London’s Olympic In-joke

Judging by what the British media are saying, the Brits may have loved their Olympic Opening Ceremony – a display of history and pop culture. But to the rest of the world it began as a maddening, confusing, bizarre parade or pantomime that desperately needed subtitles. This was not a spectacle for the mass of humanity to enjoy together. This was some British “Up-yours World” replete with in-jokes, inside humour and cultural references that would leave the rest of the world baffled.  They did redeem themselves in the end though with the kind of fire and light display and feel good sing-a-long that everyone loves.

It began with the Tour De France winner Bradly Wiggins, ringing a huge bell that has a sweet story behind it. The bell was forged specially for the occassion in the WhiteChapel Bell Foundry (giving revenue to an East London institution and all that) that made both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell in the USA. Nice of the commenter to mention it or we really wouldn’t have known. Sadly Bradly was rather shabbily dressed. I wonder who he stole that coveted spot from as I’m sure they had some other bell ringer in place before they knew he would win the Tour De France. 

It was then a very slow start with men in top hats and mutton chops waving their arms around in some awkward white man’s dance commonly found on the dance floors of East London. The Great Unwashed in all their glory, lifting and dragging wooden houses and rolls of sod. Some kind of English countryside scene at the dawn of time? It was definitely not a visual spectacle. i thought that the people who came out from under the tree were hobbits. I later read on the BBC that it was supposed to be “worker bees”.

The people who bought tickets to see the thing could have better spent their money. Even on TV with all the close-ups and video inputs, it failed to make a connection. It just looked like a few hundred people milling about on a big patch of grass. It was not visually captivating. They were trying to tell a story of some kind, but frankly not many people know who Isambad Kingdom Brunel was. The poor Americans thought it was Abraham Lincoln. We went from asking ourselves, “What’s happening? Who are those chaps supposed to be?”  to “Why is this happening to us?” 

Some parts were almost pageant like with a clutch of women dressed up in some Victorian garb with a placard round her neck saying “VOTERS”. This is school play type stuff. As this embarrassment continued, you couldn’t help but compare it to the Beijing Games Opening Ceremony. As one journalist put it, it was China serving Chinese food to foreign taste buds. The scale of it, the man power, the technical wizardry, the profound visual impact left you spell-bound. It didn’t matter what culture you were from, you were captivated by the rhythm, the synchronicity and the feast for the eyes touched something common to all humans. One tweeter has remarked, “Due to overwhelming request, NBC will replay the Beijing Opening ceremony immediately following whatever this is.”

The Brits however, left you scratching your head rather than be over-awed. I had so many questions, “What exactly are we supposed to be watching here? What’s going on? Who are those people in silk pink, green and yellow pyjamas supposed to be? Is that Sergent Pepper’s Lonely hearts club band – can’t be, we’re in the industrial age.” A tweeter who said he had majored in British history said even he could not follow the narrative. But one nice thing was that the Brits showed real people – children who were deaf, singing; the Chelsea Pensioners; real NHS nurses (although their dancing was ridiculous); the 500 odd construction workers who built the stadium. Instead the Chinese showed perfectly chiseled humans, all with a very similar likeness to one another and hundreds and thousands of cloned worker bees.

This was more like a stage show than an opening ceremony. It was made for television and dwarfed by the size of the stadium. OK, so they were showing off that they invented everything from the steam engine to iron ore to the internet. But to have Sir Tim Berners Lee sitting at a PC pretending to type something looked really stupid. I’m sure they could have thought of a far more visually captivating way of showcasing the internet. The people in the stadium would have had to be watching the screens rather than what was in front of them to see anything. 

The choreography was not appealing and looked messy and clumsy – some type of freestyle I guess. Absolutely no idea what the interpretative dance by the Brit born Bangladeshi was about. The man and the boy routine? Please explain. Another tweet I liked, “By far, my favorite part of the London #OlympicCeremony was the 1 hour long interpretive dance explaining the LIBOR scandal.” 

The music may have been appealing to the Brits but no one else knows who the Jam is. The love story to the music through the decades felt like a school play. I actually felt embarrassed for those kids (I didn’t even know it was a love story till the commentator explained it at the end). Even the song Jerusalem, the rest of the world has no idea why the English would be singing a song about Jerusalem. It was this self-glorification, exclusive rather than inclusive display that was irksome. I agree with the Tory MP, who will probably get sacked for his tweets, that it was very leftist, especially I think in the choice of music. The show was sometimes very dark, like the children in hospital beds and the giant baby’s head wrapped in metal. Looked like the scene from Superman 3 where the bad lady’s face gets strapped in metal and she turns in to an evil robot. 

Kudos to the Queen for her publicity stunt. But she looked dreadfully irritated, even filing her nails at one point. Poor thing – both she and I had to listen to the Arctic Monkeys. One twitter comment was “Forget God Save the queen, God save this Show.”

