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2012 London Olympics: Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” an Anglophile’s Feast

I admit freely to being an Anglophile. So last night’s spectacular “Isles of Wonder” Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics was a complex confectionary delight. Academy-Award winning film director Danny Boyle’s (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) presented a “hidden objects” painting of immense complexity and scope, it was layered with subtext as a Shakespearian play, as whimsical as a Monty Python sketch, as full of meaning as a single red poppy. Buried within it were dozens of hidden visual and aural cultural references that flashed by at frantic pace. The trick (and half the fun) was in catching them. 

A ceremony in three acts, “Isles of Wonder” touched on British history, literature and pop culture. There was no mention of Empire, but plenty of the greatness and resilience of a nation built with the blood, sweat and tears of of people who work for a living. 

Sir Kenneth Branagh started the whole thing off dressed as British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel was father of the Industrial Revolution, the impact of which changed the word forever. Intruding upon the pastoral landscape, sheep included, Branagh recited Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, perhaps a fitting description of the “isles of wonder,” that form Great Britain:

“The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.”

Queen Elizabeth II in her jubilee year made cinematic history by appearing in her first movie. Escorted by 007 himself (Daniel Craig), but leaving her beloved Corgis at the palace gates, Her Royal Highness made a grand entrance parachuting from a helicopter and into her place to formally open the “Games of London celebrating the XXX Olympiad of the modern era.” 

As Brunel watched on, the bucolic British landscape transformed into a land of smokestacks and gears, innovation and technological advancement, leading eventually to the spectacular forging of the Olympic rings, which hovered above the stage, followed by a very poignant remembrance of those who have died in all wars, set amidst the poppies of Flanders Field.

The tribute to the Industrial Revolution transitioned to the dreamscape of children’s’ fantasy, in which the villains of British kid-lit descended: Captain Hook, Voldemort, The Queen of Hearts, and Cruella DeVille, only to be vanquished by an airborne squadron of Mary Poppinses, armed with umbrellas (and perhaps a spoonful or two of sugar). An appearance by author J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) put the frosting on this strange and whimsical display.

More than an homage to British children’s’ literature, the segment also honored the country’s single-payer National Health Service, which provides medical coverage to all. Established in 1948, it has been much derided as “socialized medicine” (especially by American Conservatives perpetually claiming the U.S. has the best health care system in the world), yet it’s undeniable that something is right with it. The U.K. health care system ranks 13th in the world. The U.S. by contrast sits 21 spots below at 39. 

The final segment, introduced with an appearance by Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, was the most fun as Boyle took spectators on a magical mystery tour through four generations of British rock, which included snippets from the ’60s through through today. The montage played out against the backdrop of a classic boy meets girl romance between two teenagers, modernized to the digital age made more accessible by the creator of the World Wide Web, British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Clips from many decades of British film and television flashed by quickly, including Boyle’s own Trainspotting, as well as Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Full Monty, a bit of Charlie Chaplain, and many, many others. 

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • http://tourmaline1973.livejournal.com/336781.html Tourmaline

    Glad you enjoyed it, Barbara. I was lucky enough to attend a rehearsal last Monday evening (as I’d applied to be a GamesMaker volunteer), the show was absolutely stunning – we were asked to #savethesurprise, but they saved a lot of surprises from us too.

    The lighting of the Olympic flame was another fantastic moment, too – after all the media speculation here about who it might be, the organisers chose to follow the ‘inspire a generation’ motto, and I loved Danny Boyle’s vision of ‘this is for everyone’, creating a cauldron with a contribution from every country, and a confetti fall representing every human on Earth.

    It was a wonderful start to the Olympics I’ve been dreaming about since I was a teenager. Seven years of preparation, before that two years of Backing The Bid, before that two decades of talk and failed bids. And now we’re here. Such a proud moment.

  • J. Hawke

    a) NBC’s presentation left a lot to be desired, agree with your comments on that subject.

    b) The program also had the galling hubris to include Occupied Ireland (Northern Ireland to the brits) in their Iles of Wonder, as if they belonged there at all.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    The program also had the galling hubris to include Occupied Ireland (Northern Ireland to the brits) in their Iles of Wonder, as if they belonged there at all.

    Whether you like it or not, Northern Ireland is still a part of the United Kingdom for now, Northern Irish athletes are competing for Great Britain, and as such, the organizers were perfectly well entitled to feature the Province in the film.

  • http://www.TravelsShepherd.com Michael

    Well I am glad somebody liked the show. I found the pageant parts of it extremely boring. Mr. Bean and the other video portions is all that kept me going.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Michael –

    It is as Barbara pointed out – it was an Anglophile’s feast. It was wonderfully whimsical and self-effacing chest-thumping as only England can; indeed, as only England has a right to do so since England is the single most influential country in human history, even more so than Rome. If you were bored, then that is only because you didn’t understand what was being shown to you.

    I guess I am a bit of an Anglophile now (I particularly want to see the HMS Victory, the WWII command center near Number 10 Downing Street, and particularly the countryside), and even my wife is eager to go to London to celebrate our 20th anniversary this October (IF we can afford it). Sure, the weather will be cold, damp, and miserable – all in all, not much different from our wintertime in Puget Sound – but most of all, I want to see the people and learn their character.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    Glenn–
    The UK is high on our holiday agenda. Right now, it seems we tend to go to the Pacific Northwest (where our daughter is in grad school at UDub). The Puget Sound has become sort of a home away from home lately. Leaving shortly for Seattle and Mt. Rainier.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Barb –

    We’re right across the water from Seattle – IMO Puget Sound has the most natural beauty of anywhere in America except for Hawaii, but then I haven’t seen Alaska yet. But ever since the advent of a certain politician from Wasilla, I’ve never felt any desire to go there.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett barbara barnett

    I’ve been to Alaska twice, and it’s gorgeous. Last summer we spent a week on Vancouver Island just north of Victoria. We woke each morning to a spectacular view of both the Olympic Peninsula AND Mount Baker (as well as the Islands). Just fantastic.

    I do have to claim a partiality, however to the Canadian Rockies from Banff north.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/lensmasters/IanMayfield Dr Dreadful

    even my wife is eager to go to London to celebrate our 20th anniversary this October (IF we can afford it). Sure, the weather will be cold, damp, and miserable

    Actually, October can often be pretty nice, and a good time to visit. The clocks haven’t gone back yet so it doesn’t get dark too early, the country takes its sweet old time realizing winter’s coming sometimes, and you can get quite a lot of warm (shirt sleeve weather) days. When it happens, we call it an Indian summer.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Doc –

    I thought “Indian Summer” was an American idiom – did this come from the subcontinent?

  • Pete Day

    DVD available from Amazon in PAL system, though, but many players can play both and if you make a back-up disc I think this will play on a NTSC player? There are 5 discs in all including opening and closing ceremonies.