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Michael Coveney: Danny delivers Olympic delight

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Who could have doubted that Danny Boyle would deliver the goods? As the nation reeled in collective, stunned admiration for his miraculous Olympic Games opening ceremony spectacular on Friday night, Boyle himself, who dedicated the show to his late father, must be counting it as a peak in his career higher even than Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire or Frankenstein at the National last year.  

As in Frankenstein there was a throbbing soundtrack by Underworld, a huge bell at the start (rung by Tour de France champ Bradley Wiggins) and a sublime transformation of an English pastoral by the irruption of the Industrial Revolution; at the National, it was a steam train bearing down on the audience, at the Olympics, a forest of smoking chimney stacks rising from the meadow.

But the scene everyone's talking about is the unexpected revelation of Her Majesty the Queen as a Bond girl. Daniel Craig ambled into Buckingham Palace in black tie and tux and was announced by a flunkey: "Mr Bond, your Majesty."

At this point I believed that either Jeanette Charles (the well known royal impersonator) or Helen Mirren would swivel round at the desk. But no, it really was Her Majesty: "Good evening, Mr Bond," she said, without turning a hair or moving a face muscle, and she marched out of the room and into the waiting helicopter. 

Inside the 'copter, a royal double waved at the clouds while down below a suddenly molten version of the great Winston Churchill statue in Parliament Square waved back; and then she parachuted into the Olympic park on a giant Union Jack before appearing - and now it was the authentic Queen again - inside the stadium in the same salmon-coloured dress and hat.

You couldn't believe your eyes. And then a mixed choir of deaf and hearing children sang both verses of the National anthem in their pyjamas. And a massed phalanx of National Health Service nurses joined a Peter Pan and Mary Poppins routine with their childish patients, a stage full of medical beds and J K Rowling reading the bed-time story.

Boyle created the greatest television show on earth while brilliantly deploying the full range of his skills in film and theatre, darting in and out of recorded performance and live action with a panache that was literally breathtaking.

This was no hollow patriotic pageant, but a spiritually intense and emotionally dedicated survey of our culture and customs that took its cue from William Blake's Jerusalem and had more than a sense of Jez Butterworth's play of the same name.

You can see why Mark Rylance - who withdrew after the tragic and unexpected death of one of his step-daughters - was the obvious choice to recite Caliban's speech about the island full of noises; but Kenneth Branagh made a stirring job of it and stomped about in a top hat and frock coat as the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, head of the reforming industrial society.

The whole show was entitled "Isles of Wonder" while the royal interlude was "Happy and Glorious." The stuntman who parachuted out of that 'copter in the Queen's dress insisted on holding a handbag; the Queen's female stand-in on land was none other than Julia McKenzie. The two corgis featured were indeed the Queen's, Holly and Monty.

The second big comedy sequence was a send-up of Chariots of Fire, with Simon Rattle conducting the LSO playing the Vangelis theme and Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean strumming the single-note obbligato on a keyboard while checking his mobile, picking his nose and falling asleep... at which point the original film came up, with the late Ian Charleson, Ben Cross and a young, fresh-faced Nicholas Farrell running along the beach in their white shorts and vests; and suddenly Bean was among them, slipping crossly into last place and hitching a lift to cheat his way to the front. Breasting the tape, Bean suddenly awoke in time to play the last note, a rude raspberry.

As the New York Times rather snootily observed, only a nation secure in a sense of its own superiority could be so humorous about itself, but that was what was so delightful about Boyle's show. And it had plenty of time for the things that really matter: this is the first time that women have been represented by every competing country in the Games, so the appearance of the suffragettes was doubly appropriate; and the dead in the July 7 London bombings were commemorated in "Abide With Me" sung by Scottish pop star Emeli Sande and a muscular, sinuous dance led by Akram Khan with a small boy (it later emerged that this segment was cut by NBC in its live relay).
Boyle insisted on paying tribute to modest Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world-wide web, as well as providing a fantastic resume of popular music from the Sixties and the Sex Pistols through to "I'm forever blowing bubbles" (the West Ham football anthem) and a wicked live turn from East End rapper Dizzee Rascall.

The parade of the athletes and the official welcome speeches created a rather long and boring lacuna of 90 minutes (the BBC commentary team was flailing around for much of that time), but at least the show went on with the planting of each national flag (all 204 of them) on the Glastonbury Tor.

It was past midnight when the show proper resumed and the Arctic Monkeys provided a real highlight with their beautiful, rolling  version of the Beatles' "Come Together" as the compulsory provision of Olympic doves, wittily interpreted by Boyle and one of the night's true heroes - lighting man Patrick Woodroffe - as a flock of illuminated winged bicycle riders.

Outside, David Beckham was completing the last leg of the Olympic torch's progress through the nation by speedboat, looking much more like James Bond than Daniel Craig ever does as he shot through Tower Bridge, and although the last recipient of the golden cheese-grater was five-times Olympic champion Steve Redgrave, the actual lighting of the cauldron was done by seven nominated young athletes, capping the night's sustained theme of participation and "inclusivity": the Queen joined in, as well as thousands of volunteers, many Olympians, and many more of tomorrow's athletics stars.
As the flags had been planted, 200 copper kettles had been deposited around the central reservation and, when lit, these rose on huge steel stems to form the Olympic cauldron (now controversially invisible from outside the stadium): a stunning effect, followed by a sensational fireworks display.

Finally, and all too predictably, there was Paul McCartney croaking out "Hey Jude" and - the one serious mistake of the evening (which was now a not very early morning) - clapping his hands above his head and demanding a singalong, like some sad old uncle at a children's party that had gone on for just a bit too long.

Suddenly it felt like an after party, not a launch. But no-one, least of all me, was in any sort of  mood to complain. It had been a wonderful evening and not, in the best possible way, a triumphant one: surprising, serious, witty and moving. Almost made one proud to be British.


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