The 2012 Olympic Games Open with Lots of Bangs—and a Whimper

Danny Boyle's spectacle was weird in places, patchy, a bit preachy sometimes—but the wobbles made the watching even more compelling.

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Dylan Martinez / Reuters

Fireworks explode over the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games July 27, 2012.

Oh Danny Boyle. The Slumdog Millionaire director’s opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics started with such verve and promise. There were fireworks! There were sheep! There were geese! There was electricity in the stadium, not just the kind generated by 80,000 people in a state of excited anticipation but also a clever arrangement of LED panels at every seat that sent pulses of color across the stands. Rustic folk strolled beneath fluffy cumuli and disported themselves in a vision of the green and pleasant Britain celebrated in verse by William Blake at the beginning of the 19th century, as the industrial revolution gathered steam. By 1916, when Sir Hubert Parry set the poem to music, creating the greatest of all anthems, “Jerusalem,” ever more Britons lived in cities and worked in factories; world war would soon further threaten Blake’s idyll. Boyle’s history appeared to cast industrialists as the greater danger, though the program notes made clear that the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh, should be regarded as a hero. Great chimneys sprouted from the stadium floor and the once carefree yokels were transformed into drudges. It was powerful and surprisingly scary for an event that at previous Games has dazzled but never daunted. “This is ****ing terrifying!! i want my mummy,” tweeted the British critic and journalist Giles Coren.

(INTERACTIVE PANORAMARe-live the Opening Ceremony)

 And it got better, at least if what you wanted from London 2012 wasn’t a poor man’s Beijing or an updated Sydney, all spectacle and not much substance. In the segment entitled “Happy and Glorious,” Boyle served up great dollops of the quirky humor that sustains his compatriots. A filmed sequence showed James Bond, in his current, Daniel Craig-shaped iteration, on a mission to Buckingham Palace. He is greeted by a pair of corgis and then by the Queen, “in her first acting role,” according to the Olympics organizers though she’s arguably been performing as the Queen since 1952. They board a helicopter and fly to the Olympic Park, and in a coup de théâtre, a real helicopter materialized above the stadium, and 007 and Q (or their stunt doubles) parachuted to the ground. And Her Majesty, in the same fetching apricot-colored gown she wore for the filmed sequence, took her seat in the box.

(PHOTOS: Highlights From the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony)

The VIP tiers were already well stocked with royals and more than 80 heads of state and would-be heads of state. Three former British Prime Ministers, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, bookended the current Prime Minister David Cameron, and the opposition leader Ed Miliband. Michelle Obama represented the United States; Mitt Romney represented the ambition to do so in the future.

Whether the next sequence impacted his views on the benefits of universal, taxpayer-funded healthcare remains to be seen. The arena filled with dancing nurses and doctors pushing beds occupied by young patients, to symbolize Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). Initially jolly, this scene too turned dark, as nightmare figures from children’s literature multiplied until a phalanx of Mary Poppinses chased them away. After the show, still in costume, four of the “nurses” told TIME that they were real-life medics, who had gladly joined Boyle’s show in the hopes of chasing away nightmares of their own. “The NHS is a huge part of British history,” said Nadia Gildeh, a junior doctor. “It’s a significant part of what we are.” She hoped Boyle’s tribute would help persuade Prime Minister Cameron to preserve the NHS. “Hands off the NHS!” agreed Hilary Sharpe, a transplant nurse. “We love the NHS.”

The audience in the stadium loved the NHS too, or at least its musical version. In fact, they had loved the whole show up to that point. It was weird in places, patchy, a bit preachy sometimes. But as with so many top British sports stars, the wobbles made the watching even more compelling. Like Andy Murray at Wimbledon, Boyle had the crowd believing he could win, willing him to win. And like Murray at Wimbledon, he showed flashes of genius but just couldn’t sustain it. You knew he had lost when British creativity was represented in a montage of clips of music and film and TV and a meandering narrative about young folk texting before putting down their smart phones just long enough to kiss.

(MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch)

Britain is creative, prodigiously so. The clips showcased some of the things the nation does brilliantly: subverting genres, inventing new ones, and always, always laughing at itself. Mr Bean made an appearance, though not, as suggested by this author in a 2008 piece, as the carrier of the Olympic flame. That honor was given to seven young athletes, who lit a wonderfully, crazily deconstructed cauldron dreamed up by British designer Thomas Heatherwick.

