It starts with a speeded up film of the East End, of some winged creature making its way along the Thames to the stadium, a tombstone carved with ‘Isles of Wonder’, an extract of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, a burst of the EastEnders theme tune. We go underground, we travel through time. We arrive at the stadium, Bradley Wiggins, in his yellow jersey, rings the bell to signify the start of the games. Then a small, fragile voice begins to sing Jerusalem, which morphs into a choir singing Danny Boy, then Flower of Scotland and finally Bread of Heaven as we travel round each of our isles.

Kenneth Branagh appears as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, delivering Caliban’s speech from the Tempest about the isle being full of sounds that give sweet delight and hurt not. This is underscored by Elgar’s Nimrod. It is a hotchpotch of cultural references. It shouldn’t work but I find myself deeply stirred by this bastard alloy. As though Brunel is Moses and this speech is prophetic, next is a thunderous cacophony of drums, war-like, threatening, pounding, pulsating, as a thousand drummers bash away like sheet metal workers.

Our green and pleasant land is ripped away by the industrial revolution. Smoke, chimneys, men in top hats, women in aprons, wrenching and tearing all that is green. And an ugly, brutal vision of wealth and machinery, of cogs and chains and grime, rises up before us. Amidst the fury and tumult, the suffragettes protest. Out of the turmoil the industrial rings of the Olympics are formed and are suspended above the scene, raining molten sparks of light.

This is no PR cosy exercise in presenting a wholly positive view of Britain to the world. We see nurses pushing on illuminated beds of sick children, their dark nightmares all around them, chasing them, tormenting them. A million Mary Poppins descend, with umbrellas festooned with lightbulbs. The child catcher is on the prowl.

The ceremony includes a tribute to the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who gave his invention to the world for free, demonstrating that we are capable of doing good for reasons other than financial profit. Dancers on stilts pogo to ‘Pretty Vacant’, by The Sex Pistols, Frankie Goes to Hollywood gives the audience advice on premature ejaculation: ‘relax, don’t do it, when you want to come’. The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ turns the whole scene into a rave. Muhammad Ali, like a modern Ozymandias, and a reminder of the cost of excellence, is chaperoned to his place. Doreen Lawrence carries the flag, The Arctic Monkeys sing ‘Come Together’, as cyclists dressed as birds, swarm into the stadium.

The evening has a few downers: I could well do without Sebastian Coe or any of the tedious officials of the IOC, even worse is Paul McCartney, and his feeble nodding dog impression. But most of what I see is truly spectacular, and Danny Boyle should be congratulated for his vision and bravery, in showing our isles of light and darkness to the rest of the world.

Michael Stewart


About headspam

I'm a writer from Salford, now based in Bradford. I've written for theatre, radio and TV. And the following books: King Crow (novel: Bluemoose Books); Couples (poetry: Valley Press); Cafe Assassin (novel: Bluemoose Books); Mr Jolly (short stories: Valley Press) Author page:
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