Where Do You Stand on Ceremony?

‘Hey! We’re going to go into town on Friday night to watch the opening ceremony. Are you coming?’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘The opening ceremony. You know, for the Olympics.’
‘Why do they need one?’
‘Why do they need a bloody ceremony? Can’t they just get on with ’
‘They ALWAYS have one.’
‘But WHY?’

 I’ve yet to receive an answer to this conversation with my sister. But, nevertheless, I bowed to the will of my family and went with them to watch the Opening Ceremony of the Thirtieth Olympiad, the London Games of the Twenty Thousand and Twelfth Year of Our Lord. If that sounds epic, it really is, because it involved me foregoing an evening on a Greek beach with a book of cryptic crosswords and a large chunk of Feta cheese. If you know me, you’ll realise just how Herculean a labour that sacrifice is. Anyway, I went along with expectations lower than the Vatican City’s Gymnastics team, ordered a bottle of lager, grimaced, and settled down to watch. My mood was briefly lightened when my sister informed me that Frankie Boyle had conceived and directed the Ceremony. Three and half hours of ‘Rebecca Adlington looks like a dolphin’ jokes? Should be interesting. Alas, I had misheard, ‘Danny’ as ‘Frankie’. Still, Danny Boyle was the man who directed ‘Trainspotting’; I could surely expect scenes of drug taking and full-frontal nudity, right? Well, the result, if a little less sexy, was no less horrifying to the Right Wing. Mitt Romney looked on aghast as a troupe of dancing nurses and curiously athletic sick children gleefully celebrated socialised medicine. Just the right time to shackle yourself as closely as you can to the Olympics, Governor Romney. Never mind, you can always calm down by attempting to derail a major peace process in the Middle East, the traditional hobby of Republican politicians.

 So, I hear you cry, what did you really think of the Ceremony itself, Nathan? What whimsical observations or affectedly-sardonic-opinions-which-might-prove-humorous-if written-down-in-extended-prose-and-published-in-the-form-of-a-blog came to your mind, I like to imagine you say. Well, what a coincidence. As luck would have it, I have prepared just such thoughts on this topic.

  I initially thought that I would have trouble enjoying any of the Olympic Ceremony given my significant reservations. For one, I thought that it was a complete and utter waste of the taxpayer’s money. Then I realised that I am an unemployed ex-student who has never paid income tax in his life and so have no legitimate grounds for moral objection. I then thought I might be outraged on behalf of my father - my natural tax-surrogate - but he seemed pretty relaxed about the whole affair. So, with the nagging feeling that £27m might be better spent on something trivial like fuel relief to poverty-stricken pensioners or food for the homeless, I was ready to have a good time! And, what do you know? It worked! Well, kind of. As a rule, if millions of pounds is going to be wasted, I’d rather it be wasted in style. And to be fair to Mr Boyle, parts of the Ceremony were pretty good, good enough to make me forget about uncomfortable economic reality. Which of course was the whole point of the Ceremony. Unable to avail ourselves of either China’s resources or the terrifying power it wields over its citizenry, we knew that our Ceremony would have to be very different to Beijing. It couldn’t be as visually spectacular, so we had to rely on those most British of qualities, thought and idea. This came through at points, most notably in the climactic forging of the ring, the delightful descent of a harem of Mary Poppinses (that’s the correct collective noun) from the sky, and the nice Blakeian hints of dark satanic mills, lending the industrial revolution segment a commendable sense of unease.

 Other sections, unfortunately were not quite as impressive. The Facebook-Modern-World-Twitter-Sexual-Tension segment was a wince-inducingly bad attempt to ‘connect’ with the ‘Yoof’ and as utterly devoid of meaning as my last bowel movement. What was it trying to say? That the internet is good? That buying a smartphone will get you laid? (It doesn’t; trust me on that one.) That young people like dancing? While other sections celebrated Britain’s history, culture, and diversity, this one seemed to have no earthly clue what it was about. ‘Quick,’ they panicked, ‘We need to fill twenty minutes! I know; fill a stage full of hormone-ravaged adolescents and make them dance to an ungodly medley of every iconic British song of the last fifty years, whilst randomly interspersing it with hopelessly stilted references to ‘social networking’. Maybe childhood has changed since I breached the threshold of Old Age, but no-one had that much fun when I was seventeen. Neither did they display a familiarity with the back catalogue of the Rolling Stones.