But Boyle couldn’t overcome two fundamental problems. Britain is good at the sort of solemn pageantry surrounding royal occasions. It’s less good at solemnity without a traditional framework. It’s hard to disagree with Boyle’s messaging—for example about the dangers of unfettered capitalism and about how generations of immigrants have enriched and renewed Britain and about the value of the NHS—but it was clunky and worthy.

That’s because the other banana skin is the idea that last 100 years of British history, with its loss and confusion as well as its triumphs and achievements, lends itself to the lobotomized format of an Olympics opening ceremony. Monty Python might have done it à la Life of Brian, but the Olympic powers would never have approved. So we got something that almost worked, and captivated in parts. And that is as true a reflection of Britain as it’s possible to imagine.

MORE: The Worst Ever Opening Ceremonies

35 comments
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SeanLim
SeanLim

I think London did a good job with the Olympics opening ceremony! I especially loved the industrial revolution part w the forged rings, a throwback to it's recent past just 170 years ago.

Unfortunately I think the author is ignorant about the hidden meanings and symbolism behind the Beijing ceremony, with it's allusions to it's 3600 archeologically verifiable language still in use today, to the poetry and songs that were composed from 1300 years ago (approx the period when the Romans already recently left Brittania and Charlemagne came to power in mainland Europe) to the Confucian scholars and their recitations that originate in the Spring Autumn period of 400 BC (think Roman Kingdom, before it became a republic).

This is not a comparison between the UK and China at least but it's just to say that the ignorance and deficiency in chinese knowledge is extremely glaring and embarrassing. Britain has a great history with one great rise (demonstrating its industrial might by creating weapons of war that defeated china (the term gunboat diplomacy was born here) perhaps with many atrocities but some of the actions of the current generation has partly redeemed themselves and restored their people's honor albeit much shame still remain inthe form of stolen/looted artifacts seen in the British History Museum and the Vamp;A museum; in addition to its failure to apologise and compensate for its atrocities in the Opium Wars amongst others.) and one great fall (see emergence of USA as the superpower.) China too has had 4 great rises and 4 great falls all while preserving it's cultural, linguistic and administrative systems through all 4 millennia. Both china and the UK are similar and yet unique. And as human beings, as educated members of society, we should try to appreciate the cultural context in which other cultures present themselves. I am myself Chinese and I have understood the essence of Western language and philosophies, and it's strengths, motivations and of course weaknesses haha. It is good to learn about the Chinese too as the famous Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (300BC) says: 'know your enemy and know yourself, and you will always be victorious'. At the same time bear in mind also the works of Confucius which proclaims that 'all across the 4 seas (ie everyone lol) are my brothers.' Universal brotherhood is an enviable ambition that can be attained through greater understanding, not ignorance. The consequence otherwise can be catastrophic, as the Chinese do not subscribe to western ideas of 'restricted' warfare when all doctrines since the Warring states era of 400BC have all advocated unlimited warfare, with the use of ALL weapons and means available to achieve victory. What that means exactly, I leave to your imagination. But let's hope we do not get there and start investing in a relationship to bridge the two cultures before it's too late.

Again kudos to London. Your quirky side and rich history these past 800 years have been extremely entertaining and instructive. Let me know what you guys think!

Andy Spracklen
Andy Spracklen

I would have expected far better and far more positive of Time. Disappointing, out-of-step review.

Louise_SA
Louise_SA

Oh Dear, it seems you've really missed the point - it was FUNNY - the British national sport is laughing at themselves, and even the Queen was in on joke this time.  I loved the whole thing.  Maybe if you missed British pop music from 1980-on you didn't enjoy the "house" scene (yes, that was another joke people), but overall it was quirky, interesting, well-acted and fun.  And the cauldron is fantastic.  Well done London!

Caroline Hamilton
Caroline Hamilton

There's something off here in the references "the green and pleasant Britain celebrated by William Blake" and  to "Blake's idyll." Blake didn't just write "Jerusalem"; his grim poem "London" is equally famous:   

London

BY WILLIAM BLAKEI wander thro' each charter'd street,Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,And mark in every face I meetMarks of weakness, marks of woe.In every cry of every Man,In every Infant's cry of fear,In every voice, in every ban,The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.How the Chimney-sweeper's cryEvery black'ning Church appalls;And the hapless Soldier's sighRuns in blood down Palace walls.But most thro' midnight streets I hearHow the youthful Harlot's curseBlasts the new born Infant's tear,And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/...

mrslibrarylady
mrslibrarylady

Totally eccentric, and typical British nuttiness. I loved it!

