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Madcap, surreal and licenced to thrill

Madcap, surreal and licenced to thrill
By Angshukanta Chakraborty

As the world watched the Olympic opening ceremony broadcast live to about a billion this past Friday night [very early Saturday morning for those of us in India], in befuddled wonder, as the journalists and reviewers all over the globe poured in heaps of praises after a short period of self-pinching too check if it was really happening, as the staunchest critics of the London Olympics were temporarily lulled into nostalgic agreement with all things so beautifully British – a tiny needle kept poking my mind that this is not the whole story.

British filmmaker and the creative director of Isles of Wonder – the ravishing and gloriously bonkers banquet of the London 2012 Olympics – Danny Boyle has managed to garner raves from all across the socio-political spectrum in a country as divided as Britain. What happened to the grievances of the Counter Olympics Network (CON) that had volunteers stationed outside the spanking new Olympics stadium in Stratford, East London to stage a rival show of athleticism and community participation in protest against the resource drain that they consider the Olympics event to be?

Oh well, CON is still there, doing its bit, holding placards and boards, trying to draw attention to the injustices of the ‘superevent’ under the watchful eyes of the Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville – the symbols of the sinister control and hyperweaponisation that’s the most telling aspect of these games. But even the participants at CON, like everyone else in UK, were overcome with a rush of sweet memories and the dreams of hope that have harboured at the heart of the nation that they have known to be Britain. 

Curiously enough, Boyle’s three-hour gala presented us with a lesson in cultural politics of the day. It taught us about the cleverest uses of left-wing ideas. Where else could have all the anti-Olympic rant, all the discontent and criticism find a better platform than right within the opening ceremony? This is self-reflexive irony at its intelligent best. Boyle, Britain’s biggest name in the world of filmmaking, this time around does a Prospero – he conjures up an enchanted London, a Disneyland consisting of slices of textbook Britain, now devoid of the former imperial glory, but nevertheless, a mini-world in itself, full of zest and youthful vigour, energised by popular music and multicultural plurality. This is the very image that London has wowed the world with; this is the image that is at the heart of the meaning of Britishness; this is the rancorous vision that irks the Tory faction who deem it the ‘left-wing multicultural tripe’ and cultural observers call ‘Cool Britannia’, and this is the myth that has rightly given London the tag of the global, cosmopolitan city that it is.

Many were relieved that the opening ceremony wasn’t arrogant, a counterpoint to the unapologetic Chinese machismo and technical wizardry of the Beijing 2008 ceremony that had cowed the world with a naked display of power and money. As opposed to Beijing, London 2012 ceremony was one with a heart, and spectators were moved to tears and many danced to the collage of Brit-pop music that was played in the background.

But then Boyle, through Sir Kenneth Branagh, delivered Caliban’s speech from Act 3, Scene II of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ‘Be not afear’d/The isle is full of noises…’ And that is telling.

This is warning the audience and everyone else that whatever is unfolding is a pageant – it must not be taken as reality, but only symbolic bits of the collective aspirations. This is the mythic Britain, from its prelapsarian, preindustrial verdant countryside, complete with rustic shepherds, goats, geese, horses unto the industrial age of steam engines, billowing smoke, belching factories of the smog-engulfed Victorian London. This is postcard Britain.

But Boyle shakes up things a bit. He convinces the Queen, yes the real Queen, not an impersonator, to ditch her most loyal secret serviceman James Bond and skydive into the belly of the sprawling multitude below. She is embracing her people like never before, after 60 years of her mostly symbolic reign. Is this her attempt to become the ‘Peoples’ Queen’, or is this a reckless stunt that could have injured her ageing heart? The national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ gained yet another layer of significance after the episode of royal daredevilry and endeared her into the hearts of her often harsh subjects.

Boyle’s compressed history of Britain included, most notably, a lengthy performance by National Health Service nurses in their 1950s matronly garb, as they danced their way onto hospital beds and tended ailing children from the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Nods to children’s literature, multiculturalism, soap opera, pop music appeared radical at a time when health service, children’s education fund, free meals at school, university education, arts and humanities face the most drastic cuts since Second World War. As nostalgia for the social democratic Britain moves even the Tories, Boyle’s presentation, at first glance, might as well be the severest criticism that the Olympics committee and the Conservative Britain have countenanced so far.

Britain’s pioneer of left-wing journalism – The Guardian – deemed this ‘the night of wonder.’ They were happy that it was irreverent, madcap, surreal, licenced to thrill, alternately bucolic and fantastic, spectacular and all-inclusive, hodgepodge but heartwarming.

One or two tiny voices mildly worried if this was a declining power’s attempt at coping with the change, all this self-ironising a jibe at one’s dwindling significance in the global map of powerbrokers. Yet it is this feelgood irreverence and participative perfect imperfection that has got everyone singing to Boyle’s tunes. Nothing else could have made the arch counter-Olympian dance to the groovy mix of the suburban pin-up doll June kissing the east London hipster Frankie and thanking Tim Berners-Lee against a backdrop of constant Facebook updates on smartphones. Yes, we are British; we are a ‘colourful’ people; we carry self-flagellation on our sleeves like Mr Beans; yes, we gave the world fairy tales and Mary Poppins can shake a leg with Valdermort and Peter Pan in our collective, ever-metamorphosing, transmutative tradition. Do you see how far we have come from 1908 and 1948?

Do we detect a tinge of sadness lurking in the corner? In 1908, Britain was the world superpower. In 1948, it was the European economy that had barely managed to survive the onslaught of the two world wars and the Great Economic Depression of 1929. And in 2012, as UK strives to be a very pale shadow of its former imperial glory, its GDP shrunk, its position in EU ambiguous, even its role as the US lackey imperiled, how else could it have made a mark?

Back to the ceremony and back to Boyle’s pressure equation. The enthused amalgam of GOSH children and the NHS nurses, J K Rowling and Paul McCartney, David Beckham and Tim Berners-Lee, the ailing and the aged, a happy communion of Mr Beans and the Queen, along with every criticism of present-day Britain, choreographed to appear spontaneous and organic.

The existence of radical politics has been acknowledged, but the trade unions are shrinking. Is this designer resistance?

Is this what makes everyone feel better about the superevent that has in reality sucked out the life out of east London ecosystem, displacing many, putting several out of job, while generating only a little in comparison. There are many who believe that the ceremony was compassionate and all-encompassing [sure it was, playing at being all-encompassing has been Britain’s favourite sport for the last 400 years] and that the Olympics would act as a stimulus package [only the Olympic Village is owned by the Qatari royal family as east London would is on its way to become the new financial district], it is true that for the Londoners themselves, the build-up to the Olympics was terribly disorienting.

Until the opening ceremony, that is. Now they have downed the pill, the anodyne that is meant to make us remember in order to forget and forgive and let the happy spirits of Olympics finally take over. It’s an appeal to the critics to put down their arms of resentment and make truce for the higher cause that must have all of London to conglomerate.

Boyle’s Britain is the social democratic utopia – it’s a romantic history of nation-building. But of course that’s not all and no one, more than Boyle himself is aware of these contradictions. Every move is designed to mock and ironise. He’s the Prospero, who has conjured up an enchanted London, but whose equivocation is out in the open. Yes it’s a set stage, yes, it’s performance, yes, it’s a dream.

But it’s worth having for it’s the tortured soul of London and Boyle captures that striving spirit for the Londoner more than anyone else. The world is watching, but the eyeballs Boyle wants to reach out to belong to the British first and foremost.

He knew that if he could sell the dream of London to the Londoners themselves, he would automatically succeed in the world stage. And that’s exactly what he has managed to accomplish.  [IPA]
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