Busby Berkeley for the billions: the Olympic Friday night show

Picture: Nick J Webb
Picture: Nick J Webb

At risk of appearing to have been unexpectedly wowed by the Olympics twice in quick succession, here is some more applause for London 2012-related matters. Last time it was for the torch relay, which was more of-the-people and less hype-and-hoopla than anticipated when it passed through Stirling in mid-June. And now, six weeks later, the all-singing, all-dancing, all-pretend-royal-parachuting opening ceremony has been another source of pleasure rather than bah-humbug grumbling.

I write as one for whom such ceremonies – opening or closing – have until now seemed little more than fancy bookends surrounding the main sporting event itself. Bumptious galas to be ignored in favour of a good book, a drink with friends or a spot of gardening. Part of me even hankers after the studied formality of old, when dull speeches were preceded by teams processing into the stadium in almost-serried-rank groupings (and with none of that undignified gurning to camera and taking of smartphone pictures so evident when the athletes entered the London 2012 arena on Friday night).

But these are flashier, more interactive and more televisual times, when no one is going to watch dull – so if you’re going to put on a show, then you had better put on a damn good one. And Friday night’s effort by Danny Boyle and his team was, by pretty much any definition (well, by mine, anyway), a damn good show.

Not really being interested in opening ceremonies, I began by dipping in and out and even not watching at all. The preamblic waffle from Huw Edwards and co prompted a legstretch round the village – which meant that by the time I was back in front of the screen the Dickensian chimneys had risen up and it wasn’t long until the NHS bedpans-and-broomsticks sequence kicked off. I also – in the modern multi-tasking way of such things – browsed a few websites while half-watching the TV, and it was around this time that I started to notice the indications that this was turning into something more than just a Eurovisionesque evening of dull televisual wallpaper.

The first was that the NHS sequence wasn’t anywhere near as cringeworthy as feared – rather, it was good fun and done with feeling. The scale of the show was impressive – it was Busby Berkeley for the billions – but there was also a mix of coherence and craziness to this and to the adjacent sequences that brought a real momentum and oomph to proceedings.

The next crikey-this-is-lively moment came from elsewhere. I was skimming the Political Betting discussion board, a heavy-traffic site where trenchantly held and often completely diverse opinions are politely (and often impolitely) debated. And there was an unusual – even startling – level of consensus among the pb.com chatterati: the Olympic show was “excellent”, “ace”, “bloody good” and so on.

This was being said by those on both the left and the right, as well as by the middlegrounders – and suddenly it seemed clear that Boyle was succeeding in pulling off a monumentally difficult stunt. With a brief to combine entertainment with magisterial gravitas, social comment with sporting inconsequentiality, he was managing, by and large, to get the whole political spectrum smiling and applauding and setting aside grumbles and grudges, at least for 90 minutes or so.

(Of course there were dissenters, on pb.com and elsewhere – but surprisingly few, both at the time and since. The online Scottish nationalist commenters found plenty to moan about, but that’s what they do, so no surprise there. They would only have been happy had the show featured a giant Hindenburg-style airship decked out to resemble Alex Salmond, hovering above the stadium with Eck’s eyes emitting laser beams that took the form of the saltire while spelling out the words “Death to the Union” and “It’s our oil”. And even then they would have complained that the BBC had the TV rights.)

By now I was watching much more intently – no more evening strolls, far fewer laptop distractions. The punters at pb.com were also saying, again and again, things like “The Bond/Queen thing was brilliant” – so it was off to find an iPlayer-style reprise of “the Bond/Queen thing”. And it was brilliant – I’m agnostic when it comes to the monarchy, and would rather watch gangster movies than 007, but it’s hard to imagine that this could have been done any better than it was by Boyle, Daniel Craig, Her Madge, the corgis and various stunt doubles. Goodness knows what the editorial staff at the Sun made of it, given that they had run pretty much the exact same idea as their April Fool joke earlier in the year.

By now it was clear why the moviemaking auteur Boyle – and not a stage impresario such as Andrew Lloyd Webber – had been given the gig. There was a complexity and breadth to what was being offered that needed a command of the digital and technological arts, a firm hand on the multimedia rudder. Take, for instance, the actual rudder being steered (or so it seemed) by David Beckham in pretend-Bond mode aboard the world’s most absurdly illuminated and gloriously swish speedboat as it skimmed its way up the Thames amid pulses of light. The first sequence of this – some of it pre-shot – was a hoot, and whoever cast teenage footballer Jade Bailey as the statuesque front-of-boat torchbearer, hair billowing with the speed, deserves an Olympic medal of their own.

And the second Becks sequence – when he handed the flame to Sir Steve Redgrave, who then jogged into the stadium, lit the torches of the seven young athletes (another brilliantly executed idea) before the actual cauldron was lit – was oddly affecting. Beckham and emotional depth – two ideas not often found in the same sentence, but it was that kind of night.

Other great moments included the thoughtful, slow rendition of Abide With Me by Emeli Sandé and Akram Khan’s dance group, in honour of those who died on 7 July 2005, the day after the Olympic bid had been won. (The NBC network in the US decided to not show this during their edited pretend-live broadcast, preferring some inane interview with the American Idol host. More fool them.)

And the cauldron itself – how cool was that, if you’ll pardon the bad-physics analogy? Not only was it a contraption of considerable beauty, but the complexity of design seemed to embody the whole evening. What if even one of the component parts had jammed? But of course it didn’t jam, just as the whole show appeared to run on the most impressively slick rails throughout.

Not everything would have been to everyone’s taste, of course – that would have been impossible and probably wasn’t Boyle’s intention anyway. Personally I could have done without the Rowan Atkinson / Chariots of Fire spoof – yes, got that joke after the first five seconds, thank you. But Mr Bean is one of those wordless global brands that transcends language, like Pingu the Penguin, so he was probably worth his place in such an international context.

Similarly, having a talented but sometimes tiresome Liverpudlian pensioner pound out Hey Jude at the end jarred somewhat, diluting the mood that had climaxed with the cauldron-lighting sequence. Suddenly the show risked turning into just another singalong festival, and maybe the civic authorities should have pulled the plug as they did with McCartney and Bruce Springsteen in Hyde Park a fortnight earlier. But the old crooner-rocker is never likely to offend anyone, yellow submarines had been in evidence earlier, and the tone of the evening was solid enough to withstand a few minutes of sentimentality.

So this one among the 27 million UK viewers really liked the show – and in the three days of sporting action since then, Lizzie Armitstead and her colleagues notwithstanding, nothing else produced by the Games has come close to feeling so much fun or so heartwarming. These might be difficult times in all sorts of economic and social ways, but Boyle’s work must surely have lifted – however briefly – the mood for a huge number of people.

I probably won’t buy the DVD – but it was certainly a well above average piece of Friday night entertainment.