Isles of “Utterly Mahvelous” and “Umm…huh?”

Across the globe opinions have been mixed over Isles of Wonder, Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremonies extravaganza—or snoraganza depending on who you ask. From my limited investigations it seems the closer the nations are to the UK the more they enjoyed the spectacle. Aussies and Canadians mostly responded positively, Americans were rather divided. But then, when are we not divided these days?

Part of the interference with American enjoyment may have been the way in which it was televised. Huge sections  were cut in the States due to commercial breaks. Many Yankees missed the pogo dancing bobble-headed punks. An even more disappointing omission was the dance memorial to the victims and survivors of 7/7. According to my sources American television chose this moment to interview Michael Phelps.

Friday evening’s tribute to the victims of the July 7th terrorist attack, which occurred days after London won their Olympic bid, was an evocative piece of dance drama that resonated emotionally on this side of the Atlantic. Honouring the horrors surrounding the genesis of London 2012 was a daring move on Boyle’s part, but highly appropriate and moving. The hymn Abide with Me provided the music for the dance.  Traditionally Abide with Me is sung at British sporting events.  No rugby match can start without it.  The omission of this performance for American audiences is criminal. Those responsible should be prosecuted under Offenses to the Arts legislation. That exists right?

Despite television edits, about half the Americans I communicated with responded positively to Boyle’s vision. Some argued it was a little slow and even British viewers admitted  it might be difficult for non-Brits to appreciate  references to Eastenders (long running British soap opera) or the significance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (winner of British Historical Idol and engineer in the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution). Perhaps it was a bit too…well, British. Fair enough. Boyle’s artistic aim was to represent the best of British: historical heritage, contributions to children’s literature and musical legacy.

There were many highlights of the performance for me. The lovely rendition of Jerusalem, sung by a charming choir of English moppets started the well of emotion. Jerusalem is the English (not British) equivalent of America the Beautiful. It’s the song that probably should be the national anthem but never will be because it is English-centric. I have seen even the most stiffened upper lips tremble under the influence of this song. If you have ever heard the term “green and pleasant land” in reference to England, it comes from this song. Since Britain is a four-way nation, we were also treated to traditional tunes of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sung by similarly adorable children. The Welsh showed off their choral skills by using lovely harmonies. I swear they practise triad scales in the womb.

Of course….of course Shakespeare would  feature. The first words of the performance are Prospero’s speech from The Tempest spoken by Isambard Kingeth Branagh. Happy my hero had been given his moment (Shakespeare not Branagh or Brunel), I then gaped in awe as a whole host of industrialists transformed the green and pleasant land into a factory hell. I loved this bit, bowled over by the scale and military efficient set transition.

The Bond-Queen film seemed to go down well on both sides of the pond. Up until the final moment I expected HRH to turn around and reveal Judi Dench in Majesty Drag. But no, it was the genuine Queenly article “parachuting” into the Games. Irreverently funny like only the Brits can do! Continuing the funny, Rowan Atkinson’s piano solo had everyone in our sitting room struggling for breath.

The sequence which seemed most confusing to Americans was my personal favourite: Boyle’s tribute to Great British children’s literature, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the NHS. Not an obvious link unless you know the relationship between JM Barrie (author of Peter Pan) and GOSH. I loved the nightmarish moments as a giant Queen of Heart erupts from a child’s hospital bed followed quickly by a towering Lord Voldemort. I clutched the sofa hoping Dan Radcliffe might swoop in on a broomstick but the Mary Poppins Nanny Army was even better.

Apart from the visual beauty and fun of this sequence, Boyle’s political message resonated loud and clear: save our NHS! Even if Boyle had walked up to Number 10 Downing Street and stuck two fingers up David Cameron’s nose the message could not have been clearer: threaten our health service and sack our nurses at your peril, Mr Cameron! I cheered. It’s a cheer that should have echoed on the other side of the Atlantic as well, but I suspect the message and its meaning were lost in translation…or in televisation.

One moment united all watchers I spoke to: the final lighting of the torch.  At last the mysterious petals carried throughout the procession of nations were explained.  Though I was hoping the whole thing might turn out to be a massive trebuchet which flung  flames into the middle, having the arms rise up and come together was probably better art and safety.  If they are going to keep that massive flame going for two weeks, however, I do not envy the Olympic Committee’s gas bill.

Well played, Danny Boyle.  Well played indeed.  Will we soon be calling you Sir Danny?


9 thoughts on “Isles of “Utterly Mahvelous” and “Umm…huh?”

  1. I (as an Aussie) agree that those of us more familiar with British history, culture and music got so much more than others may have. I’m glad we had a commercial free live telecast to enjoy it. I do think the Brits need to find a successor to sir Paul for such events though!
    When I’d heard some Americans had been confused seeing ‘Abraham Lincoln’ amid the English countryside though I had to smile, remembering back to years ago when I was dumbfounded as to why they were playing ‘god save the queen’ at Ronald Reagan’s funeral! !
    I think it was one of the best opening ceremonies I’ve ever seen and the shared cauldron an inspired concept.

  2. As a Brit – albeit a seriously conflicted one when it comes to all things patriotic – I didn’t expect to like anything much about the opening ceremony. I didn’t even start watching till my son came in raving about it. And I loved it – the bonkersness of it, the subversiveness of it, the punky/indyness of it, It felt like it was celebrating my Britain, the things I love, the things that matter, the things I’d miss if I was away. The lighting of the cauldron was perfect – beautiful and so right to not give that moment to any one star but to future stars. I have difficulty saying I’m proud to be British because I kind of feel I should only be proud of things I have achieved, but Friday night made me feel very glad, and very lucky.

  3. During the competitors’ entrances, when Fiji arrived the music changed to the BeeGees.
    And I do hope our PM felt like Macbeth at the banquet.

  4. I really loved the parts of the opening ceremony that NBC deigned to show us. Though I admit to yelling at the commentators to shut up on several occasions when they were talking over songs or dialogue. And my hatred for Ryan Seacrest already burned with the fire of a thousand suns before his innane “interviews” were shown in place of important parts of the ceremony.

    I also laughed like a loon during much of the opening film when I recognized the various references, and the Eastenders theme cameo made me laugh so loud I’m sure my neighbors heard me.

    Watching the opening ceremony, it definitely helped that I not only am a fan of British culture, but have briefly lived in the UK, and could catch a lot of the references. It was a fantastic piece of theatre, and I was moved by a lot of it.

  5. Land of Hope and Glory could not be our National Anthem until the last person who remembers watching ‘It Ain’t ‘Arf Hot Mum’ has either died or gone stone deaf….Jerusalem all the way for me – William Blake is my kind of crazy and I want an anthem which has been covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

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