Saturday , June 15 2024
The Olympics Opening Ceremonies a buffet of British history, literature and pop culture through Danny Boyle's unique vision.

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. 

It was a brilliant spectacle, both an artistic and technical achievement for Boyle. I only wish I’d been able to see it whole, uninterrupted by commercials and needless cuts to interviews with U.S. athletes. NBC’s coverage of the event was a huge disappointment. 

By the time the event aired in the U.S., it was long over. NBC, wanting to maximize advertising dollars refused to air or stream it live when it took place earlier in the day. The primetime  broadcast was chopped up by commercials, (understandable of course), but with no option to experience the ceremonies any other way here in the U.S., we were denied the full scope the experience. 

The broadcast itself was problematic, especially during the first segments. Rather than allowing us to see the story unfold as those in the stadium did, the camera pulled in and out too often, making the visual feast sometimes very difficult to follow, rather than enhancing the experience. Eventually, they seemed to get the balance right, and the final sections were much better and easier to appreciate.

NBC also opted to cut one complete section, a tribute to victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombing, choosing instead to air a pre-recorded interview with Michael Phelps. Why they did that is beyond my comprehension. On the other hand the wonderful Bob Costas righted a wrong of the International Olympic Committee by recognizing the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes. 

It would be lovely (and at least a bit redeeming) if NBC provided a stream of the full, unedited Opening Ceremonies on the official Olympics site. The site does feature a few highlights from the ceremonies. (Scroll down to the bottom.)



About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

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