Saturday, July 28, 2012

More Ballard than Orwell, our Weird Country nailed by Danny Boyle

I've been looking forward to the Olympics. I enjoy spectator sport, and the Olympics is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet. I first fell for the Olympics in 1988 when unemployed after university, and getting up early or staying up late to watch the men's hockey at Seoul, coverage fronted by a young, cute Hazel Irvine.

Politically the Olympics is something else entirely, of course, like an unemployed man blowing his redundancy check on a binge holiday for all his friends and family, and the corporate omnishambles of the last few weeks have only highlighted how corporates interests are just that - "interests" - that we should look to ridicule and curtail at any opportunity.

To last night, then, and the opening ceremony. When did these become so much the main event? I guess we live in an age of spectacle, both live and on television, from SuperBowl to X-Factor. Luckily, somebody, somewhere made a brave decision that paid off and gave the ceremony to the singular vision of Danny Boyle, a diverse and creative film maker who went from the no budget of "Shallow Grave", to the countercultural classic "Trainspotting" to world-beater with the lovably sentimental "Slumdog Millionaire". He, in turn, gave over the music to Underworld, who soundtracked "Trainspotting" all those years back with the "lager-lager" refrain of "Born Slippy."

I was at a party at Islington Mill, where we watched the opening and ending in a communal situation, and turned down the sound for the A-Z of countries. The bucolic opening seemed more of a pitch to whoever commissioned "The Hobbit", Constable's Hay Wain reimagined as "The Shire." Angel-voiced children singing "Jerusalem" etc. - all very BBC. Then came the tumbling of Boyle's Horrible History. I grew up with the "industrial revolution" as the staple of my own history, and to be frank, I'm a little tired of it. Watching this in an actual mill, now re-used as an arts centre, seemed nicely ironic. History is perhaps not Boyle's strong point. Very Dickensian, we're still in thrall to a Victorian vision, when England ruled the waves etc. Then, surprisingly - one of many - we were thrust into the post-50s Britain of the NHS, as if a personal rebuke to coalition politicians, and accidentally, the clueless Mitt Romney. I have to say, I got a little lost around here - or the wine was beginning to take hold - but we had child catchers, J.K. Rowling, Great Ormond Street Hospital and god knows what else.

The whole ceremony had some of the something-for-everyone I'd expected, but it then upped a gear. There were two genuine innovations that seemed remarkable: the angels-on-bikes that spread out around the stadium; and Thomas Hetherington's remarkable lighted cauldron. Manchester's lovely but misplaced B of the Bang - an earlier Hetherington work - seems a distant memory. There were also two very good jokes: Mr. Bean playing a single note throughout the "Chariots of Fire" theme, upstaging the poor orchestral straight men playing the rest of the tune; and a somewhat silly-surreal film/live sequence where James Bond and the Queen parachuted into the ground. Very game, your majesty. She's probably wishing she'd retired a yaer ago. Mr. Bean, of course, is the most famous Britain worldwide - but this little piece reminded us of the sheer joy of when he first arrived, before becoming ubiquitous and annoying.

It was fascinating how many of the cultural icons here came from the wrong side of the tracks. There was none of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/X-Factor/Gary Barlow/Simon Cowell shite that passes for contemporary light entertainment. The Beeb, you felt, was kept well away from this one - having had plenty of C list celebrity fun with the torch relay. Compare tonight's line up with the Barlow-curated Queen's Jubilee concert... or rather, please don't. Rowan Atkinson cut his teeth on the alt. comedy scene in the early 80s, Boyle began with the no budget dark comedy "Shallow Grave", Underworld started as unpronounceable art band freur, before morphing into electronic pioneers; and Arctic Monkeys are just about the last great British indie band.

Arctic Monkeys came on to play two songs - their debut "I bet you look good on the dancefloor" and the Beatles' "Come Together." Alex Turner actually looked like the young John Lennon, lean, mean, and quiffed - and I was reminded that "Come Together" was so similar to a Chuck Berry song that Lennon had to make amends by recording several Berry numbers on the "Rock and Roll" album, the cover of which - Lennon in Hamburg in the 50s - Turner seemed to have styled himself on. Music remains Britains one world beater of the last 50 years; from the Beatles through to Adele, and it was no surprise that pop culturally obsessed Danny Boyle would do his best with a medley that included a personal "best of" list that could hardly be faulted; even if it occasionally slipped into Stars on 45 territory. One might have paused to wonder where classical music or jazz were in all this - or even contemporary literature or film - only to then remember that whilst we've been pretty unassailable in pop music this last half a century; in other art forms we're much less renowned. No YBAs were involved in the making of this it seems - though Martin Creed had started the day off with a nationwide bell ringing contest.

Even here though our mongrel nature came through. No idea why Boyle decided to single-handedly resurrect Mike Oldfield's career - though as English as his music is, the theme from Tubular Bells is indelibly attached to that most horrific of movies, the Exorcist. Also, if "Come Together" is part Chuck Berry; the soundtrack to that most British of films, Chariots of Fire, was written by the Greek Vangelis. Even Pink Floyd (a spellbinding use of "Eclipse" from "Dark Side of the Moon") seems as American as they are British. Perhaps that was the point: an island nation; a trading nation; our uniqueness is also due to our diversity.

When the Olympic flag was carried around the stadium, it was a genuinely emotional moment; and grown men were tweeting about the tears in their eyes as the much loved Muhammad Ali, ill with Parkinson's disease, made a welcome appearance. At that point you realised why all the dreadful corporate sponsors wanted to be associated with the Olympics, they stand so far from this triumph of the human spirit that they have to leach on it by association, whatever the cost. Luckily, it seems the Olympic ideal can cope with this cynicism; at least when its done with the humour, pathos and counter-cultural knowingness that Boyle gave us. Sebastian Coe made a less than impressive politician, but the singlemindedness he brought to his running has been carried over into his bringing of the Olympics to us. Not for the first time one is reminded that if you get the best people in to do a particular job then it will be done far better than any committee or demagogue can expect.

As Team GB came into the stadium at the end of the 200+ nations, dressed by Stella McCartney (a few minutes before her dad would take us out with a rousing "Hey Jude") apparently as extras at a Glenn Campbell convention; the whole madness of the whole thing seemed the point. Our weird dysfunctional country treasures its eccentricities whilst trying to eradicate them in the name of "globalisation" or "efficiency". Whether this is a last hurrah for British eccentricity, one can only doubt, though the managerial culture that was efficient enough to bring us the games, has clearly had to take a back seat now it comes to the money shots. Rather than the much quoted George Orwell, it seems that our dystopian suburban surrealist, J.G. Ballard is the muse that Boyle's vision of Britain was channelling - and we're the better for it. 

Bring on the games.


Jim Murdoch said...

Surely Mr Bean isn’t the most famous (fictional) Briton in the world? Bond must trump him purely through longevity. Although Harry Potter has probably ousted him by now. I enjoyed the show. We watched it all too which we had not planned to do. It was so different from the Beijing Olympics. It really was organised chaos. My personal favourite bit was the Sex Pistols section. I kept waiting for Pink Floyd in the potted history of British music and felt insulted that they were excluded but, as you say, they well and truly made up for that at the end. And as for all those countries. Seriously they were making up some of them. Geography was never my favourite subject but I did used to know my world map. Not so much these days obviously.

Shelley said...

You're right.

In this culture, the elephant in the room is greedy corporations, and any historical, political, or public discourse that doesn't mention this is being dishonest.