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The Olympics: A British Perspective
August 13, 2012  | By Akass & McCabe  | 12 comments

[One of our British correspondents, Janet McCabe, presents a look at the Olympics from her home-field-advantage point of view. She focuses on how the BBC televised the Games, and especially on the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. In all cases, she got to see more than we did in the States.And for more on that, see Ed Bark's latest Uncle Barky's Bytes. - DB]

By Janet McCabe

LONDON—In our age of small monitors and intimate viewing, London was full of big screens and communal TV watching throughout the two weeks of the Olympics. Television turned our international city into a global media village. The Games had us huddling around big screen across the capital, outside stations and in the parks, waving flags — and we did it together.

Londoners are famous for being rather standoffish, but exuberance for the Games — especially after Super Saturday when UK athletes won three gold medals in 45 minutes — slipped onto the streets and generated a brief sense of kinship.

People left their homes and tellies to join in these live events, and were never far away from a big screen, as if to prove that we were somehow there. Watching on the big screens translated into a sense of community. London enjoyed a different mood, a different rhythm, and that very British spirit of thinking it is all going rather better than we had imagined.

BBC public service television has always been about that, and pushing that idea of the national community, of building the nation. After the debacle over the Diamond Jubilee, however, when the BBC had failed to capture the event and rightly took a hammering for its coverage, the British public service broadcaster had to get it right with the Olympics.

The Beeb promised to "never miss a moment," and with its multi-platforms, cable channels, iPlayer and BBC 5 Live radio, it delivered on its pledge. Each sport was given its own dedicated digital channel, with the ability to watch live both on television and the iPlayer. No longer were viewers at the mercy of the main BBC coverage, but could watch what and when they wanted at the press of a red button. So, ironically, the national broadcaster promising social coherence is, at the same time, responsible for the disintegration of that same community, by fragmenting the audience.

The Olympics gave visibility to those in sport without much exposure elsewhere on television. For example, the success of our female athletics — Nicola Adams (left, boxing), Laura Trott (cycling), Katherine Grainger (rowing) — exposed the negligible coverage of women’s sport on the BBC.

It goes without saying that seeing confident and aspirational women performing at the highest level, and winning, has made my heart sing. London 2012 has done much for gender equality, as well as changing attitudes and perceptions regarding sports and achievement. Whereas our media remains obsessed with emancipated female bodies, skinny models and airbrushed Hollywood actresses, the Games celebrated modern feminine accomplishment beyond the image.

Alongside heightening the visibility of women in sport, we have watched female athletics make few concessions to style and fashion in the pursuit of individual excellence and personal bests. Tenacity, ambition, and dedication have temporarily defined the new media representation of female achievement. The message is that nothing is achieved without hard work and dedication, and it has extended to our interaction between multicultural minorities in Britain as well as the sports that rarely get a byline in our media.

In the beginning, there was the Opening Ceremony... Brilliant, beguiling, completely bonkers and utterly British.

Dusk fell over East London and it was on our marks, when the Olympics kicked off July 27 with Danny Boyle’s night of wit and Isles of Wonder.

Like Prospero conjuring up a storm with his sorcery, Boyle channeled that spirit to set in motion a sense of British-ness that somehow felt just about right. In this fair Albion, the past entwined with the present, social history interlaced with popular culture. National Health Service nurses pranced with a multitude of Mary Poppins, Jarrow marchers and colliery bands paraded with suffragettes and Sergeant-Pepper-era Beatles, a rock romance celebrated British film and popular music, and urban dancers caroused at a multi-racial house rave with Dizzee Rascal.  Oh yeah, and, escorted by James Bond, the Queen parachuted into the stadium. That’s right, complete with union jack bloomers!

The "pre-show" celebrated our green and pleasant lands, an Arcadia that never existed but nevertheless remains a myth deeply engrained in our collective psyche — one that we tell ourselves and hope we are about.

This is an English rather than British chimera, a Merrie Old England of Shire horses tilling the soil, herded geese and ducks, ruddy-cheeked maidens collecting apples, and a cricket match played on the village green with the glorious sound of leather on willow. This is a nation of fair play, of giving everyone an equal crack at the ball. It is not about the winning (as such), but about the community coming together, taking part and having a go. And turn up they did — 7,500 of them: the volunteer performers who turned up for the hell of it, put in some 284 hours of rehearsal in order to be part of something uniquely special, something bigger than themselves.

