As acts of political protest and resistance go, standing in front of a bloody huge tank is fairly impressive. There is, however, always an element of futility in lone heroism. It is far more effective to organise en masse, preferably in front of a global television audience.
After years of meticulous planning with nothing being left to chance, the opening ceremony marking the start of a number of sporting activities we are not allowed to name for fear of litigation took place in a city on the River Thames that is not Oxford. The big question was; could the sprawling northern suburb of Croydon match the previous and enormous success of Beijing?
The secrecy surrounding the preparations for the spectacle led to all manner of conspiracy theory rumours, the most common being that all was not well and we, along with the rest of the world, were about to witness an embarrassing debacle. With controversy regarding the role of corporate sponsors, brand police and bungled security arrangements, this cynical viewer opened a bottle of something nice and grabbed the pop corn. Expecting giant, flying burgers, rivers of cola, adorable children singing the praises of a credit card company and pneumatic beauties arriving in a fleet of luxury cars, pen and paper was at hand to record the number of injuries caused as gigantic elements of the ghastly logo failed to land in the right place.
However, the film insert that started the show did offer some subtle clues as to what was to follow. A fly through of the length of the Thames started nicely enough with wheat fields, cricket and playing children, but a CGI inflatable pig over Battersea Power Station followed by God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols indicated that Danny Boyle might be up to something with a little more edge than the state opening of parliament. Those hopes were slightly dashed when the inside of the stadium had been dressed as some strange cross between Hobbiton and Tellytubby Land as farm yard animals and rustic types mingled in olde merrie England. This did not look as if it was going to end well and the prospect of two hours of the band of the Coldstream Guards, a token steel band of smiling men in loud shirts and a little bit of dhol drumming to prove that we are a diverse nation suggested that the bottle of something nice might not last until the entry of Afghanistan into the arena. The thought that some caber tossing and young men dismantling an antique field gun, throwing it over a wall and then putting it back together followed by some dreadful, manufactured pop act would be the grand finale was difficult to shift.
Then it all became a bit subversive with the arrival of lovely, lovely Kenneth Branagh who quoted Caliban from The Tempest and was accompanied by a gaggle of Victorian men wearing top hats. They evicted the peasantry from the land and erected monstrous satanic chimneys amid moustache twirling and smug snarling at the subjugated working class. Depicting the reigning monarch arriving by parachute after leaping out of a helicopter was a breath taking act of lese-majesty made all the more astonishing by Elizabeth Windsor collaborating in the ruse. Tactfully ignoring the conquest, colonisation and plunder of half the planet, we fast forwarded to the poignant arrival of the Windrush before an announcement in French that contained the words “celebration” and “NHS”. At this point, the bottle of something nice was checked to see if it had become empty such was the level of jaw-dropping disbelief.
By its very nature, there is little room for subtlety in producing large scale “industrial theatre” yet Danny Boyle managed to introduce layers of nuance that produced goose bumps on the arms of this grumpy cynic. The decision to use Mike Oldfield as the backing track for the NHS section was inspired. Tubular Bells was the very first album to be released on Virgin Records and was the foundation for Richard Branson`s business empire. Virgin is now buying up great swathes of the NHS with profit and not patient care at its heart. One can only hope that the less subtle imagery of demons, a 40 foot Voldemort, the Child Catcher and Cruella de Vil threatening children was not lost on the likes of Lansley, Gove and Maria Miller. Quite how Danny Boyle got away with this is a mystery.
Boyle had earlier reminded us that we once had a steel industry and later choreographed a human CND sign. Clips from Gregory`s Girl, Kes, Billy Elliot, his own Trainspotting and the infamous Brookside kiss depicted the UK reality a million miles away from a river pageant and who could have ever thought that Pretty Vacant, Relax and Firestarter would be played at such an almighty corporate greed fest. There was no product placement and the awful logo only appeared as a tiny lapel badge on the expensive suits who took time away from the trough to make a speech.
Directing such a large scale event is difficult enough without the pressure of a live television audience of an estimated one billion people. Add to this the considerable technical challenges and an enormous cast of volunteers and the potential for catastrophe is immense. Danny Boyle must have nerves of steel. By the time the NHS sequence started, performed not by professional actors and dancers but by NHS staff currently in fear for their jobs, this atheist cynic was praying to every deity known and as yet unknown to man that nothing would go wrong. It didn`t and when 96 dancers performed to Abide with Me, tears were flowing. The Hillsborough disaster took 96 lives.
The arrival of the athletes offered a chance to reflect on what had just happened. Spectacular? Yes. A celebration? Yes. A triumph? Yes. An act of political protest and resistance? No.
What Danny Boyle achieved was nothing short of remarkable. In celebrating the long and rich history of these islands by focusing the people who lived and are living here and not on militarism, pomp, conquest and exploitation, he demonstrated to the world why we are still proud to be British. Interestingly, the only performers smiling during the dark, satanic mills section were the wealthy Victorian industrialists. In the other sections, the only people not smiling were the present day politicians and the corporate sponsors sitting up in the expensive seats. All this less than a year since riots and looting in the east end and other inner city area were being broadcast around the world. Even more remarkable is the fact that Boyle managed in the space of three and a half hours to convert this sceptical critic of the tawdry advertising opportunity into believing that the entire bun fight might actually be about Britain and, in case you missed it, sport.
The previous and enormous success of Beijing has indeed been bettered. Remember how the British press and the BBC squealed with outrage when poor people were moved out of the city, private lanes were introduced for the sponsors and officials, any protest smacked down with brutal force and the whole event blanketed by the military and state police? We have improved on Beijing by installing surface-to-air missiles on people`s homes and moored a bloody big assault ship on the river.
On Friday night, as Danny Boyle offered inspiration, hundreds of cyclists were kettled and arrested and a disabled tricycle rider was allegedly pepper sprayed in the face and assaulted. The BBC remained as silent over this inconvenience as they have over the demise of the NHS. It was left to Danny Boyle to point out to the world that, like China, the people of a nation are very different to its government. It was an all too brief three and a half euphoric hours that depicted this country as it actually is; innovative, talented, proud and definitely bonkers which why some of us still love the place even if it is in the hands of some very unpleasant politicians and their paymasters.
By Saturday morning the sport (remember that?) had started and the corporate sponsors left their seats unfilled. The right wing backlash had begun and security were restraining people daring to drink the wrong cola or attempting to photograph a G4S van parked in a disabled parking bay. Normality had returned.
How long before Trafalgar Square becomes Tiananmen Square? Danny Boyle might not be a genius but he`s pretty damn close.