Opening Ceremony review: Palace coup provides Danny Boyle's master stroke

By Jasper Rees
Arts journalist


In the end, the most dramatic coup of all happened not in the stadium but at Buckingham Palace.

Enter Daniel Craig, greeted by corgis and flunkies, ushered along lushly carpeted corridors into an inner sanctum.

The whole world will have been thinking the same thing. She hasn't. Surely not. She won't. She did.

"Good evening, Mr Bond," purred the Queen, who had somehow been persuaded to play herself in London 2012's opening ceremony. For that remarkable coup alone, Danny Boyle deserves some sort of gong.

Boyle's task as master of ceremonies behind the scenes at the Olympic Stadium was not to match Beijing, and certainly not to outdo it, but to put clear blue water between the mass participation spectacle of four years ago and our own effort.

Here was a more modest, quirky and humorous celebration of national inclusiveness.

Unlike its 2008 predecessor, this opening ceremony laid careful stress on what we like to think of as the British virtues - individual genius, imaginative flair, freedom of expression and wit.

Boyle certainly had the eclectic cast list to help push his vision of Brand Britain - Sir Kenneth Branagh, JK Rowling, Sir Simon Rattle, Akram Khan, Dizzee Rascal, Rowan Atkinson and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web.

Not forgetting our sovereign and Bradley Wiggins, who entered in a yellow jersey and rang the bell to initiate proceedings.

The idea which emerged was a potted history of this sceptred isle, starting with the Thames which a deftly edited film followed from its source to Big Ben.

We entered the stadium to the strains of iconic hymns from the four nations, sung by children, to find the pastoral paddock of pre-industrial Britain full of gambolling sheep and quacking geese in the shadow of a mocked-up Glastonbury Tor.

In the most dazzling use of stage machinery to the predictive words of Blake's Jerusalem, this green and pleasant land was torn up by the advance of the Industrial Revolution.

Sir Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel in a stovepipe hat channelled Shakespeare's Caliban: "Be not afeared: the isle is full of noise."

And up out of the stadium floor sprouted half a dozen dark satanic mills to usher Britain into its age of prosperous domination and forge five rings which interlocked spectacularly over the stadium.

Flourish and dream

Enter, at this point, the Queen, to be greeted by the national anthem performed by a choir of deaf children who signed as they sang.

This was another theme underpinning Boyle's Britain - one in which the young are encouraged to flourish and dream, encouraged by a uniquely rich children's literature - led by Peter Pan, the proceeds of which fund the Great Ormond Street Hospital for children.

JK Rowling stepped up to read from JM Barrie.

And matching that national treasure trove was a showcase of British pop from the 60s onwards.

Song after iconic song soundtracked a dance show celebrating young love and the power of instant communication facilitated by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who took the audience's applause.

What the watching TV audiences made of hasty references to EastEnders and the NHS, to Gregory's Girl and cricket, is anyone's guess.

As ever with such ceremonies (when not choreographed by the big-spending Chinese), there was an unresolved tussle between the large scale and the intimate, between entertaining those in the stadium and everyone else parked on the sofa.

Many of the close-ups lacked narrative clarity, while a vast spectacle made up of too many component parts was short of epic heft.

Whenever an idea was good, it was because it was simple. There was emotional power in the image of a tree being uprooted and out of the hole in the earth poured Brunel's worker bees.

There was easy wit in Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean, monotonously plinking the single note of a synth in the theme tune to Chariots of Fire as he dreamed of joining the film's joggers on the beach at St Andrews.

And then the final section before the athletes started piling in turned reflective. Choreographer Akram Khan presented an expressive dance inspired by the horrific events of 7/7, a day after London won the bid to host the Olympics.

Once the teams were gathered in the stadium, the Arctic Monkeys sang John Lennon's Come Together as a fleet of winged cyclists, representing doves of peace, circled the track. One of them even took off.

This opening ceremony sometimes took off too, not least when David Beckham arrived by speedboat to hand the flame to Sir Steve Redgrave, who with other great British Olympians came good on London 2012's promise to hand on to the next generation.

Nothing adorned the evening like the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, composed of individual petal-shaped torches ascending to meet in the night sky. There was no chance of Sir Paul McCartney topping that.

It should be recorded that the most spontaneous cheers of the night, apart from for Team GB entering to Bowie's "Heroes" in their gold epaulets, were for the volunteers who made this happen. Hats off to all 75,000 of them.

Jasper Rees is the author of Bred of Heaven: One Man's Quest to Reclaim His Welsh Roots

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Team GB's gold epaulets were designed by Stella McCartney.

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