Britain's green and pleasant lands

Danny Boyle, best-known for his work directing and producing down-to-earth, gritty films (such as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire), has created a 'uniquely British' opening ceremony for this summer's Olympics in his role as Artistic Director. Rachael Jolley explores the significance of Boyle's playful vision. 

Rachael Jolley
22 June 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

Danny Boyle has tapped straight into the heart of the national psyche, and what makes Britain distinct, with his colourful countryside concept of the Olympic opening.

Those green and pleasant lands still reach out to those of us who live in cities, as well as in the countryside. Many of Britain’s urban spaces are dotted with great parks installed by the Victorians, who wanted to bring something of the countryside to city dwellers. And even for those living in the centre of a metropolis like London, Glasgow or Manchester, isolated pathways and hills are a short hop away.


What’s brilliant about Boyle’s vision is that he is not trying to emulate something another country might do with flags, fireworks and dancing pompoms. He has taken two rather brilliantly British concepts - our rather bizarre sense of humour and our rambling countryside - to put together an idea that should make us think “yes, that’s us”. It’s not fake American-ness, or a feeble attempt to copy the big budget Chinese show.

He is tapping into something which we, as a nation, care about. British Future polling shows that across Britain, not just in England (as some sceptics argue), there is immense pride in our green pleasant lands - from the Lake District, to Snowdonia and the Highlands.

For those who think that Boyle has chosen to create a mini-world that represents more for the English than for the Scots or the Welsh, our research shows they couldn’t be more wrong. Across the land, there is a great pride in our countryside and our mountains that crosses age groups and political affiliation, and edges into every corner of this diverse nation.

British Future polls show that 92% of English people said that the English countryside made them proud, while the Scots were even prouder of the Highlands, at 96%. In particular, 85% of the English felt particular pride in the Lake District, 75% of the Scots in Ben Nevis and 86% of the Welsh in Snowdon, according to polling of 2600 people by YouGov for British Future.

This feeling stretches across all political parties, with English countryside getting a 97% pride vote from the Conservatives, and 91% from the Lib Dems and Labour (based on voting intention). Across social grades pride in the countryside polls above 90% and is also regionally diverse, from Londoners giving it 89%, to the north's 91%. Pride in Snowdon, as an icon that makes the Welsh proud, polls strongly across all parts of Wales from the north (92%) to Cardiff (84%). In Scotland, young people (18-25s) find a particular pride in Ben Nevis as making them proud to be Scottish (95%), compared to 77% of the 60 plus age group.

For many, those iconic hills, vales, woods and streams make their hearts leap a little faster when returning from a sun-baked holiday in one of those lands where the shadows are always long, and the colours bright - then suddenly below is a palate of greens, soft purples and sparkling blues. As the plane circles to land there is a feeling of sofa-comfortable homecoming.

Boyle will be trying to capture that bit of Britain that makes us different from France, Spain, and Scandinavia in his vision of fields, hedges, soil, cricket, sheep and ploughing (even if there is a mosh pit too). When tourists visit from other countries, it is this patchwork that draws and fascinates them, these tiny fields dotted with sheep, hedges and woods, and that crazy paving network of public footpaths.

In Suffolk a couple of weeks ago with my family, I visited castles and stomped along country paths through woods and marshes, past people out walking in their rain macs with dogs on leads, and those eatingsandwiches under rain-dripped trees. Boyle is drawing on all of that to put together a ceremony which is uniquely British. He has even brought in his own rainclouds, so we know in advance we can complain about the weather.

Some might argue that this ceremony is a backwards-looking vision that draws on the words of poets of times past, but this is not a yokel Mummerset madness, this is a fun take on our nation today which, whatever the weather, shows a sense of humour under its umbrellas as it strides out in its wellies across a muddy country path, waiting for the sun to come out.

For a response to this piece, see Patrick Wright's "Isles of Wonder".

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