Last night’s Olympics opening ceremony provoked some interesting comments on Twitter. Highlights include the Spectator journalist Harry Cole tweeting: “Not even communist China were so brazen as to extoll their nationalised stranglehold on their country so blatantly”. Meanwhile the Conservative MP Aidan Burley wrote: “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen – more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state! Welfare tribute next?” While other Tory MPs distanced themselves from their colleague, Burley followed up with this additional reflection: “Thank God the athletes have arrived! Now we can move on from leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones!”
Like most of us on Twitter that night, I too was contemplating the ways in which the Olympic Games have always balanced carnivalesque with depoliticised celebration – the creative spontaneity of the director alongside socio-political rituals binding both audience and performers, openly linked to citizenship. The opening ceremony of the Olympic games is always a commentary on the construction of community.
The ceremony can be an unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state. China’s version at the Biejing games in 2008 attempted a kind of direct indoctrination. Its regulated spectacle celebrated “shengshi” – the age of prosperity before 19th-century decline. Tellingly, it lacked any real idea of individual artistic merit. And yet in many ways it worked. While pro-Tibet sympathisers interrupted the journey of the Olympic torch in Europe and North America, the issue was quickly forgotten once the bombast of the opening ceremony took hold. Many misread China’s intentions as tending in a liberalising direction. But the 2008 Games marked the start of even tighter political control, exemplified by the fortunes of artist Ai Weiwei, one of the designers of the Bird’s Nest Stadium. “I don’t believe in the so-called Olympic spirit," he wrote in a recent Guardian article. “The state and the Olympic committee failed to take a position on many major social and political issues”
Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony last night surprised many. It was transgressive in parts, and avoided the kind of explicit constitutional praise that marked China’s Olympics. His paean to the NHS, the evocation of the chaotic upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, the inclusion of the suffragettes and the MV Empire Windrush – the ship that brought the first postwar West Indian immigrants to the UK – allowed some to accuse him of making a selective, left-wing reading of British history.
There was a charming incoherence, too, about Boyle's cultural mashup. I’m not sure how Kenneth Branagh, delivering Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s Tempest – “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises” – while at the same time dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, would have resonated abroad. The music meandered from the nostalgic pastoralism of Elgar through to Dizzee Rascal, by way of noisegaze artists Fuck Buttons.
But perhaps the beauty of Boyle’s creation lay precisely in its ambiguity. For this was a ceremony that attempted to show the British as a “self-analysing people” – a conscious decision after the spectacle of Beijing. Not everyone is convinced, though. More than 100 people were arrested outside the Olympic Stadium last night after a cyclists’ protest.