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Interpreting the Olympic Opening Ceremony

Having watched the opening ceremony last night (in fact, into the early hours of this morning as I was on Central European Time), it occurred to me that some of the references might be a little obscure, especially for my non-British readers.

So here is my guide to the meanings and symbolism in the opening ceremony...

That river at the beginning is the River Thames. You saw it flowing through countryside. Bear in mind that most Londoners never go into the country (they believe it to be a scary place), so this opening video was an important educational piece for the locals. This is also the explanation for the farmyard animals in the stadium at the beginning. Most native Londoners have never actually seen a cow or a sheep (something that supporters of Plymouth Argyle Football Club are quick to remind opposing fans when Argyle travel to play London clubs) and many believe that milk comes from factories in southeast London.

The sequence features characters from 'The Wind in the Willows', a story about a talking toad, a talking badger, a talking mole and a talking water vole. This represents the increasingly tolerant attitude towards the use of hallucinogenic drugs in British society. Also very briefly in that opening river sequence we saw the camera pull up to show an aerial view of the bend in the river that is home to the Canary Wharf financial district in real life and the fictional borough of Walford in a British soap opera called 'Eastenders'. At this point, the music playing was the Eastenders theme tune. Eastenders used to be produced by original Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert, and this sadly was the extent of Doctor Who connections in the ceremony (I think).

The bloke with the sideburns and the yellow t-shirt was Bradley Wiggins. He's won three Olympic track cycling gold medals and he's just become the first Briton to win the Tour de France. He's ace. Oh and he's a mod. That's a peculiarly British pop sub-culture.

The aeroplanes overhead were 'the Red Arrows', the Royal Air Force's acrobatic display team. Getting people who are really good at something to do something far less useful is a popular British trait - we don't like people getting above themselves. So, just as some of the British Army's elite soldiers spend much of their time standing still outside Buckingham Palace wearing stupid hats, so the RAF's best fighter pilots spend two year terms flying around spewing multicoloured smoke from training jets.

Back inside the stadium itself, we had a rural scene highlighted by cricket on a village green. Cricket is tragically no longer an Olympic sport, but we have won every single Olympic cricket competition (i.e. the 1900 games), and so it's one of our best Olympic sports. Cricket is also a sport that we invented, but then so are most of the events in the Olympics. Nearby we had pagan children dancing around a maypole, recalling a key scene in the classic British horror film 'The Wicker Man' - and therefore both honouring the British horror film genre and making the point that we British are happy to extend multiculturalism to include virgin-sacrificing Hebridean nutters.

At this point, we also had helium ballons formed to look like clouds. We like clouds in this country, and complain bitterly when there aren't any. It's not a proper "British summer" without lots of rain, and we don't like that.

Then we had an actor called Sir Kenneth Branagh appear as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Branagh is perhaps best known for his supporting role in the 1999 Will Smith vehicle 'Wild Wild West' - so perhaps this was a sly nod to the way that supposedly civilised people from London and the southeast look upon people from the southwest of England. The real Brunel was an engineer - a pioneer in the fields of railway engineering, civil engineering (especially bridges), steamship engineering and genetic engineering. Brunel spent the latter part of his career trying to find a successor. He tried cloning himself several times, but eventually passed his business empire to his Jamaican adopted son Leroy, as illustrated by a spectacular dance routine. The lines we heard Branagh / Brunel recite were from Shakespeare's play 'The Tempest', about a magician on an island and clearly is meant as a reference to this island nation's famous magicians: Merlin, John Dee, Alesteir Crowley, Paul Daniels.

Then the peaceful rural scene gave way to an industrial landscape, symbolising the distant far north of England (another place that most Londoners are scared to visit). The leader of the drummers here was Dame Evelyn Glennie, who is a deaf percussionist. Perhaps Britain's leading classical musician can't actually hear what she's playing. Read into that what you will. (Given just how many drums there were, it may be that there are rather more deaf percussionists in London today.) This scene was also about the Industrial Revolution, which was a British idea, although we didn't dwell too long on stuff we actually invented (modesty is another British trait).

Next we had scenes from the First World War - a reminder to the other nations present that while we're often crap at sport, we do have a habit of winning wars, and sometimes go to extreme lengths to win them, even if we're sometimes sporting enough to offer a rematch a couple of decades later. Then we had an assortment of twentieth century cultural references - women wanting to vote (intelligent women were a British invention), yellow submarines (a reference to song by a popular beat combo of the 1960s called 'The Beatles'), Chelsea Pensioners (the ageing Chelsea Football Club side that beat Bayern Munich to win this year's Champions League) and West Indian immigrants coming over in 1948 on the MV Empire Windrush (a ship previously used to entertain Nazis and therefore symbolising our country's continuing delusion that the Second World War was about the brave multicultural British Empire fighting evil racist Germany).

