Whimsical, illustrious, eccentric, creative - cabaret captures Britain

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


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To the celebrated Hollywood serial blockbusters Analyse This and Analyze That, we must now add Danny Boyle's epic Isles of Wonder, which should have been subtitled Translate The 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, If You Can.

Boyle's GBP27 million (HK$329 million) homage to his homeland and attempt to show Britain's warts, beauty spots and all to the 21st century multi-connected and hypercritical world was undoubtedly a successful, wacky, spellbinding, humorous mind boggler.

But you had to be British to truly decode what on earth was going on, and even many of us Brits were often scratching our heads. How many of the estimated more than one billion watching around the world had previously heard the music to The Archers, the long-running BBC radio soap opera detailing - for over 40 years - the bucolic but often-troubled lives of rural Britons?

Of course, it was never going to be an easy feat for the maverick film director to relay the many marvels and achievements of Britain since ... er, sorry - how long did we go back into our long history? Ah yes, it seemed we began the tale in the domesticated farm animal-infested meadows a couple of decades before the 18th century industrial revolution.

There was no mention of the Romans, Boadicea, the Magna Carta, the plague, the Pilgrim Fathers, a thumb and nose to Rome, nor Lord Nelson, much to the disappointment of us history purists supping warm pints of over-priced beer.

There was, though, for this expat Beijinger, an odd sense of homesickness during the iron-smelting and belching smoke-stack scenes, and it was clear Boyle was sending an anvil-heavy message to the Chinese and Indians about pollution and choking development - as well as reminding us Britons about whence we came.

The long tribute to the NHS and the importance of the welfare state in the make-up of Great Britain was not lost on the envious billions watching world wide. What a gem our health service is, as if we needed reminding. The NHS inclusion had millions of Britons whooping in satisfaction and acknowledgment of this special national treasure.

With a dash of a maniac's genius and a generous helping of Eurovision kitsch, Boyle and his 10,000 dancers, celebrities, dignitaries and parachutists - including Queen Elizabeth - showed Britain at its whimsical, illustrious, eccentric, creative best.

I watched the opening ceremony in a London Soho pub with a clutch of veteran journalists who were at the last Olympics in Beijing in 2008. 'Stitch that, Beijing!' one reporter tweeted, as the involuntary patriotism among our small group of hardened internationalists made neck hairs stand to attention and eyes water.

We all had to check ourselves as the emotions welled from the notes and twisted moves of the Abide With Me dancers. What on earth, we collectively asked, is Team Boyle doing to our senses?

The group of nurses - 'We're all Labour supporters,' declared one - issued a sharp 'shut up!' to a group of loud off-duty soldiers, who were pouring comical derision on the events unfolding on the screen.

Certain segments of Doyle's extravaganza went on for far too long and many of the tourists and foreign journalists in the bar began reaching for their phones for entertainment. Some joined the off-duty soldiers and started jeering and joking loudly at the screen, ignoring the scowls from the Florence Nightingales.

But all us Britons were unified in our cheering of the appearance of Mr Bean, the NHS, the queen, David Beckham, James Bond and cyclists Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins. That's what makes Britain tick, should you ask.

'At least we didn't embarrass ourselves,' one female Briton from Bradford noted with delightful timing as the cauldron was lit by the next generation. The British press was soon full of triumphalism. 'Follow that, Rio!' was a popular sentiment.

You can't compare nation against nation with a three-hour cabaret, however. Beijing 2008 had 2,008 drummers and London 2012 had around 15. But both sets made equal amount of soft power noise.

Opening ceremonies do strange things to a nation. They induce unbridled patriotism, a sense of arrogance and immense pride. But such showboating is a positive force for it induces a sudden surge of interest and belief in the Olympic ideals that should endure over the 17 days of competition.

Boyle's whimsical and often political take of Britain in 2012 has reinforced the belief that the Olympics are a force for good in Britain and the world.

Crucially, we Britons now know that we love Mr Bean and the thrill of the 110 hurdles et al just as much as everyone else on the planet.