That’s best left to the conspiracy theorists of tomorrow: arguing whether Paul McCartney deliberately screwed up “Hey Jude” as one last, despairing gesture toward protest; debating if Kenneth Branagh really resembled a camp, evil Abe Lincoln robot more than anyone’s idea of Isambard Kingdom Brunel; and trying to work out if the clips they’re watching are even from the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, anyway, or David Bowie’s Glass Spider tour of 1987.

The BBC’s crack commentary team – Huw Edwards, Hazel Irvine and Trevor Nelson – dropped gnostic clues when they actually remembered to speak at all. “It’s got a whole lot to say about life in a particular part of the world…ours!” Irvine riddled, over images of a dancer pretending to send a text. But what exactly she meant by this remains obscure.

If it’s too soon to work out what it was all supposed to be about, however, it’s easy to pinpoint the image everyone will remember: The Queen, turning to say, “Good evening, Mr Bond,” in full knowledge that, any minute, a burly Queen stunt person would jump from a helicopter pretending to be her.

Even the most ardent republican could not have failed to be moved. In 60 years of duty, has she ever acted so selflessly? Rewind YouTube, watch her eyes. Not since diplomatic decorum required Her Majesty to lambada the length of the Strand with Nicolae Ceausescu has she kept calm and carried on quite so regally in the face of her own bewildered distaste. God save her, as Johnny Rotten was briefly heard to sing last night – before being gently switched off before he got to the next line, and that unpleasant business about the fascist regime that made you a moron.

By the time the Queen was freefalling through the London sky, tracked by the missile launchers perched atop the tower blocks nearby, it was impossible to keep Boyle’s train of thought in sight as it went careening off the rails. The point had long since been passed when it was as though the rival casts of The Lion King, Oliver!, Starlight Express and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had started waging war in the East End.

The appearance of 007 cheerily signalled the UK’s abiding love for state sponsored assassination, sure. But why was Evelyn Glennie dressed as Gandalf? Why was the Abe Lincoln robot talking about “twangling instruments?” What did that have to do with whatever The Beatles had to do with the Industrial Revolution and Windrush?

“This is definitely my kind of history lesson,” Nelson divulged, before disappearing for 40 minutes, only to wake again during “The Tribute To The NHS” to reveal, “My cousin’s in this scene.”

Nelson’s deep wisdom, however, was perhaps lost on that section of the audience trying to parse the multidimensional ironies of staging a tribute to the NHS while the service is having its legs cut from under it, as part of the £27 million opening ceremony to a sports event costing the country £10 billion. And scoring it to the theme from The Exorcist.

By this point, the evening had become weirdly compelling purely as an addled, schizophrenic, generally bonkers psychological self-portrait: nationhood as theme park. Still, anyone who has spent time in hospital recently will have appreciated the verisimilitude of the choreography, all those radioactive bedsheets, the consultants dancing forever just out of reach.

While Rowan Atkinson manfully stretched a single joke beyond human endurance to “Chariots Of Fire,” the tempo dropped toward flatline, and there came the chance to reflect. Above all, that it wasn’t always like this. Olympic opening ceremonies were once just that.

Of course, the Germans went for the big production in 1936. But until the late 1980s, this was generally a plain old affair. The focus was the athletes and their arrival, walking round the track, usually in daylight. It was only with Sydney and Seoul that it started getting strange, and Boyle, of course, has had the misfortune of having to follow Beijing, a spectacle that was uncomfortably like being trapped inside Tom Cruise’s eyeball.

Sure enough, when the athletes did at last emerge, their simple parade was the night’s most interesting and genuinely uplifting moment. Burundi, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Syria, Sudan. The wait is almost over. Even the commentators perked up. “He’s a big boy,” observed Hazel Irvine, in appreciation of Cuba’s flag-bearer. “The mound’s getting nice and full,” reflected Trevor Nelson. And only the churlish could argue.

Published in The Herald, July 28 2102