Next we got James Bond escorting Her Majesty to the stadium and the Queen actually parachuting into the stadium. Although she no longer finds as much time for such things as she used to, the Queen takes part in several extreme sports (she holds the record for the highest bungee jump by a reigning monarch and has recently had an extreme downhill mountain biking course built in the grounds at Balmoral) and has several hundred parachute jumps to her name.

The next sequence was a lengthy warning of the perils of leaving your country's health provision in the hands of a centralised state bureaucracy (here represented by the evil Voldemort from the Harry Potter books, and his dementors (representing the bureaucrats)). The day is saved by Mary Poppins (another children's book and film character), representing the heroines of private sector healthcare. Reinforcing this message was the focus on a particular children's hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital (hence the 'GOSH' logo) famous for its heavy use of private and charitable funding (including the royalties from all 'Peter Pan' merchandise). This scene also featured an assortment of villains from children's literature, all of whom can be seen as allegories of recent real villains from British life - Captain Hook (clearly the hook-handed West-hating muslim extremist Abu Hamza), Cruella de Vil (a common nickname for Tony Blair's wife, Cherie), and the Child Catcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang (a thinly-disguised reference to the 'Moors Murderer' Ian Brady).

After that quite scary sequence, more humour, in the shape of Rowan Atkinson (most famous in this country for the historical sitcom 'Blackadder' but more famous internationally as 'Mr Bean') playing the monotonous keyboard part of the theme tune from a largely forgotten (at least outside this country) film from the early 80s called 'Chariots of Fire'. The film was supposed to be the first of a 'British invasion' of successful British films that never really materialised, except for the films of Danny Boyle, director of the opening ceremony.

Next, a strange sort of mini-soap opera sequence showing the dreams of a stereotypical young London woman: "When I buy a car, I hope it will be a BMW", "When I have a family, I hope it will be multicultural", "When I buy a house, I hope it will be detached". (This last hope is totally unrealistic for real Londoners who aren't Premier League footballers, Russian oligarchs or Arab oil sheikhs.) This idyllic multicultural scene was interspersed with social networking and featured Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the most efficient way of distributing pornography in history (and whom we're very proud of). This led into a dance sequence that took us on a tour of some of the greats of British popular music before stopping abruptly and handing over to someone called 'Dizzee Rascal'.

Then we got the hymn 'Abide With Me', which is traditional at Britain's biggest annual sporting event, the FA Cup Final.

The guy on the speedboat with the beard and the slicked-back hair is a famous underwear model called David Beckham. We Brits are very keen on underwear and almost all British men regularly wear underpants, some even wearing a different pair each day. He was accompanied on the boat by a female football player. Her name doesn't matter since nobody cares about women's football.

Then we had the parade of athletes, much as with previous Games. Not much symbolism to talk of there. Then the opening declaration from Her Majesty, speeches by IOC bureaucrats and Lord Coe, who used to be Sebastian Coe, gold medal winning middle-distance runner from 1980 and 1984.

The guy who brought the torch into the stadium was Sir Steve Redgrave, an Olympic rower with the incredible record of winning gold at each Olympics between 1984 and 2000. There had been a lot of debate on who should actually light the big flame thing in the middle, but in the end they went with some young unknowns, so as not to offend anyone. This is the traditional British 'muddy compromise'.

Then we had the big flaming fibre-optic lamp (a tribute to the British sense of kitsch) and loads of fireworks. We love fireworks in this country.


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 28th, 2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
Did you know that NBC didn't air the 7/7 Commemoration "Abide with Me" number? Instead they did a completely inane interview with Michael Phelps in which he said he wouldn't be walking in the parade because his event was the next day and he couldn't suffer through a five hour boring ceremony because he hoped to win his races. Why, yes, (when asked), he DID hope to win his races.