After Communist China offered us corporate hospitality in 2008, Boyle gave us something far more political, a socialist cavalcade, a thesis on British social history courtesy of George Orwell, J.B. Priestley and the Fabian Society. The English oak torn out by its roots ushered in the "dark satanic mills."

Quoting from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Sir Kenneth Branagh (as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an icon of British industrialization) delivered Caliban’s speech urging for tolerance and a sense of wonder at life:

"Be not afear’d; the isle is full of noises.

Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not."

And then, all hell broke loose. Hundreds of people streamed out of the ground and started to dismantle and build "Jerusalem" anew. As the five flaming Olympic rings floated high into the night sky, with sparks raining down and industrial workers swarming underneath, the message was clear: this is a land built on the toil of ordinary people.

The social pageant brought forth the legions of those who had built a modern Britain on to the small screen: the laborers displaced from the land and into the cities, the women (including two direct descendents of Emily Pankhurst) who emancipated their sex, the Windrush immigrants who helped shape the post-war landscape, those who had forged trade unions and created the welfare state, others who conveyed the euphoric energy of our popular culture, and not forgetting the man who selflessly sparked a digital revolution, Tim Berners-Lee (above).

Conflict and prosperity, difference and equality, collective tolerance and individual creative daring all, it would seem, define a new myth of these Isles of Wonder.

This was, though, a spectacle that defied the spectacle. There was a lot of drama, but no real centre, no fixed positions: pandemonium, in fact, which no doubt had television producers scratching their heads over camera positions and which angle to select next. One can only imagine the creative tensions erupting over those artistic decisions. There was far too much going on, but then, this is a land of a thousand small stories, which proved intimate and somehow personal for the largest possible national and international audience.

Such media events promise to originate from the "centre" of a society, with television narrating social integration and coherence. Whereas the Diamond Jubilee coverage trained attention solely on the Queen and her public service, she was relegated now to a small walk-on part, albeit with impeccable comic timing.

The television cameras, in fact, struggled to convey the true diversity of our national story. Like the Games themselves, there was something about this ceremony that eluded the direct gaze, always demanding that we might want to look somewhere else. (Although, in the multichannel era, the gaze has been fractured across a number of different channels, and we can choose to look when and at whatever we prefer.)

Yet at the same time, the Opening Ceremony also was a spectacle made for the small screen. Anyone doubting the choice of Rowan Atkinson as the silent oddball, playing the theme to Chariots of Fire, should remember that the Mr. Bean series has sold to 245 territories worldwide.

There were also echoes of that modern television classic, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, within the tribute to the NHS. Following J.K. Rowling reading from Peter Pan (J. M. Barrie bequeathed royalties from his story to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital), a song-and-dance routine performed by real health professionals wove with tales of the darkness of childhood. It did, indeed, appear as if our late Potter himself might have prepared the script. The BBC still rules the airwaves; well, at least, here in the UK.

The opening ceremony indubitably divided Britain. Those of a certain age and/or political persuasion were never going to like it, with one Conservative MP branding it "leftie multicultural crap," and those on the left didn’t like it for a heap of other reasons.

Only a year ago, our nation was gripped by a summer of riots; twelve months on, and London erupted again, electrified by its "moment to shine." After weeks and weeks griping over transport, grumblings about sponsorship, and nearly hysteria over security and threat of strikes, the opening ceremony reminded us of another side: our better selves (whatever that might actually mean) and a sense of national identity, contradictory, often conflicted, but yet quite comfortable in its skin.

And then, after all the Olympic competition, we arrived at the end. Coverage of the closing ceremony Sunday night was beamed live to a parallel concert at Hyde Park featuring the bands New Order and Blur, the ultimate end to the city's two-week communal street party.

Billed as a ‘cacophony’ of British music, the London 2012 Closing Ceremony aimed to reflect the spirit of the capital, running from Elgar to the Spice Girls aloft black London taxi cabs. After Danny Boyle’s exuberant statement about British identity and values for the opening, Kim Gavin, director of the closing ceremony, promised us the best after-show party ever.

It started with the dongs of Big Ben and a countdown. Landmarks of the capital in miniature, from Tower Bridge to the London Eye, took centre stage, sitting on a Damien Hirst spin-painting Union Flag — "patriotism smeared into a new, less rigid form," concluded the Independent critic.

It began quietly enough, with Emeli Sandé singing a choral version of the Beatles "Because" and Julian Lloyd Webber on the cello. But then out of the top of Big Ben popped Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill to summon the magic of The Tempest, reprising the Caliban speech we’d heard at the opening.