 At other times, the ceremony shoved the symbolism down our throats a little too hard. The raising of the individual torches to form the Olympic Cauldron was a nice touch, but there was a tedious fuss over getting the bloody thing lit. First we were treated to Admiral David Beckham speeding down the Thames with the torch, making him look even more like an Italian sailor than normal. Upon its actual arrival half an hour hence, Beckham was told to bugger off, because someone who had actually competed in the Olympics had turned up, Sir Steven Redgrave, Knight of the British Realm and National Treasure. Cue a five minute slow jog into the stadium as the camera followed directly behind Steviebaby and his incredibly unflattering, all white tight tracksuit.  Apparently the identity of the torchbearer was so secret that 48 hours before the Ceremony they still hadn’t told Redgrave; I imagine that they didn’t foist the surprise of the bum-hugging tracksuit on him until two minutes before he was due to go on.

 After Middle Britain was suitably scarred / aroused, Redgrave then made the highly symbolic gesture of handing over to a young British rower. Isn’t that lovely, we cooed. And what’s more, it meant something, the passing of the flame from one generation to another, asking them to take up the challenge. But it wasn’t just Redgrave handing over, it was six other well known athletes. Of course the commentator had to go through each ‘nomination’ of young athlete by old athlete, lending the affair considerable tedium. The next generation ran around the stadium in near total silence as their ‘nominations’ were announced. By the time the terrifying Cauldron was actually assembled, I was half hoping Steve Redgrave’s spandex Wündergarment might catch alight, just to liven up proceedings. And as if we weren’t feeling bored enough, they then handed over to Paul McCartney to lull the nation to sleep with a rendition of ‘Hey Jude’, which is apparently enshrined in the British Constitution to be mandatorily played at the end of all public events.

 Stagnancy is, of course, to be expected at an event spanning over three and a half hours, including an hour dedicated purely to the great television that is strangers walking and waving. What was more surprising was the overall tone of the Ceremony, especially the first half. Much of Boyle’s Ceremony was remarkably self-indulgent. A certain amount of patriotism and promotion was inevitable of course. But large sections of the Ceremony were not about advertising Britain to the world, but rather just about what Britain means to the British. The celebration of the NHS was a hilarious  ‘fuck you’ to Andrew Lansley et al., but smacked of an ignorance of the stage on which the Ceremony was being performed. Billions of people from around the world were watching the Ceremony, the great majority of whom would not have had the faintest clue what the NHS was, let alone Great Ormond Street Hospital. This wasn’t really the stage to inform the world about our national pride in that great institution. It was a strangely political point which left the British confused and everyone else just plain stumped. In the same vein was the celebration of British children’s authors and literature. A beautiful and haunting piece of presentation, but many other nations would not have understood what on earth we were on about. Furthermore, I think that I won’t be alone amongst British people in not recognising some of the characters presented. To celebrate and be proud of one’s country is one thing; to congratulate ourselves while the rest of the world looks on blankly is something else. Of course it was nice to have some nod-nod, wink-wink moments of quintessentially English in-jokes (can anything else be quintessential? Quintessentially Bulgarian? Doesn't sound right, does it?), but a large proportion of the ceremony ended up feeling like one. Other countries were watching too, Danny.

 So, overall, it was a very surreal evening. I’ve never freebased crystal meth, but when Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom-Brunel pronounced lines from the Tempest while overlooking his Hobbitonesque realm and people,subjugated under apparent feudalism, like a cracked Colonel Gaddafi, I thought I might know what it feels like. But at least it wasn’t boring. I must credit you for that, Danny. But what I’ve really learnt from this experience is that I must get a job, to enable me to carp legitimately about stunning squanderings of resources. I’ve heard there’s some work going in security for the Olympics… I’ll keep you posted.


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