A defining moment for Britain

Person waving Union Jack How do you pin down national identity?

Only rarely do countries get the opportunity to describe themselves to a watching world. Today's Olympic opening ceremony is a defining moment for this country - literally.

But trying to pin down national identity is always a difficult and dangerous occupation - even more so if your chosen medium involves marshalling 1,000 people, nine geese and 70 sheep on a sports field.

The man who has taken on that challenge, film-director Danny Boyle, accepts that in looking to please everybody he is "bound to fail". His aim is to put on a show in which the vast majority of Britons can say they found "something of themselves".

He understands the risk that in portraying itself, Britain might be seen as backward looking, wallowing in its past, nostalgic for the "good old days". Boyle admits he has been alert to the beguiling nature of what he calls "muffin moments".

Equally, a portrait of Britain that hopes to discover national character in London buses, Marmite soldiers and faded celebrities risks being glib and shallow.

There is a balance to be struck between the "pomp and punk" faces of Britain, as Boyle has put it. The United Kingdom is a land of contradiction and paradox and tonight's show will only be true to this country's complex personality if it celebrates both.

Fireworks over Olympics stadium after dress rehearsal for opening ceremony Fireworks were seen over the Olympic stadium after a dress rehearsal

We love the disciplined order of ceremonial and pageantry. But we resent any authority that tries to herd us into line.

We are profoundly proud of our art and invention - the land of Shakespeare and Newton, Darwin and Dickens. But we also revel in the quirky, the absurd and downright daft - the land of Monty Python and Mr Blobby, the Sex Pistols and Little Britain.

Boyle has said the show needs to be "idiosyncratic". He is right - that is a defining characteristic of my country. Austerity may have done us a favour - it would have been quite wrong for London to have attempted to match the extravagance and grand uniformity of Beijing's ceremony four years ago.

Not for us regimented orthodoxy on a vast scale. We celebrate individuality and incongruity. It is that quality which underpins this country's tolerance and sense of fair play. Britain likes to see itself as the little guy standing up to the bully.

Olympics coverage online

Olympics images

Tonight's show needs to reflect our history: the journey from rural economy through industrialisation and urbanisation to regeneration and a reconnection with our bucolic past is a central thread within the tapestry of the nation.

Tonight's show needs to reflect our creativity: our writing, our song, our invention are all key to this country's personality and development.

But, for me, the ceremony must also be witty and whimsical. It needs to include plenty of jokes at our own expense - some of which the rest of the world may never understand. It should not be too obvious.

In defining Britain to the rest of the world and ourselves, tonight must see a show that is sometimes anarchic, often contradictory and occasionally baffling.

Because that is the kind of people we are.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This article is a reflection of the hype that goes with these events. Everyone looking for deep meanings, historical links and balm for the soul.

    In reality it's just a piece of showbiz to keep the Olympic committee happy. Most Brits would rather the Queen just cut a ribbon and Boris said "Let the games begin".

    It will all be put in the shade by the sport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Defining moment for Britain? I doubt if the international camera teams will pan across to the Newham 'favelas' .

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Al references to attention seeking political clowns should be omitted when the BBC talks about the Olympics

    The BBC should pretend that all politicians are global warming skeptics, like David Bellamy, and they will magically disappear from our screens for the entire duration of the Olympics

    It's time for the athletes to take centre stage

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I don't know about the opening ceremony but the article is about 50 years out of date in describing "Britishness" & was a myth rather than reality even then

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    What "triumphs" these people are machines and dedicate their lives to running fast, so what ?? I don't get it, what is so fantastic about throuwing a stick farther than the other guy, someone please explain >

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I feel the true meaning of the games is in the sports and not just some glitzy big show that heralds the opening. I hope that we will look back on the games remembering the triumphs of the athletes and not on the ceremonies.
    Having said that I am very much looking forward to the opening ceremony and I'm sure it will be great.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    We are picking up signs this is going to be one great opening ceremony.The torch relay showed the depth of feeling, you should have been in London yesterday-phenomenal atmosphere.Please stop griping everyone and set the tone for your kids not to grow up cynically.By the way, no 5Live Blog on the coverage - very poor of the BBC, to add to the lack of on-the-ground pics yesterday!! Air shots indeed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Well that';s all very well, but don't you perhaps think that sport has been taken in ? it's about people running around a track and throwing things as far as they can, not an excuse for nationalistic outburst, perhaps we could have spent the vast amount of money in a more considered way, it's only the sponsors who will benefit in the end and the tax pay will subsidize their profits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Fingers crossed that it isn't simply embarrassing. We don't do this kind of thing very well. Tradition and pomp - yes. Music - yes. Confident spectacles like this...hmmm, no not really.

    I couldn't disagree more with including "jokes at our own expense...that non-brits don't understand". That's pointless and rude. Jokes they do understand, sure - but let's not exclude the rest of the world!

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Maybe the BBC is just behind the curve when it comes to news gathering but other news organisations are reporting that the Emirates cable car has broken down over the Thames this morning - another private sector cock-up. Or maybe the BBC is justv going to behave like PRAVDA for the duration of the games and just report just nice things. Ok if you don't mind having no credibility

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    No pressure then! The Olympics is more than a spectacular and it should focus on the theme of the supra national achievement in the extremes of physical challenges & hence emphasise our common humanity. Anyway £9bn is a huge price to pay for a 'show' even if it is watched by a forecasted billion people (what will the remaining 6 billion be doing). The world will be impressed if nothing goes wrong


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