Also, I thought it was very touching that none of the children at the hospital needed parents. British Health Care and Nannies are quite enough for British children! Yessir, no need for parents there.
Jul. 28th, 2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
That's pretty disrespectful...
Jul. 28th, 2012 10:31 pm (UTC)
I assume you mean the part about not airing "Abide with Me"? I did think that was disrespectful. I'm not sure why NBC did it. Probably figured Americans had never heard of 7/7 and don't care about other people's pain. (Huh. Now it occurs to me that NBC was being disrespectful of Americans, too!)
Jul. 29th, 2012 12:07 am (UTC)
Yes, sorry - wasn't clear. Although I do hear that the NBC commentators at least mentioned the Munich victims, which the IOC chose not to.

The BBC coverage wasn't fantastic either, featuring a particularly gormless and banal DJ called Trevor.
Jul. 29th, 2012 12:36 am (UTC)
A friend of mine is a bigwig at NBC sports. He's in charge of the swimming program, the bicycling program and the closing ceremony. Some day when the moment is right I'll ask him about why NBC decided to drop the 7/7 number. Not right now, though, he's a bit busy.
Jul. 29th, 2012 01:03 am (UTC)
The tragedy at Munich was mentioned briefly as the Israeli team came on the field, but I hated the fake piety of it. Why bother "remembering" a tragedy if you are actively screwing up security for the athletes in the present day? It was grief porn to mention it. Shivers for the audience - look - some of these kids could be MURDERED - and nothing more.
Jul. 28th, 2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
Are you a Plymouth Argyle supporter?
Jul. 28th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC)
No, but one of my colleagues is, and it was he who told me about their "You've ne-ver se-en a coooooowwwww!" chant.
Jul. 29th, 2012 12:07 am (UTC)
Why do you ask...?
Jul. 29th, 2012 06:50 am (UTC)
Because one of my friends is (or possibly used to be) a trustee, and he's taken me to a game - my only football game. So I feel fondness for them.
Jul. 28th, 2012 08:16 pm (UTC)
Also, we had a moment in the feed when everything just stopped for five seconds. I figured some girl in an east-end townhouse just made a picture of the entire stadium.

But then the feed came back as if nothing had happened.

I figure the Doctor was involved.
Jul. 28th, 2012 09:26 pm (UTC)
Oh yes.
Jul. 28th, 2012 11:11 pm (UTC)
*wandering over from _parrot-knight's_ blog*

and this sadly was the extent of Doctor Who connections in the ceremony (I think).

I'm fairly sure I heard the Tardis sound at some point (later on in the ceremony, I think in the music bit.) A comment on _parrot-knight's_ post suggests that this was real, not just something that happened to sound similar...
Jul. 29th, 2012 12:05 am (UTC)
Yeah, I saw that over at pk's blog, but didn't notice it at all during the ceremony. I'm disappointed I missed it.

I suppose you could argue for The Beatles and Her Majesty as loose Who connections (The Chase, Silver Nemesis, Voyage of the Damned), but that's stretching a point somewhat!
Jul. 29th, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
My theory is that it was an easter egg and that the Doctor's involvement in the Olympic games will be revealed in yet another Olympics episode in the next season of Doctor Who, and that it will incorporate that very TARDIS moment.

That's what it should be anyway.
Jul. 29th, 2012 05:36 pm (UTC)
"...and that the Doctor's involvement in the Olympic games will be revealed in yet another Olympics episode in the next season of Doctor Who..."

...in which it is revealed that Lord Coe is in fact The Master.
Jul. 30th, 2012 09:38 am (UTC)
Oh, the Doctor Who connection was clearly provided by the Silence.
Jul. 30th, 2012 12:39 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, I and several friends all heard the Tardis too. In the 70s bit of the music medley.
Jul. 29th, 2012 11:00 am (UTC)
Interesting Links for 29-07-2012
User andrewducker referenced to your post from Interesting Links for 29-07-2012 saying: [...] ) Interpreting the Olympic Opening Ceremony [...]
Jul. 29th, 2012 06:02 pm (UTC)
Personally, I consider the whole Olympics thing invalid. The Queen, in the opening ceremonies, was simply not wearing the Proper Crown -- the one I watched her (in a store window, because back then ordinary people like me couldn't afford to have Television sets) accept with remarkable courage considering that she was only a few years older than I was.
Jul. 30th, 2012 09:15 am (UTC)
Link blog: funny, olympics
User pw201 referenced to your post from Link blog: funny, olympics saying: [...] Phlegmatic - Interpreting the Olympic Opening Ceremony [...]
Jul. 30th, 2012 12:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you for that - it has made my day.

I did notice several pieces of music from the soundtrack of 28 Days Later - Abide With Me included - and was wondering if there was some symbolism hinted at between what the Olympics represents and the zombie apocalypse! :-)
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )