Opening Ceremony 2012:

The ceremony may be old news, but the items director Danny Boyle chose as illustrations of Britishness could easily be a blueprint for a blog like mine, celebrating the differences between US and UK life.  This is the intro to a series of posts treating items in the opening ceremony that foreigners might not have understood.

Official London 2012 Olympics logo in official colors (the one on the left is for the Paralympics). The shapes are intended to read 2012 but to my eye this is…not obvious.

It’s ironic that the Olympics turns so many people into couch potatoes for the duration, sitting on sofas watching the fittest people in sports (UK English: in sport) leap and twist and run and throw.  And it’s also ironic that an event that everyone is at pains to say promotes harmony between nations should be so overtly nationalistic, not least at the opening ceremonies, where the trick is to balance two human impulses: to celebrate the characteristics of your own tribe and to welcome visitors from other tribes.

This time last week British newspaper critics were having a field day (pun intended) with the opening ceremony; almost all of them praised it. Over here, we’d speculated for months.  Could we compete with Beijing’s staggeringly beautiful ceremony?  Would we try?  Should we try?  The  thousands upon thousands of volunteers and professionals who took part had done a medal-worthy job of keeping the secret, and in fact the participants didn’t necessarily know much about what was planned beyond the part they were to appear in.  Director Danny Boyle’s #savethesurprise campaign on Twitter helped, too.

The countdown clock in Trafalgar Square.

In the event (pun also intended), he gave us a tribute to the real, everyday United Kingdom that I know and love.  An ex-pat has divided loyalties;  I’m required once by birth and once by my oath to give 100% allegiance to each of two countries, but on the opening night, I was British and proud of it.

Okay, the giant baby was creepy, I didn’t really need the boy-meets-girl business, and some of the singers had serious problems with pitch (could they not hear themselves properly?), but most of the evening I was smiling, a few times I was cheering, and a couple of times I almost jumped up off the couch, which is the most athletic thing I’ve done since because the BBC is providing 26 television channels showing all the sports.  At our house these days you hear things like “I’m going to the gym this afte—Wait!  Is that the second qualifying heat for the kayak slalom?  I’ve gotta watch that.”

Watching the ceremony, though, I kept wondering what people outside the UK made of it.  I’m sure I didn’t catch all the references myself, and I live here.  Bernadette McNulty suggested in The Telegraph that foreigners might think it was the “strangest episode of Downton Abbey they’ve ever seen”, and a quick canvas of American friends turned up boredom, puzzlement, and outright mystification along with praise–some faint and some with enthusiasm, at least for a few bits of the evening here and there.

Needs no caption.

But as for me, I was hooked as soon as I heard the shipping forecast. Again, I wasn’t the only one; Mick Brown in the same newspaper said “Who cares what [foreigners] thought? This was our opening ceremony and if we want to include the Shipping Forecast…then we will.”

So tomorrow, or maybe even later today, I’ll tell you about the shipping forecast and why I leaped off the couch (okay, maybe I just sat upright, punched the air, and said “Yes!  The Shipping Forecast!”) because this opening ceremony was about my Britain.  And then, in the next few posts, I’ll tell you about other aspects of the UK that the opening ceremony referred to, but that viewers outside the UK might not have understood.  And if any of you are still wondering things like “Who was the guy with the cigar?” or “Why did it say GOSH in the center of the stadium?”, I hope you’ll write and ask.  I’ll give you the best answers I can, but right now, I’ve got to switch the channel from the track and field to the trampoline gymnastics, while the digital recorder captures the equestrian show jumping.  And tonight if I’m lucky I’ll use the BBC web site’s  “catch up” feature to see the archery, or maybe the swimming.
All photos taken from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.



Filed under Culture, Current events, Sports

22 responses to “Opening Ceremony 2012:

  1. Downton Abbey – blargh. I hate Downton Abbey. (And why “Abbey,” anyway? It’s not an abbey, it’s a big house. Downton Big House, it should be called. Downton Hall if you like; Downton Towers; Downton Palace. Just Downton, like just Chatsworth.)

    The Shipping Forecast, on the other hand, I love.

    The Mary Poppinses were too Disneyfied and too nice and cuddly. Mary Poppins wasn’t cuddly at all, she was brisk.

    • Mary Korndorffer

      I know it’s only fiction, but they probably chose the name Downton Abbey because many historic houses in Britain are built on the site of, or with the stones from, a monastery dissolved by Henry VIII in 1534, e.g. Woburn Abbey (birthplace of the Churchills). In fact the house where DA is filmed is Highclere (Castle, not that is is embattled) and does not have that sort of history, see

  2. I actually haven’t had the chance to watch the opening ceremonies, but they are recorded for me when I catch a moment. I’ll come back to this post when I do! Currently, I’ve been enjoying watching the gymnastics, volley ball, and rowing competitions. In between I’ve been reading up on the history of the event. I quickly finished The Naked Olympics and thought it was wonderful. All my posts on The Olympics and the books I review about them can be found here:

  3. Reblogged this on Anakalian Whims and commented:
    Hey Americans! Chat about The Olympics with my friend who is over there, right now, in the thick of it!

  4. MFC

    OK. I’m in the U.S. and, although there were parts of the opening ceremony that I adored, (such as the “007” thing with the Queen, and the gauntlet of construction workers, and the children’s choruses), you asked about the puzzling parts. Well, there were too many to count, so I’ll limit myself to three: (1). Why was Kenneth Branagh strutting around doing nothing except reciting one Skakespearean thing and then doing nothing else but smiling approvingly at everything? (2) What was particularly English or Olympian about a girl and boy getting together via a lost cellphone? (3) Ditto re: “Hey, Jude”?