This was all very much in someone’s head and it didn’t translate well in to reality. How do you think Britain looked like to people in the Punjab or Congo. Looked like the mad hatter’s tea party but you weren’t given any Ecstasy. In fact a number of tweets were about how, “No way the people that thought this up were sober at any point during the development process.”; The drugs those Brits were on in the 60s haven’t worn off.”. Truly, someone forgot to hand out the acid pills before the show started, cos I didn’t get it. As the oddity and madness progressed, it prompted one tweeter to say, “Spoiler alert: bat flies near stage.Ozzy osbourne bites its head off, pisses in the cauldron.” 

This is what Jasper Rees on the BBC’s website had to say (apart from praising the ceremonies): What the watching TV audiences made of hasty references to EastEnders and the NHS, to Gregory’s Girl and cricket, is anyone’s guess. As ever with such ceremonies (when not choreographed by the big-spending Chinese), there was an unresolved tussle between the large scale and the intimate, between entertaining those in the stadium and everyone else parked on the sofa. Many of the close-ups lacked narrative clarity, while a vast spectacle made up of too many component parts was short of epic heft.

It wasn’t all bad. The fireworks were great. The people riding bikes with flourescent flapping wings to “Come Together” was really good – more of that kind of thing and it wouldn’t have been so bad. The forging of the Olympic rings with molten metal and then suspended from wires was done very well. They brought it round  in the end with some moving human touches, like the presence of all the British Olympic medalists since 1938 handing over the Olympic flame to the seven young athletes. The best part of the show, where they truly redeemed themselves, was the lighting of the copper petals that were raised upwards on long thin spines to form a giant cauldron in the sky. Brilliantly done, technically flawless, creative, gentle and solemn and visually awesome. Where Beijing’s flame lighting was brash and brazen, London’s was classy and solemn.That’s the kind of thing we wanted to see right from the start. Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” was just the kind of singalong that made people look alive. And the parade of countries lets you play the, “How well do you know your geography” game by trying to predict which country comes next in the alphabetic order. Also, you can’t escape comments about the Queen watching this parade and thinking, “Owned that, didn’t own that, rebelled, rebelled, didn’t want that but still have that, owned that…”

The main show was truly in British style – irreverent and indifferent. It would have been out of kilter if we had seen a Beijing style display from the British. But somehow the irreverent style does not endear one to people of other countries. They could have made all the points they wanted to a lot more visually appealing so that it didn’t matter if you didn’t get the meaning and significance, the history and the cultural references. You just enjoyed the presentation. That’s what Beijing did so brilliantly – they were able to communicate their history (gun powder, paper, printing, junk ships) through a high visual impact and massive scale so that it didn’t matter what they were talking about, visually your brain was stunned into submission.

I wouldn’t say that the opening ceremony was an Olympic failure but the part before the parade of nations was really way too left-field to generate any kind of mass appeal or understanding of the country. It was a show for the British people and I wonder if they really did like it or are they too afraid to say otherwise as they might find themselves in line at the jobcentre.

About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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6 Responses to London’s Olympic In-joke

  1. gkorula says:

    Just thought I’d mention that a few of my British friends have been horrified by my review of the opening ceremony. THey thought it was a very proud British moment. See my friend Stuart’s blog for a Brit opinion:

  2. Alka Ganesh says:

    Agree with you entirely! I waited up for the show, and was awatching BBC for half an hour before I realized that they were only giving commentary from outside the stadium. Luckily I miissed some of it! The part I saw was so bad, the industrial revolution part was more grimy than the real thing, and the english countryside was so badly displayed! I thought they would outdo Beijing. Whatever my reservations about China, I give them 200% for their visual display at the Olympic games. But then, Britain is not really known for it’s artistic prowess, and has a lot to learn. I hope that the games themselves will be great.

    • gkorula says:

      you need to get recording facility on your Tata Sky so you can watch at your leisure and fast forward the boring bits…However, I suggest you speak with your British friends to find out their opinion. I suspect it will be very different from ours.

    • KT says:

      “Britain is not really known for it’s artistic prowess” To you, because you’re a moron. If you really thought they’d outperform a dictatorship with their drilled to death (literally) performers and a budget 10 times larger. The director chose to make most of the performers amateurs for an inclusive feel, some people prefer slick.

      • gkorula says:

        Agree with you entirely. I’m not glorifying how the chinese did it, just what they did. If you read my post again you will see that I praised the BRits for the human touches of using real people in the show. My criticism is not about money, it’s about a lack of a clear narrative or an invitation to other cultures to appreciate British culture. My beef is with the cultural in-jokes and references that excluded the rest of us. It was a show for the British people and no one else. And isn’t the Olympics supposed to be about all countries?

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