Some bits were a bit too weird, but great overall.

The lighting of the Olympic Flames and the petals rising into the air was the most fantastic part of the whole thing.

NicNiewart
NicNiewart

Yes a bit preachy/leftie/multi-culti and all that, but quite well done. However, this was harking back to Britain's past glories.Yes they invented steam travel, cheap steel, industrial revolution, football, rugby, cricket, the NHS etc etc. And apart from Tim Berners Lee contribution to the internet, done nothing since.

Creatively, the music is still there, the movies, Harry Potter. Trouble is, there is no engineering any more, the Mini is owned and made by Germans,as is Bentley etc. The story stopped when Britain was great.  There was a flash in the 1960's with trendy Austin Powers people. But take a look at the transport system now. The worst trains in Europe, certainly the most expensive per mile, and all privately run by robber baron cretins (one director of which boasts on his own wikipedia site that he managed to buy a house in the south of France out of the deals). The most congested roads. (witness the chaos during the Olympics with the special lanes). The worst airports (and the worst run by both government incompetence and the private sector). What is good about Britain is what WAS good- and that ended in say,1914. Now I cannot point to one thing and say Yes: the XXX made in Britain is brilliant. Not one thing. And that's where Danny Boyle and I agree. There was nothing better than one of the Beatles to end the night. At least we didn't get "Tailor Tam and Sailor Sam and the county judge who bore a grudge, cos he didn't get any fudge" usual McCartney lyrics.

luvhistory
luvhistory

 Tell me you are younger than 14 and not an American. Or this is a joke.

"Worst trains in Europe"? Don't travel much, do you? Places like, say, Eastern Europe?

"And apart from Tim Berners Lee contribution to the internet, done nothing since." One can argue, all communications since (sic).

"What is good about Britain is what WAS good- and that ended in say,1914."  Thus eliminating Berners-Lee and the WWW, Winston Churchill, the RAF and WWII, the BBC, the Beatles, Monty Python, Harry Potter, penicillin, numerous Nobel winners including those who discovered the structure of DNA, and more cultural touchstones than your IQ.

Ragglock
Ragglock

even Eastern Europe have better train services than the us afraid to say

Tomasz Pelczar
Tomasz Pelczar

Fantastic ceremony, the ultimate place, weather had made pleasure and more of fun, old Greeks and Pierre de Cubertin would have been happy about this right now, I am sure about this ... Sport is ruled by specific rules, same good people are competiting and winning is very often the special, 1% different natural better stamina within the common less or more then minute, all of them had already won and deserve respect plus appreciation ...

pj3333
pj3333

Were we watching the same ceremony?  Oh wait, no, we weren't because instead of the idiotic coverage provided by NBC, I watched a BBC live feed.   Maybe it was NBC's constant commercial breaks destroying the flow and cutting elements of the show combined with the inane tone-deaf commentary running over the text being broadcast inside the stadium that made the ceremony seem patchy and uneven.  My 11 yr old was certainly capable of following the ceremony, Ms Mayer, and we found it to be whimsical, entertaining, and at times very moving.  What a pity NBC butchered it so.

Kaddrius
Kaddrius

So this is the tripe that the Time Europe Editor gets away with?

 

I think it's cute that any American who thinks she can write also thinks she is qualified to comment on any other culture.

Adam J. Bezark
Adam J. Bezark

Ms. Mayer has lived in England for almost 40 years. How old are you?

Kaddrius
Kaddrius

Well north of 40.

And your statement just makes it sad then, that one can be surrounded by a culture and still understand nothing.

NatalieAlbright
NatalieAlbright

It's also lame how the writer refers to herself as "this writer" when linking to her own piece about the 2008 Olympics. 

Alex Cotman
Alex Cotman

I'm sorry, but I found the Opening Ceremonies quite boring. The highlight imo was the industrial age bit, after that everything began going downhill and completely lost my interest. Now to wait and see what Rio brings us (most likely vibrant colors) in 2016 for their Opening Ceremonies. 

bob3905
bob3905

"Compelling"? Not for everyone. My wife complained it was "stupid", boring" and other more colorful adjectives before falling asleep. I pretty much agreed with her.