Lessons learnt from that ceremony saw a narrative start to unfold about modern London: a newspaper-clad city sprung into life and our new age of austerity, with the English Ska band Madness belting out their brilliantly observed anthem to working-class family life. Pageantry mixed with popular culture, street parties and an explosion of kinetic energy defined the chaos and hurly-burly of working life in the capital. Blur and the Pet Shop Boys provided the streetwise soundtrack, concluding with Ray Davies arriving in a black cab to deliver his love letter to London, "Waterloo Sunset." So far, so beguilingly bonkers.

These events often turn into a melancholic hymn for youth, and Britain does that sense of elegiac loss at the moment of greatest achievement rather well — it’s why our war poetry is so good.

Sandé returned to sing "Read All About":

"We’re all wonderful people

so when did we get so fearful

now we are finally finding our voices."

The song rang out as images of the joy and despair of the past two weeks beamed onto the big screens.

Next, Elbow delivered their trademark indie performance to welcome the athletes. They emerged en masse from the crowd, into the arena, while Kate Bush supplied the backing track for more retrospective sporting highlights. It was about jumping higher, running faster, of pushing oneself to the limits and the vision that that takes. It seemed a rather fluid affair, slightly ethereal, genius burning so bright but not for long.

After the final medal ceremony and flowers presentation to the volunteers (who got the biggest cheer of the night), the Symphony of British Music got under way with footage (re-mastered by Yoko Ono) of the late John Lennon singing "Imagine" with a deaf children’s choir, before giving way to George Michael.

Past and present, weaved, once more, with multigenerational performances including the Kaiser Chief’s aloft Lambrettas covering "Pinball Wizard," Ed Sheeran playing Pink Floyd with remnant members of 1970s rock bands, and Russell Brand doing a bizarre Beatles karaoke as a Roald Dahl psychedelic fantasy.

Supermodels celebrated British fashion, and the Spice Girls strutted their retro-Brit Pop stuff, but my personal favourite was Annie Lennox (above, left) riding through the stadium in full baroque glory like some gothic vampire.

If the opening celebrated the innovators and creative geniuses that pioneered dissent and tolerance in our democracy, the closing ceremony had no such grand pretensions. It seemed like a massive sigh of relief as the organisers easily fall back on the old tried and tested favorites, never mind that two performers were dead, and another few failed to turn up in person.

It was more magnificent bonkers with Fatboy Slim (right), who turned the stadium into a gigantic disco, accompanied by Jessie J, Tinie Tempah and Taia Cruz, who all know how to please the crowd. Then it was left to Eric Idle, followed by Queen and Jessie J, to bring the party home.

It was only left for mayor of London Boris Johnson to hand the Olympic flag to Rio in four years time. It was now their time to shine, with a Rio musical montage that included Seu Jorge and Pele. These people know how to party, and the sequence hit the right note, as the reviewer for The Telegraph said, "with its mix of sultry bossa nova, tribal rhythms and sequined samba." 

But this was the long good-bye, as if we were not quite ready to leave the global stage just yet. There was time for [British politician and former Olympian] Sebastian Coe — who always looks like a public school head master addressing the boys on sports day — adding his thanks and Take That with "Rule the World."

But really, the end: not quite. A phoenix rose from the beautifully-designed cauldron by Thomas Heatherwick, and out flew Darcey Bussell with the Royal Ballet for one last swan song — or should I say, firebird — and then the flames were extinguished. The whole affair finished with The Who punching out "My Generation" — well, how else were we going to end it?

It was a disjointed, often predictable, evening. Of course, the aim of such events is always a high wire act, to celebrate the athletes, entertain the crowd (and television audience) and introduce the next hosts. It was never going to linear; but the non-sequential-ness spoke eloquently of our multi-generational, multicultural nation — a modern Britain that is fluid in its identity and like to mix things up.

So the finest sporting theatre drew to a close. It was a rather unsurprising affair, but I guess those choices were fair enough. Now this Isles of Wonder falls quiet. As the mournful quote from Hamlet on the stage read, "The Rest is Silence."

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The Olympics gave visibility to those in sport without much exposure elsewhere on television
Jun 1, 2023   |  Reply
Which is some inspirational stuff.
Never knew that opinions might be this varied.
Thank you for all the enthusiasm to provide such helpful information here.

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