Once every four years, the Olympic Games provide an opportunity for nationalist grandstanding on a world stage. The London Games are no exception. On the contrary, filmmaker Danny Boyle stunned the estimated one billion viewers around the world with an exuberant and creative opening ceremony.
Observers had been skeptical that Boyle could match the precision and panache of the 2008 Beijing opening spectacle. Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” had a similar structure to that of Beijing, showcasing the national narrative of the host country, but it was sharply different in tone, relying on rock music and theatrical imagination rather than a multitude of synchronized gymnasts. The high point was the videosequence of the Queen accompanying James Bond on a helicopter and then ‘parachuting’ into the stadium. (Though one writer in the Daily Mail did complain that “the entire institution of monarchy has been reduced to a subsidiary of the reality-TV entertainment industry.”) Boyle skillfully used the River Thames as a metaphorical anchor for the flow of historical time.
One criticism of the performance was that it included too many obscure references to British culture and history. The extended paean to the National Health Service seems to have caused the most puzzlement amongst foreigners. This segment also drew the ire of a number of British conservatives, with Tory MP Aidan Burley describing the show as “leftie multicultural crap.” According to one report, when the Cabinet was shown a short video outlining the script last January, the education minister raised some objections, asking for example that Churchill be included. (He was indeed included in the final version.)
Labour MP Tristram Hunt more generously suggested that instead of grumbling about this “£27m party political broadcast,” conservatives should thank Boyle for the most gifted celebration of the Act of Union in a generation.” He went on to add that “while the right has won the economic arguments, the left took victory in the culture wars.”
In general, the extravaganza is being hailed within the UK as a triumph, capturing the national essence at a time when British identity is very much up in the air. The British national narrative has never really recovered from the loss of empire. Without empire as a unifying theme, the outlying components of the Union – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have become more assertive. Britain has singularly failed to embrace the European project. The arrival of millions of ethnically and religiously distinct immigrants led to the embrace of multiculturalism as a central theme in British identity, but in the wake of the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings there has been an ongoing debate over the limits if not the very viability of multiculturalism. And lingering throughout these identity wars are the enduring class and regional divides that have polarized British society for centuries.
Boyle’s masterpiece brilliantly transcended these divisions, presenting a story that had something for everybody. The ceremony is being hailed by some as a “Diana moment”: a reference to the unique outpouring of emotion and sense of national belonging that occurred following the untimely death of Lady Diana in 1997.
Boyle was consciously trying to weave together a national narrative of progress and inclusion: moving from a rural idyll; through the turmoil of industrial revolution, war and depression; to technological innovation and socio-cultural flowering. The age of empire was notably absent from his story, until the arrival of the Windrush ship bringing the first wave of post-war Jamaican immigrants.
Boyle’s intellectual inspiration was apparently a compilation of essays on the arrival of the Machine Age assembled 60 years ago by Humphrey Jennings, and entitled Pandaemonium. In the review cited above, Hunt sees its origins in JB Priestley’s 1934 work, English Journey, in which Priestley spoke of three Englands: the “real, enduring England” of the countryside, the industrial England, and the modern urban scene of cinemas and dance halls.
More than one observer noted the parallels with a speech from the movie “Love Actually” (which is rather bad, actually). Hugh Grant, playing the prime minister, explains that Britain is still a great nation because it is “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot. David Beckham’s left foot, come to that.” All of those characters were central to Boyle’s narrative – except Churchill. (The Hugh Grant speech is in turn reminiscent of Orson Welles’ summary of Swiss identity in The Third Man (1948) – except Welles was being ironic.)
The Financial Times’ John Mcdermott made the interesting comment that “foreigners have a right to ask, wasn’t this all a little parochial? Yes, but it was a universal form of parochialism.” This is a neat summary of one of the main contradictions of nationalism. Each nation sees itself as unique, but realizes that, by extension, every other nation probably sees itself as unique too. So true nationalists should be internationalists, and be willing to share in each other’s national uniqueness. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, every unhappy nation is the same, but each happy nation is happy in its own way.
The BBC and Telegraph reported that the show got generally positive views from around the world for its humor and informality. In the words of an email from Yidan Tan, a Chinese graduate student studying in England: “The London Olympic Ceremony well represented British culture and history and their contribution to humanity with typical British style and humour. The most important point I admire, which makes it better than the Beijing Ceremony, is that it strongly expressed and reflected precious values, including humanism, equality, freedom, pluralism, and was full of respect for individuals and ordinary people. That’s what China lacks today and what we must learn from and improve.” Official Chinese media said it was “spectacular and “very English.” One Chinese entrepreneur has already contacted a British impresario, hoping to bring a theater musical version of the show to China.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told a TV interviewer he enjoyed the ceremony very much and said it provided an important lesson for the Russians planning the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In addition to the humor, Medvedev singled out the emphasis on British rock music, which he noted is well-known in Russia and serves as “a language of communication with a wide circle of people” Medvedev’s positive vibe was shared by other Russian commentators.
Sarah Lyall of the New York Times liked it, as did her fellow columnist Alessandra Stanley, even though she dubbed it “a Bollywood version of a sixth-grade play.” Maybe she was not listening closely enough in sixth grade: Stanley misidentified Isambard Kingdom Brunel (portrayed by Kenneth Branagh) as a Dickens character. Stanley was not the only one to fail the British history test: the NBC commentators on American TV could not identify Timothy Berner Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. The NBC crew also did a spectacularly bad job in mangling the national sensitivities of the participating nations as their athletes marched into the arena, with African countries in particular getting the most cavalier treatment.
Soft nationalism is to nationalism as pane et circences were to Roman imperialism — i.e., indicating the inevitable long-term decline of the nation-state phenomenon as a viable framework for politics, society and economics. The Olympics put nationalistic images into the same category as American high school football or, at best, the NBA playoffs. A bit of nostalgia and something for the politically toothless enthusiasts to root for, and no more. Transnational realities are well on the way to taking over.
The way your article, and the various comments you included, interweaved England and Britain shows the complexity and problems with discussing nationalism in the UK and any vague portrayal of ‘British identity’. The narrative of rural to industrial, the NHS, James Bond and the Queen…were all part of Danny Boyle’s myth; the story of an imaginary England. Unfortunately for him this myth is not that of Scotland, Wales, or even large parts of England, not even close. The NHS operates fundamentally differently in each country now to offer one example, and overall Boyle appeared to have bought into the British myth more than any audience ever could.
As for the headline that it was a triumph of soft nationalism, I direct you to a poll in Scotland which shows that although most people were unmoved by the Olympics, 12% of respondents said it made them more likely to vote for independence, as opposed to 8% who said it made them less likely. (The article is from a pro-independence website, but I couldn’t find the original Sunday Times article as it’s behind a paywall.)