Danny Boyle: A Dizzying Rascal

Last Friday evening: I watch the live stream of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, while following people’s comments on Twitter – a particularly modern pastime.

I’m not a big fan of Danny Boyle’s films at all. I find them too externally-minded, rock-video-like and glossy, even garish; I think of the petrol station exploding early on in 28 Days Later for no other reason than it made the film look more attractive to the US youth market (by Mr Boyle’s admission on the DVD commentary). This is just my own taste, mind.  Mr Boyle still impresses me, the way he can take a low budget, Lottery-funded British film like Sunshine and make it look as if it cost as much as the likes of Avatar. Well, almost. He has an undeniable and unique talent for delivering visual thrills that are also value for money, and this made him the perfect choice for directing the Opening Ceremony.

Spectacle over reason is a lot less problematic for such an event. Because spectacle IS the reason. A lot of people did try to find reason in much of the proceedings, but this, I feel, was a mistake. Boyle’s own programme notes centred on the theme of building ‘Jerusalem’, after the Blake poem and song, and this is in itself a piece of culture that has often been interpreted in conflicting ways.

Using Mr Branagh to play Mr Brunel, reciting Caliban’s speech from The Tempest about ‘crying to dream again’ was also highly ambiguous. Boyle’s notes stressed the speech was used as a celebration of dreaming and of wonders per se, away from the more problematic context of their source, Caliban the deformed, vengeful slave of Prospero, who attempted to rape Miranda. But Mr Boyle took the words and the surface value of the speech and gave it his own meaning, just as he took samples from all across British culture and stitched them together into a smorgasbord of giddying, sometimes silly, yet frequently dazzling entertainment.

Some commentators judged the ceremony as subversively Left Wing (the NHS bit). Others said it was in fact a Right Wing, misty-eyed delusion for the old days (the NHS bit again). A lot of people on Twitter found a Tory MP’s negative reaction, and reacted en masse against him – to the point where his name became inextricably linked to the event, as if Mr Boyle had hired him as a performer. I think it’s very wrong to let outrage eclipse achievement, and his name has been mentioned too often already. I’d rather name people like the choreographer Akram Khan and the singer Emeli Sande, whose ‘Abide With Me’ section was my personal highlight of the show: stripped down, heartfelt, sensitive, tasteful and arty.

But that said, I still enjoyed the unabashed crowd-pleasing aspects: the Industrial Revolution’s smokestacks magically springing up from the countryside, the five glowing Olympic Rings forged, then floating, then raining down fireworks. I loved the tribute to Tim Berners-Lee, though I admit I needed the caption onscreen. Unlike a lot of USA TV stations, I know who Berners-Lee is, although I’d find it hard to place his face.

And of course, I hooted with delight at the appearance of HMQ, doing a spot of acting with a fictional character (Daniel Craig’s James Bond) before outrageously appearing to parachute into the arena. Was this fawning pro-Royal propaganda? Was it cheekily anti-Royal? Or was it just a shameless advert for this year’s new Bond film, Skyfall?

The great thing was, if you wanted to crowbar your own reading into it all, you could. And many did. But Boyle’s main intention, as far I as I could tell, was just to lay on a packed and entertaining spectacle that worked at the surface level. And what surfaces they were.

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