Truelitistnot
Truelitistnot

Everything seemed fine.  The only thing I would have left out was the Queen and the Royals... bloodsucking parasites... but Danny Boyle has no choice there I suppose.

timelines
timelines

OK Mitt, how much did you pay Catherine mayer to pen this article

timelines
timelines

Did Mitt Romney have a hand in this article?

Coty Beavers
Coty Beavers

Thats pretty lame you tweet about your own story.

Dora Franco de Caballero
Dora Franco de Caballero

Come on, give credit where it is due. Stop the ¨all feather and no meat¨ approach that most USA use to judge whatever doesn´t come from themselves. We ought to recognize other cultures, too. The opening ceremony was all that could be expected from the marvelous British culture. Long live the United Kingdom and its unparallel legacy to humankind.

Angela Conlin
Angela Conlin

Top 10+ things NBC screwed up

10. Repeated derision and backhand compliments of any country not named the United States

9. The repeated reliance on mentioning how war-torn various nations are or have been instead of mentioning their athletes

8.

Commenting on North Korea by mocking Kim Jong-Il's alleged

11-holes-in-one golf game after they have already caused a delay in

competition after percieved political slights

7. Four-hour tape delay in the social-media era

6. Spoiling the cauldron lighting

5. Inserting Idi Amin into conversation as Uganda was marching

4. Speculating that the Maldives can fight rising sea levels by winning medals

3. Giving zero camera time to Barbados and Ukraine

2. Cutting of the athletes', coaches' and judges' oaths

1. Cutting of the London bombing memorial segment for a Michael Phelps interview

Dishonorable mentions:

* Referring to San Marino as "sort of an island"

* Going to commercial in the middle of a segment

*Stated speculation that Greece will never host the Olympics again

*Referring to Borat as Kazakhstan marched

*Making the Djibouti joke during a major world cultural event

*Spoiling the industrial-era and National Health Service segments right as they were beginning

*Making a big deal over the lack of a minute of silence for the victims of Munich

*Repeated mangling of countries' names

*Making reference to the Falklands War as Argentina marched

*24 commercial breaks

PS Smith
PS Smith

I believe that most of these gaffs and inanities could

probably be traced to the involvement of Bob Costas who has a very long record

of wanting to be a “really important journalist” (quotes fully intended) and

never getting over the fact that his handlers/employers wanted him to broadcast

sports.

Terskac
Terskac

Don't forget Merideth Viera's " Those kids don't looks sick to me!" gaff. Disgusting. 

mwdavis
mwdavis

Review is a bit lame.  It was a fine opening ceremony, with a distinctly British character.  If all the opening ceremonies are just dazzle and glitz, what's the point of having the Olympics in different cities?  The uniquely British flavor and character combined with an emphasis on children and national accomplishment were what made it worth watching.

Otherwise just have fireworks and a rock star.  Like the tired old SuperBowl.

J Ack Bauer
J Ack Bauer

So your national accomplishment is you can have children?

Regen Gregg
Regen Gregg

Our national accomplishment was not the children, it was what they stood for. So many people were confused by the 'GOSH' created by beds, Great Ormond Street Hospital. GOSH was the first hospital for children in the English speaking world. To reflect what @facebook-546574842:disqus  said 'the foundation of every society is education and healthcare.'. We established care for children, improving them improved our future leading to empire, discovery, modern politics. In Britain we celebrate our national health service and what it does, whiles in America you fear a nationalised health service, wrongly.

Michael Ticea
Michael Ticea

The national accomplishment is that the foundation of every society is education and healthcare. If a society fails to recognize that fact, it is doomed form the very start. Great work to Danny Boyle and the rest of organizers, and to you all I have say is "I hope you never have any kids and pollute their minds with senseless dribble!"

A fine day to you, sir.

Anil Kumar Bk
Anil Kumar Bk

The article is against the spirit of the British supporting all the crap the Americans come up with at the UN.

Anil Kumar Bk
Anil Kumar Bk

The article is against the spirit of the British supporting all the crap the Americans come up with at the UN.

cesle
cesle

IT WAS AMAZING! Loved the Bond/Queen segment, loved the Mr Bean/Chariots of Fire bit, loved the music, the diversity and I think the NHS is something that inspires. So many wonderful surprises, everything I think of when I think of the British and more. Just  so thoroughly entertained. Now let the sport begin! 

NEWSTOCK SAGE
NEWSTOCK SAGE

You ought to know Catherine, Americans wrote the book on "all spectacle and not much substance".