This is a slow country to move. After seven years of preparation, months of publicity, weeks of fractiousness and days of panic, Britain had still not quite adjusted itself to the idea that it was to play host to the 2012 Olympic games. In the end, it took an instant of art to unlock the heart. True, at two hours the opening ceremony on the evening of 27 July in the gleaming new Olympic stadium in east London was, for an instant, on the long side. But the unfolding revelation that a genuine artistic vision of this complicated country was at work – coupled with the evanescence intrinsic to the occasion – sharpened the emotional effect. And, if much of the world was bemused, Britain was duly moved.
The creative director Danny Boyle’s affectionate, people-centred collage of national particularity and inventiveness offered an exuberantly different pantheon from the familiar top-down one – pioneering engineers, toilers of the industrial revolution, suffragettes, musicians, immigrants, children’s writers, the public health service, youngsters out on the town – while respecting (but thus also repositioning) more established figures already secure within it. A formative inspiration was the work of the modernist–romantic film-maker Humphrey Jennings (1907–50), especially his anthology of lesser-known texts (or “images,” as Jennings preferred) charting Britain’s transformation, Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers. The influence of Jennings’s lyrical wartime documentaries – including the soundscape Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires Were Started (1943), whose acute social detail is observed with a surrealist eye – was also evident.
“Isles of Wonder” was spellbinding, humane, witty – and contained elusive multitudes. (In the course of praising the dedication of the 15,000 actor-volunteers, the show’s writer Frank Cottrell Boyce noted the pleasing fact that “wherever you looked, people were doing something different.”) The animating spirit of a beautiful fantasy was encapsulated in the paean to Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web: “this is for everyone.” Its propulsive narrative – that the subversive, imaginative spirit of a multifarious land is the source of its achievements, and that it is now confident enough to pass on the torch to those kids – was both intelligent enough to accommodate the sensibilities of the “official version” of national history (including in its post-imperial, “inclusive” variants) and bold enough to claim fresh ground.
Boyle engagingly said that the intention of a ceremony three years in the making was to be “proud and modest.” In the event it wholeheartedly embraced the contradictions implicit in these words, and dramatised a generous, optimistic, democratic (and England-centred) patriotism. As a work of art it “bears within itself its own verification” (to cite a phrase of Solzhenitsyn), and might have been thought hard to unpick without violating its integrity. But it immediately became clear that Britain’s always-on army of partisan activists and pundits knew better.