Opening Ceremonies have sense of humor
LONDON — Well done, London. You made the world laugh.
Opening Ceremonies naturally go heavy on host country history and elaborate staging. It was no surprise when the Danny Boyle-directed London production started in a British meadow. (You can never go wrong with a rendition of “Jerusalem.’’) The show moved quickly to the Industrial Revolution. And the transformation from countryside to factory was theater in itself.
Although Boyle brought all the bells and whistles from pyrotechnics to cast members suspended above the Olympic Stadium floor, the best bits Friday were when the host country’s quirky sense of humor came through. The Opening Ceremony was fun and funny. And the comedy needed no translation.
The entire stadium, all 80,000 spectators, delighted in a filmed sketch in which Daniel Craig as James Bond takes the Queen on a helicopter ride over the city, then she jumps out. As the film clip ended, a pair of Union Jack parachutes, one with a stunt Queen, dropped from a helicopter into the night sky above the Olympic Stadium. Just after the parachutes disappeared outside the stadium, the real Queen’s arrival was announced. During her 60-year reign, the Queen has never made an entrance quite like that and it set the tone for the evening.
London knew it couldn’t outdo Beijing in terms of a flawless, logistically mind-blowing spectacle. (Though the Industrial Revolution segment came pretty darn close in scale and execution.) Instead, the British seemed determined not to take themselves too seriously, to have fun with themselves and some of their cultural icons. And even the Queen was game.
To successfully take a more lighthearted route was, in many ways, tougher than what Beijing pulled off. It was also riskier. Boyle walked a fine line between an Opening Ceremony filled with wonderfully quirky moments and one that could’ve resulted in a worldwide audience saying, “Huh?”
Judging from the reaction, the comedic high point came during Rowan Atkinson’s “Chariots of Fire” performances. Sitting in with the London Symphony Orchestra, Atkinson played the repeating note in the “Chariots of Fire” theme while checking his watch and texting. Then, he was inserted into the famous “Chariots of Fire” beach running scene. The group from Uzbekistan couldn’t stop laughing, neither could the group from the Ivory Coast.
Atkinson (Mr. Bean) gave the most over-the-top comedic performance of the night. Others were much more subtle.
Part of the fun was spotting the different ways the program humorously incorporated cultural icons. One favorite was the nod to the Beatles, with Yellow Submarine balloons and ceremony cast members dressed as John, Paul, George, and Ringo on the cover of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. During a portion of the show honoring children’s literature, a large group of Mary Poppins look-alikes, with umbrellas in hand, floated to the stadium floor and dispatched villains such as Captain Hook, Voldemort, and the Queen of Hearts.
The Opening Ceremony didn’t stray into dangerous avant-garde territory, as some have in the past. But there were some misses and parts that didn’t live up to expectation. Spectators were handed 3-D glasses before the show and told to use them as the rock group, Queen, played. Suffice to say the images fell a little flat. That said, a medley of songs from great British bands and singers was the perfect soundtrack to energize the crowd. From the Rolling Stones performing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to Annie Lennox singing “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” almost every song was familiar so people could sing along.
So, it was only fitting that the Opening Ceremony crescendoed into one giant sing-a-long, with Paul McCartney performing “Hey Jude.” There aren’t many moments where the Olympic spirit grips you, but that finale was certainly one.
The one segment that seemed strangely out of place was when Emeli Sande sung “Abide With Me” accompanied by 50 dancers. After all the large-scale theatrics, that part came across as weak. The dance was supposed to, as the program said, “dramatize the struggle between life and death.” And screens around the stadium became memorial walls, with images of deceased loved ones submitted by spectators. It was a nice thought and gesture, but it also raised the question as to why something in honor of the 11 Israeli athletes and coaches murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics couldn’t have been easily incorporated into that part of the program.
Finally, a few words on the athlete’s attire. The award for most in the British spirit of fun and Games goes to the Czech Republic, whose athletes entered wearing rain boots and holding umbrellas. Undoubtedly, it was a nod to London’s weather. Most puzzling attire went to the German team, which did not dress in national colors. Instead, the women work pink outfits and the men wore blue outfits. And although Saudi Arabia included women in its delegation, they walked fully covered, trailing the men. Still, simply their presence in the Opening Ceremony is a small victory.
Of course, the big win of the night goes to London for a rousing start to the Games.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.