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.
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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.
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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.