The Olympics opening ceremony revisited

25th November, 2012 4:16 pm

I had just finished my last (official) shift at the Paralympics. Sitting down alone with my last plate of food from the wonderful staff at the Copper Box canteen, I got talking to another volunteer who was at the same table.

As with just about every conversation in those few weeks, we spoke about how it had been for us – and I quickly discovered that this woman was no ordinary pleb volunteer like me.

She had been a volunteer from almost the beginning, from years ago. Retired and keen to do all she could, she had ended up in the midst of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, in charge of one of the maypole groups in the Green and Pleasant Land opening sequence.

She loved her experience of course. It was special. And she said a huge part of what made it special was a guy called Danny Boyle.

In those precious few minutes while we ate and talked, she told me how Boyle had gathered all of the volunteers on her sequence together in rehearsal and explained to them the point of it: that it was about the story of modern Britain, in which life and landscape had been transformed forever by the tumult of the Industrial Revolution. Several of her colleagues apparently wept at his description.

It is almost a cliché now for any public figure looking to impress their audience to wax lyrical (or not so lyrical) about how the Olympics and Paralympics were special and brought us together as a country. But they did. The emotions that it evoked in many of us were powerful and genuinely unifying.

Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony laid the ground for this outpouring of spirit. A beautifully flawed masterpiece, its opening sequence, from the Green and Pleasant Land to Pandemonium and the forging of the Olympic Rings, is surely one of the greatest, if not the greatest, piece of public art that our country has ever seen.

But the whole ceremony spoke to us in a way that politicians on platforms cannot, and perhaps could not, ever do. For me, its overriding theme was: you are welcome here. Wherever you come from, whoever you are, and whatever nation you come from, you are a part of this. You are part of us.

These fundamentally political (not party) messages were conveyed with a wonderfully light touch in the initial movements. From the bright and fun countdown to the journey down the Thames from country to city, the local children popping their balloons and the folk songs of the different parts of the British Isles with footage of them competing against each other on the rugby field, the message remained constant without being preachy: we are different and diverse, and we all belong here.

Then, as the smoke stacks reached into the night and Underworld’s stunning soundtrack pumped out, the epochal slogans of the Suffragists and Suffragettes were forced upon the world just as they forced themselves on the Establishment of the day: Votes for Women; NUWSS Kendal; Deeds Not Words; 1st Woman Suffragist Arrested in London; Women Demand the Vote.

We remembered the fallen of our wars and witnessed the first West Indians emerging blinking into a strange and sometimes hostile land from the Empire Windrush, all while a volunteer cast representing diverse and present Britain blasted away at their drums.

This is our national story: grubby, struggling and painful in its reality, but stunning in its rendition. Danny Boyle showed us who we are. To pay tribute to the NHS, he employed real nurses and staff. When (Sir) Steve Redgrave brought the flame into the stadium, he was flanked by 500 of the workers who built the Olympic Park in their hard hats. An ethic of inclusion ran through the whole spectacle.

On the left, there has been a certain crowing complacency about the ceremony, claiming the ceremony and Danny Boyle as its own. As a lefty myself, I think we should be careful here.

The themes and manner of the ceremony certainly showed off what the left should aspire to, but as a male, pale and (perhaps) stale person, I must say that I felt welcome during the Olympics and Paralympics in a way that I rarely do at a lefty political gatherings (in which someone invariably says that there are far too many people like me in the room).

For Ed Miliband and his brave new ‘One Nation’ Labour Party, the Games and the Opening surely offered an important lesson: that our purpose should be to include rather than exclude.

By generous treatment of his cast and personally explaining his powerful vision, Boyle generated immense loyalty amongst his hard-working volunteers. This is something Miliband and his team need to work hard on with their unpaid workforce – the members, and also with potential new recruits. What does One Nation mean to them?

The activists need to find out what One Nation means, not least in relation to the internal organisation of their party, which is blighted by the politics of favouritism, resentment and perceived unfairness – institutionalised into its culture and rulebook through constant tinkering that seems to mostly serve the interests of insiders.

Avoiding these issues and falling back into the party’s natural boastful tendencies and assumed moral superiority is not good enough. To capture hearts as Boyle did, you need to tell a story that makes sense and show by your own practices what it means.

The inclusive and welcoming ethic that must be at the centre of any meaningful One Nation vision was best expressed for me by an Olympic legend who provided another of my favourite moments of the summer.

In a live rant from the rowing venue where he was working for the BBC, Steve Redgrave raged about an announcer who was pumping up the crowd there to taunt the Australians. Redgrave’s angry message was: “This is not British. This is not the way we do things here. This is not the way we behave.”

The veins in Sir Steve’s head may have been pumping, but the message was in the same spirit as Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony: a sense of decency, respect and appreciation for everyone: inclusion not exclusion.

Redgrave and Boyle (of proudly Irish background) represent the best of British. They both show an immense love of our country and a strong sense of what is best about us.

Boyle said what he wanted of his Opening Ceremony was “graciousness” and “charm”. For me, these are the things we – and Ed Miliband’s One Nation project – should take from the Games above everything else.

This article was originally published on Shifting Grounds.

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