dreams figured prominently at the opening ceremony of the london 2012 olympic games. the night’s first speaker was kenneth branagh, channeling both isambard kingdom brunel and shakespeare’s caliban: “i thought the clouds would part and they would show riches. ready to fall on me, that when I woke up, I cried to dream again!” an entire section was devoted to children’s nightmares before bedtime. Rowan Atkinson fell asleep during his cameo appearance in Chariots of Fire. and mind-blowing shows like the queen jumping out of a helicopter with james bond made 900 million viewers around the world wonder if they were the ones dreaming.
Ten years later, the entire ceremony feels more like a dream than ever. this was britain as a rich, diverse, multicultural, imaginative and inventive nation comfortable with its identity and able to reconcile its contradictions. we were traditional but modern. we were powerful but affectionate. we were orderly but anarchic. we had a vast back catalog of world-changing culture to draw from. we knew how to put on a good show. and we had a sense of humor.
Reading: London olympics opening ceremony
jonathan coe summed up the sentiments of many in his 2018 novel middle england, which devotes an entire chapter to various characters watching the opening ceremony, including doug the skeptical journalist (who writes for, ahem, the gatekeeper): ” what did he feel as he looked at it which was the thrills of an emotion he hadn’t experienced in years, never experienced at all, maybe… yeah, why not come out and admit it? being British. , proud to be part of a nation that had not only achieved such great things, but could now celebrate them with such confidence, irony and lack of self-importance.”
we might even laugh at our notoriously bad weather. Fake clouds paraded around the stadium that night, but real clouds were brewing for Britain: Brexit and its ongoing repercussions, of course. Not to mention the gust of wind scandal, the covid pandemic, the cost of living crisis, the deportations to rwanda, I hardly need to continue. such a moment of national pride, trust and unity now seems almost unimaginable. As a result, the 2012 opening ceremony, officially titled Wonder Islands, has become something of a cultural touchstone. to many, it has effectively become shorthand for britain, back before it all went to shit.
As Caliban, many of us cry to dream again. “it almost brings me to tears to think it was only six years ago,” MP yvette cooper tweeted in 2018, for example, in response to a #onthisday tweet from team gb that read, “take us back to 2012.” Many others have echoed the sentiment, in private, in public, and across the political spectrum. even liz truss invoked it in 2019, albeit to different ends: “we need to revive the 2012 olympic spirit: a modern, patriotic, entrepreneurial vision of britain and we need to use brexit to do that.”
but looking back a decade, we wonder what kind of dream the london 2012 opening ceremony was. was it a dream in the martin luther king sense: an aspiration to what we wanted britain to be? Or was it more of a dream in the “dreams of england” sense of sex pistols: an illusion of something that never really existed?
in his statement on the event program, director danny boyle certainly seemed to be taking the luther king option: “we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement, you catch glimpses of a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of jerusalem – of a better world, the world of true freedom and true equality… a belief that we can build jerusalem. and that it will be for everyone.”
The final sentiment was key to the success of the opening ceremony. Olympic opening ceremonies are a strange genre of entertainment from the start, traditionally fusing elements of circus spectacular, musical theatre, state parade, and ceremonial protocol. The $100 million Beijing 2008 Opening Ceremony pretty much perfected this format, but Boyle took a different approach, one that matched the image of Britain he sought to portray. Yes, there were technical feats and spectacular sequences and standout names, but Boyle’s ceremony really focused on ordinary people and delivered. “Volunteers are the best of us,” Boyle said at the time. “This show belongs to them. this country belongs to them.”
“Danny’s plan was for it to be something created by the people,” says Mark Tildesley, the production designer on Isles of Wonder and Boyle’s regular collaborator. “And that’s all the people: doctors, nurses, surgeons, council children, the whole gamut, that sort of London melting pot. It was homemade, handmade. It wasn’t like China’s show of strength and scale; he was honest and sincere. people owned that program. I feel excited thinking about it, actually.”
“everyone could find themselves in it,” says catherine ugwu, executive producer of the four london 2012 opening and closing ceremonies. “whether we focus on windrush, the suffragettes, the pearly kings and queens, the chelsea retirees, cnd protesters, you name it, you were there. everyone felt they had a role to play and that they were included. that’s a rare thing in this country, and I think that’s what people appreciate.”
the london olympic organizing committee’s decision to invite boyle was unanimous, says ugwu. “Everyone thought he was perfect for the role. the question was whether danny thought it was something he wanted to do.”
Shortly thereafter, in an empty production office in Soho, Boyle immediately began canvassing ideas from his core team, many of whom had been regular contributors on his film and stage projects: Tildesley, writer Frank Cotrell- boyce, producer tracey seaward, underworld’s rick smith as musical director, costume designer suttirat anne larlarb. “We did different things,” Tildesley explains. “Like, the theme would be ‘favorite song,’ so each person would have five songs that they could play for everyone and explain why they thought they were important.” after their meetings, cottrell-boyce would take the “babble” out of them, tildesley continues. “And when he would come back to liverpool, he would email us in some sort of order that made sense and had structural relevance to poetry, drama, world history, you name it.”
