If you are of a certain age then Danny Boyle’s celebrated opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics is going to have a very specific effect on you. Never before has the culture of a whole generation of Brits been so comprehensively endorsed and played-out on such a grand, world stage. Boyle’s ceremony was unashamedly defined by the experiences of those who started making their way in the world in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s. If your personal tapestry was woven from British television, British films and British pop music, this was the event, not just for you, but about you.
While many might have expected the ceremony, which is estimated to have had a world-wide audience of one billion people, to stick close to the script of English parochial nationalism. What we got instead was a totally bonkers theatrical event that confound everyone by shifting through a series large-scale tableau representing the great sweep and tide of British history. But just before this vast canvas could explode with its own self importance, it was then brought down to earth by the everyday, the mundane and the personal. Pitched perfectly in the lived experience of shopping-centre Britain. This was spectacle driven by a pounding electronic soundtrack of familiar and aspirational anthems.
There was no need for Boyle and his team to attempt to create a new mythology of contemporary British life. That route has been well-worn in the past. Rather, this was the equivalent of walking into a typical British high-street charity shop and grabbing what is laying close at hand. This was an Olympic ceremony created from found icons, sounds and images that most Brits are likely to discard and abandon. What Boyle understood so perfectly was that there is no need to create any kind of myth around modern British life, of a nation new-born, as host nations for the Olympics are always tempted to do. Britain, according to Boyle, is what it is. Divergent, fragmented, inventive, creative, full of struggle and fiercely prepared to confound the myth that holds in the mind of the rest of the world. Ancient images of empire overlords don’t define this generation of Brits. Instead, we respect our past, have in mind the sins of our forefathers, cherish their redeeming sacrifices against tyranny, then, add a huge dollop of self-deprecation. Who needs to genuflect to a nostalgic image of Britain held in aspic?Charity Shop Media Mash-Up
What Boyle recognised so brilliantly is that Britain is really a nation that ought to cherish more of the things that it has at hand. Indeed, Boyle’s message was that we should value the things that we are tempted to easily overlook and discard. All those DVDs, CDs, books and clothes that regularly end-up in the charity shop. These are the building blocks of British culture. This is the stuff that we are uniquely made of. It’s just that we don’t have the confidence to value them. The biscuit-tin jigsaws, the teapots, the second-hand detective novels, the boxes of videos of re-run television programmes. This is the bricolage that accumulates at the edges, sitting on the precipice between the archive and the recycle bin.
It would not be difficult to argue that this mashed-up styling, that jumps between epoch and theme, author and reference point, medium and performance style, was able to offer anything like a coherent narrative expectation. Who could? Look at the source material. Britain is a place of enormous contradiction, inequality, and division. So instead, and rather like browsing around your average high street charity shop, Boyle’s opening ceremony was an ad-hoc mix of literature, film, fashion, pop culture clichés, homilies, icons, and the many other baseline reference points that form, or indeed condense, into the British psyche. And the better it was for all of that.
This was a ceremony that avoided wrapping Britishness into a single, tangible or concrete certainty, as some would have us believe is possible. These nostalgia merchants want us to preserve a sense of uniquely unchanging identity. They want to stick to ‘brand’ Britain, when in reality that is an ideal that never existed, and is only now seen through the mists of timeless nostalgia. This is the nostalgia rooted in a Britain over a century ago. The nostalgia merchants are forever trying to recreate the age of empire; when Britain led the world.
Instead, this was a re-imagining of Britain, played out as a series of rapid-fire images, mediations and remixes. This is Britain as the master storyteller, a community of dreamers, a land of people who are capable of great leaps of imagination and creative ingenuity. From Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Tim Berners-Lee, via the NHS, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, pop counter-culture and a massive dose of popular television.
This was the people’s opening ceremony. Anti-elitist and social democratic. Boyle’s vision speaks of a Britain in which individuals succeed on merit, innovation, hard work and collective effort. But it is also a country in which the struggles of minorities and oppressed individuals who want to overcome prejudice are increasingly acknowledged in the collective narrative. No more is the British tapestry just about great kings and queens. Modern Britain, according to Boyle’s theatricalisation, is a country in which we are defined by our tolerance and diversity – despite the mad, bonkers maelstrom of our experience. Tolerance and creativity are our new unifying virtues. There is little space in this Britain for reckless gambling, rent collecting, naked prejudice and the avoidance of collective responsibility. Patriotism is defined here by our common experience and the creative talent that we are allowed to express.
For anyone growing-up in the 1990s, then, the effect of seeing this display writ large is nothing short of transformational. A jump-start to the confidence levels and a huge moment of validation that suggests that no matter how hard it has been to get here, it has all been worth it. This is one of those shared moments, like England winning the World Cup in 1966, that define a generation. This is the point where Britain says that it is okay to be personally defined by and through popular culture. A genuinely shared and common experience, in the familiar, and in the every day. When is the sequel coming out, we all want to know what happens next?