Boyle's distinctly British ceremony a brilliant start to London Games


It’s British slang for brilliant, and it is perhaps the most appropriate way to sum up Friday’s opening ceremony, a nearly four-hour, raucous celebration of British literature, music, dance and pop culture.

Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle, who oversaw the show, rose to the challenge set by China in 2008. Beijing Olympic organizers spent more than $100 million on their opening ceremony and produced an amazing spectacle that began with 2,008 drummers beating drums in sync, announcing to the world that China’s time as a superpower had come.

London organizers spent just $42 million and relied on Boyle to develop a ceremony that was distinctly British and spectacular in its own right. It captured the revolutions that swept across England from the Industrial Age through the 1960s to today’s digital era and encompassed everything from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to Mr. Bean fart jokes. It erred only by going 45 minutes longer than planned.

The only link between the 2008 ceremony and Friday night’s was a dramatic drum beat that mimicked the sound of Beijing four years ago but carried an entirely different significance as it tried to replicate the sound and fury of the Industrial Revolution that changed the country and the world.

The ceremony began with Kenneth Branagh reading from “The Tempest” and included references to Britain’s great literary tradition, from James Blake to John Milton.

It then packed in imagery the world has associated with Britain for the last century: James Bond (Daniel Craig) picked up Queen Elizabeth in a video segment; J.K. Rowling read from “Harry Potter” before Voldemort rose from the ground; Mary Poppins floated into the stadium under black umbrellas; and Mr. Bean (actor Rowan Atkinson) played on his iPhone during an orchestra performance.

Music tied everything together. The London Symphony Orchestra played the theme song from the Oscar-winning film “Chariots of Fire.” A lengthy mix featuring some of the country’s most memorable artists – The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Queen, The Sex Pistols, Prodigy, Eurythmics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Amy Winehouse and others – played as 1,427 people danced across the stage.

It concluded with Paul McCartney leading the crowd of 80,000 in a sing-along of “Hey Jude.” The crowd sang “na na na na,” and the spirit around this Olympics seemed to shift.

The angst over the ineptitude of the London 2012’s security contractor, G4S, concerns about Olympic Games lanes jamming up traffic, and complaints about the Olympic brand police receded. Enthusiasm and energy for the start of the Olympics replaced the concern.

Before the show began, crowds said that security lines getting into the Olympic Park moved swiftly. Their only complaint – the beer lines were too long – underscored the change in attitude that took place as the country shifted from frustration to celebration of the Olympics.

Though Boyle created a show that was about “the generosity of the British people,” he took the microphone before it began to remind spectators that they all remember that the night is really about the athletes.

“These people believe in a spirit that is quite transformative,” Boyle said, encouraging the audience to give them a warm welcome.

It’s a message that’s been repeated throughout the week leading up to the Games. London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games Chairman Sebastian Coe spoke to the IOC about it on Tuesday, and almost every quote he’s given the press has underscored the fact that the athletes have spent half their lifetime training for one moment on the world’s stage.

In his speech Friday night, he put it this way: “All my life I have loved sport. You have to love sport to compete in it. There is a truth to sport, a purity, a drama, an intensity, a spirit that makes it irresistible to take part in and irresistible to watch.

“London 2012 seeks to capture all of this. London 2012 will inspire a generation.”

That message is one London organizers will reiterate throughout the coming weeks. On Friday night, though, it was all about the Brits.

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