The queen’s memorable entrance came during a discussion about what people around the world associate with Britain, says Tildesley. “She is the queen and james bond. so we thought, ‘okay, that’s it, let’s get the two of them together. [to Buckingham Palace] to direct her, she was coming from the dentist in a taxi and getting her hair done. Then she said to Danny, ‘Do you think I should say something? How about I say, ‘Good evening, Mr Bond?’ I thought, “I can’t believe the queen is saying this.”
outsiders were also struck by boyle’s approach. “one thing that has always stuck with me was danny’s sense of teamwork and collaboration,” says dancer akram khan, who choreographed and performed a memorable sequence on the theme of mortality, backed by emeli’s rendition of abode with me watermelon Kahn recalls his first meeting with Boyle and about 20 other people: “If you didn’t know what Danny Boyle was like, you wouldn’t know who the hell was running the meeting… he wasn’t running because of dominance or being outgoing; he guided listening. We all feel heard. And I think this job turned out the way it did because Danny was such a great listener.”
Amid the almost unanimous praise for the ceremony, there were some dissenting voices. some wanted something more traditionally jingoistic; Others objected to the “discordant and fantastic cult” of the NHS (as Douglas Murray put it in The Spectator). Eyebrows were also raised at vaguely political elements, such as suffragist activists, jarrow protesters, and the CND symbol depicted. Conservative MP Aidan Burley called it “the most left-wing opening ceremony I have ever seen”. Toby Young described it as “a £27m party political broadcast for the Labor Party”. The viewer’s Harry Cole commented: “Not even Communist China was brazen enough to extol her nationalized rule over her country so brazenly.” Many on the right wondered how David Cameron’s coalition government could have let Boyle get away with it.
“if you go with danny boyle, you’ll get something punk and exotic,” says tildesley. “But he wasn’t really driven to be a politician, ever. i know some people will cough and swear and say he was too left wing, but mr bean is not a left winger. the green and pleasant land is not leftist. cricket is not leftist. the soldiers who whistle melodies are not from the left. emeli sandé’s song is not from the left”. few would label the queen or james bond as particularly “left-wing”.
It could be said that there was also politicization in the other direction. Boyle then revealed how the incoming culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, lobbied to reduce or cut the NHS stream. Boyle refused and threatened to remove all the volunteers from the ceremony. The government side (which, after all, was funding the show) brought their own list of things to include, such as references to the Magna Carta, Britain’s role in world wars, and more. Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, apparently “got it”, but many other politicians didn’t.
khan remembers watching a rehearsal of his dance sequence in the stadium alongside some visiting politicians (whom he prefers not to name). The dance included autobiographical elements drawn from Khan’s experience growing up in London as the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, and featured a child dancer. “They didn’t know I was there,” says Khan, “and this official said, ‘Just out of curiosity, why is there a boy who looks like an Indian?’ the room fell silent. it was quite a shock. and danny said, ‘because this represents london. this represents england. it’s us.’”
From today’s perspective, maybe it’s more of a case of “this was us”. “It should be part of the national curriculum,” Seaward says. “say: ‘this was the moment and this is what the united kingdom stood for at the time’, because it seems that in the intervening 10 years, most of that has been deconstructed. the welfare state is being deconstructed. the nhs is in total crisis. educational authorities are in crisis. the union itself is in crisis. so there was this moment that we held in our hand like a treasure, and that has been for 10 years, shattered. And when I look back, it actually makes me feel very melancholic.”
it’s true that britain around 2012 was still a long way from anyone’s dream of jerusalem. the Conservative-led coalition government had already started making savage cuts in public services under its austerity programme. in august 2011 there were riots in london and other british cities. In May 2012, then-Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the term “hostile environment” to describe her government’s increasingly harsh immigration policies. As Owen Jones of The Guardian said earlier this year: “The obsession with the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony is revealing, because this faction believes that Britain was a utopian wonderland at the time. It wasn’t. It was four years after an epic financial crash and the Tories were cutting the British welfare state into tiny pieces.”
perhaps england was dreaming after all, then. pining for an imaginary time “when britain was great” can be a self-defeating and possibly hypocritical course. after all, this is a stick that progressive-minded Brits often use to beat their more conservative opponents.
Like all opening ceremonies, London 2012 was never designed to be a documentary. “You can’t do the Olympic opening and tell the whole truth,” admits Khan. “Because [Britain] dominated and raped and has a bad history of divide and rule, basically empire. there’s a lot of anger towards that because it’s passed down from generation to generation. Institutional racism is still very prevalent within the police force, within the government.”
That doesn’t make Boyle wrong for wanting to tell a positive story, says Khan. “I wanted to tell a story of beautiful things. and celebrate britain the way britain should be celebrated, as a place of trust, warmth, kindness and everything i felt as a child, but the world has changed.”
It wasn’t just about politics, says Catherine Ugwu: “I think people are also nostalgic because it’s something that everyone thought made Britain look cool. We’re kind of a skeptical nation, because we think we don’t have confident enough to believe that we have the skills and the ability to deliver these things but then when we did, and when we pointed out to everyone the wonderful things that we do… I think people felt proud yeah, they chose hand the things we want to refer to but then isn’t that what celebrations are about and isn’t that what we sometimes have to do which is to remind ourselves what to love of who we are”.
identity is always about telling stories and as much as it was a cultural event, isles of wonder was one of the few attempts to tell a new, modern and inclusive story about what britain was, is and could be . we may not have been up to the task in the short term, but the fact that the vast majority of us have responded so positively is just as important now as it was then. Given all that has happened since then, Britain needs stories like this more than ever.