No Elton John, no Rod Stewart, and no Spice Girls.
When the musical playlist for London’s Olympic opening ceremony leaked last weekend, there were sighs of relief in some quarters. Popular music is one of the few exports pretty much everyone in Britain is proud to show off to the world, but public celebrations of it (like the tackfest wheeled out recently for the Golden Jubilee) can be banal and obvious.
Happily this year’s opening ceremony, curated by film director Danny Boyle, looks set to do more than just retread a well-worn path through Britain’s most familiar cultural history. Naturally, the Beatles, the Stones, Bowie, Amy Winehouse and Adele are all in there, but so are the Specials, New Order, M.I.A, Franz Ferdinand and the Happy Mondays. The playlist might not be the vision of British culture best known across the world, but it is at least one the home crowd will recognize as more than just a tourist cliché.
This soundtrack will form part of a ceremony that already looks to be interesting and unexpected at the least. Departing from the usual shock and awe tactics, the show’s first section will be a homespun vision of rural Britain, complete with real grass, paddocks, ploughs and livestock (70 sheep!), a model of Glastonbury Tor and the world’s largest bell.
If this staging idea sounds like an outtake from Spinal Tap, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With over 90 percent of Britons living in urban areas, the idea of Britain as a land of fox hunts and village greens is a bit of a in-joke anyway, especially recreated in a part of London that looks like a backdrop from Blade Runner. And as the memory of Beijing’s 15,000 perfectly choreographed massed performers are still fresh in many minds, there’s something knowingly comic and very British about the bathos of trying to wow the world with some sodden ducks and a wet plough.
The rest of the ceremony is still under wraps, but if the careful drip feed of "leaked" details are to be believed, it may feature something unique in Olympic opening history – critique. Among the snatches of patriotic songs and celebrations of the Blitz spirit, the show will also feature massed nurses from Britain’s National Health Service, a national icon many are afraid is being chipped away at by the current government. Campaigners for women’s suffrage will appear, as will the Sex Pistols’ anti-monarchist song God Save the Queen.
Even the show’s name has its sharp edges. Entitled "Isles of Wonder," the show is supposedly inspired by Caliban’s speech in Shakespeare’s Tempest: "Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." The reference to Britain’s best-known literary figure may be expected, but the Tempest is hardly the coziest corner of his work to revisit. In an echo of the imperial project just beginning in Shakespeare’s time, it’s the story of a proto-colonialist wizard who conquers a distant island and enslaves its sole native. A ceremony that manages to reference this darker side of Britain’s history while still being a celebration of the country’s culture may be trying to square the circle, but at least it sounds ambitious.
Let’s just hope that not too many of its references are lost on an international audience.
Top image: A model of London's Olympic stadium shows it transformed into a British meadow. (Reuters)