A defining moment for Britain

Person waving Union Jack Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 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.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 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.

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.