  5. I couldn’t watch. Now I’m hoping to catch it on video somewhere. It was put on YouTube, but taken down almost immediately. The Rowan Atkinson thing was great, but that’s all I could manage to find. Would have loved the rest, though I’m sure I would have missed lots of the more obscure references.

  6. Checking in from Northern California: I thought it was fabulous. If I missed a great deal, I remain blissfully unaware. Loved the pageantry and the energy. Loved the humor. Very satisfying. (I assumed that “Hey Jude” was McCartney’s nod to John, but maybe I’m just being sentimental. I know there were tears in my eyes and memories about seeing them at the Cow Palace in 1965. Yes, I was an infant!)

    Am I the only one who found the Beijing ceremonies spectacular but a bit impersonal? It certainly was visually gorgeous, but I didn’t connect with it in any meaningful way.

    Sydney is still my favorite (fire eaters!), though I have a huge soft spot for the gossamer wings in Atlanta and the lighting of the torch by flaming arrow in Barcelona.

    My only regret was that NBC chose to air that boring interview with Phelps instead of the tribute to the London bombing victims. Very bad judgement, in my eyes. We’re not THAT provincial, NBC!

  7. Was there anyone in the world who realised that the man was Brunel? I thought it was Abe Lincoln for a moment. Bored to tears so I just annoyed the cat.

    • My husband, for one -- but I'm planning to do a post on Brunel, after the shipping forecast.

    • Mary Korndorffer

      Well I thought he was Dickens, until he began with the Shakespeare, so I got all confused. I’m not sure that Brunel _started_ the industrial revolution either, but let’s not get too tied up with the facts? The forging of the rings was super, quite Tolkein-ish.

    • I wasn’t SURE it was Brunel until they said it was in the commentary, but between the stovepipe hat and the cigar it seemed like a good bet. Of course, the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, long before Brunel’s day, but the hats were different then. Brunel is simply the best-loved figure from the industrial age.

      • I suppose they hoped that people’s history was rubbish. At least that pretty girl who did the cameo about the lost cellphone was well worth watching. I bet the agents are battering at her door by now.

  8. Thanks to everybody for replies! Will try to keep the posts coming thick and fast until All Is Explained, or at least all that I picked up on. (There was probably a lot more that I was too new at being British to pick up on.)

  9. OK, I really LOVE the Brits, but there was so much goings on in the opening ceremonies that I just plain got bored. Too fussy. & I was ignorant of many references—but really didn’t want to have them explained. And kids are only cute for so long as far as I’m concerned. Bah humbug. Give me those Chinese drummers any time, but don’t you dare take my Digestives away.

    • MFC

      Yes! “Fussy” is exactly the word! Thank you, Betsy. There were many wonderful parts of the ceremony. But, overall, it did appear fussy to me, too.

  10. Candida

    Well, as a Brit, I outright laughed a lot in the ceremony, and that was the feeling that stayed with me after. Things keep popping into my head and I just giggle. Mostly not Mr Bean, who is to my mind the depressing nadir of Rowan Atkinson’s once witty career (though I did like the idea of simultaneously wallowing in and taking the mick out of Chariots of Fire) but the Michael Fish hurricane clip, the Shipping Forecast, the fact that a bunch of Sergeant Peppers appeared to walk in BEFORE the First World War, imagining the meeting where someone said to the Queen “so, we have this storyline where you parachute in…” – the sheer audacity of so much of it.
    If you’re going to blog on Brunel (the engineering nerds in this house had him pinned in under a second too), please do cover his tomb – and the one next to it, which I think is one of the best surprises in Kensal Green cemetery. (Along with the grave of James Barrie.)

  11. Cheryl

    I finally got to see the NBC version of the Opening Ceremonies earlier this week. I haven’t been in the UK since my honeymoon in ’89, but am enough of an Anglophile and regular reader of this blog and other commentary that much of it was understandable to me. I didn’t realize Branagh was playing Brunel; I just thought he was supposed to be an example of the men who led the Industrial Revolution…but now that I know that, Brunel makes perfect sense. I agree about the baby and the boy-meets-girl-girl-loses-phone storyline, but it was really nice to see Tim Berners-Lee get some recognition, even if the US announcers had no clue who he was. I got chills watching his quote stream around the stadium. I got chills and tears in my eyes quite a lot, actually. The construction workers, the UK marching in–so much would hit me like a bolt and I’d find myself blinking at the screen. I was annoyed that the announcers failed to identify all of the people bringing in the Olympic flag at the end, or to explain why they were there fully (I did some searching to find out). And maybe it was intentional, but it was surprisingly difficult to find out the names of the Seven Young Athletes Who Lit The Torch…that was not only omitted in the broadcast, but also in the printed articles I’ve read.

    • Candida

      Oh, the bit with the representatives of the workers who built the stadium lining the tunnel was great! Like the inscription above the entrance to Grand Central Station in New York; always good to see the muscle as well as the money remembered, and it happens too rarely in everywhere.

      • That was almost the best, most surprising part — all the people in hardhats. TOO wonderful that they were included. But there’ll be more on that subject in a later post, I hope, so I’ll stop for now…

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