‘A Jerusalem for everyone’: was the 2012 Olympics the last gasp of liberal Britain? | Culture

Dreams figured prominently in the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. The first speaker of the night was Kenneth Branagh, channelling both Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Shakespeare’s Caliban: “The clouds methought would open, and show riches. Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked, I cried to dream again!” An entire section was devoted to children’s bedtime nightmares. Rowan Atkinson lapsed into a dream during his cameo in Chariots of Fire. And hallucinatory spectacles such as the Queen jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond made 900 million viewers around the world wonder if they were the ones dreaming.

Ten years on, the whole ceremony feels more dreamlike than ever. This was Britain as a rich, diverse, multicultural, imaginative, inventive nation comfortable with its identity and capable of reconciling its contradictions. We were traditional yet modern. We were powerful yet caring. We were orderly yet anarchic. We had a vast back catalogue of world-changing culture from which to draw. We knew how to put on a good show. And we had a sense of humour.

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Jonathan Coe summed up the feelings of many in his 2018 novel Middle England, which devotes a whole chapter to various characters watching the opening ceremony, including Doug, the sceptical journalist (who writes for, er, the Guardian): “What he felt while watching it were the stirrings of an emotion he hadn’t experienced for years – had never really experienced at all, perhaps … Yes, why not come straight out and admit it, at this moment he felt proud, proud to be British, proud to be part of a nation which had not only achieved such great things but could now celebrate them with such confidence and irony and lack of self-importance.”

We could even laugh about our notoriously crap weather. Fake clouds were paraded around the stadium that night, but real clouds were looming for Britain: Brexit and its ongoing repercussions, of course. Not to mention the Windrush scandal, the Covid pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, deportations to Rwanda, I barely need go on. Such a moment of national pride, confidence and unity now seems almost unimaginable. As a result, the 2012 opening ceremony – officially titled Isles of Wonder – has become something of a cultural touchstone. For many, it has effectively become shorthand for Britain, before it all turned to shit.

It was homemade, handmade. It wasn’t like China’s show of scale; it was heartfelt. People owned that show

Like Caliban, many of us cry to dream again. “Makes me almost cry to think it was only six years ago,” tweeted MP Yvette Cooper in 2018, for example, in response to an #OnThisDay tweet from Team GB that read, “Take us back to 2012.” Many others have echoed the sentiment, privately, publicly and across the political spectrum. Even Liz Truss invoked it in 2019, albeit to different ends: “We need to revive the Olympic 2012 spirit – a modern, patriotic, enterprising vision of Britain and we need to use Brexit to achieve that.”

But with a decade’s hindsight, we are left wondering what kind of dream the London 2012 opening ceremony was. Was it a dream in the Martin Luther King sense: an aspiration for what we wanted Britain to be? Or was it more a dream in the Sex Pistols “England’s dreaming” sense: an illusion of something that never really existed?

In his statement in the programme for the event, director Danny Boyle certainly seemed to be going for the Luther King option: “We hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement that you will glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of a better world, the world of real freedom and true equality … A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.”

A new Jerusalem … Boyle’s team brought the English countryside to east London. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The final sentiment was key to the opening ceremony’s success. Olympic opening ceremonies are a weird genre of entertainment from the outset, traditionally fusing elements of circus spectacular, musical theatre, state parade and ceremonial protocol. The Beijing 2008 opening ceremony, costing a reported $100m, had all but perfected this format, but Boyle took a different approach, which was of a piece with the image of Britain he sought to represent. Yes, there were technical feats and spectacular sequences and marquee names, but Boyle’s ceremony was really focused on, and performed by, ordinary people. “The volunteers are the best of us,” said Boyle at the time. “This show belongs to them. This country belongs to them.”

“Danny’s plan was to make it something made by the people,” says Mark Tildesley, the production designer for Isles of Wonder and a regular Boyle collaborator. “And that’s all of the people: doctors, nurses, surgeons, kids from council estates, just the whole gamut, that sort of melting pot of London. It was homemade, handmade. It wasn’t like China’s show of force and scale; it was heartfelt and heart-meant. People owned that show. I’m feeling emotional thinking about it, actually.”

“Everybody could find themselves in it,” says Catherine Ugwu, executive producer for all four London 2012 opening and closing ceremonies. “Whether we focused on Windrush, the Suffragettes, the pearly kings and queens, the Chelsea Pensioners, the CND protesters, whatever, you were in there. Everybody felt like they had a part to play, and that they were included. That’s something that’s rare in this country, and I think that’s what people cherish.”

The London Olympic organising committee’s decision to invite Boyle was unanimous, says Ugwu. “Everybody thought he was perfect for the role. The question was whether Danny thought it was something he wanted to do.”

Shortly after, in an empty production office in Soho, Boyle immediately began canvassing ideas from his core team, many of whom had been regular collaborators on his film and theatre projects: Tildesley, writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce, producer Tracey Seaward, Underworld’s Rick Smith as music director, costume designer Suttirat Anne Larlarb. “We would do different things,” Tildesley explains. “Like, the subject would be ‘favourite song’, so each person would have five songs that they could play everyone, and explain why they thought they were important.” After their meetings, Cottrell-Boyce would take away their “babble”, Tildesley continues. “And by the time he got back to Liverpool, he’d send us an email in some sort of order that made sense and had structural relevance to poetry, theatre, world history, whatever.”

The Queen’s memorable entrance came about during a discussion on what people around the world associate with Britain, says Tildesley. “It’s the Queen and James Bond. So we thought: ‘Right, that’s it, let’s get the two of them together.’” They never imagined Her Majesty would want to actually play herself (though rumour has it she’s a huge Bond fan). “She really wanted to get involved. When we got there [to Buckingham Palace] to direct her, she’d come from the dentist in a taxi and just did her own hair. Then she said to Danny: ‘Do you think I should say something? What about if I said, “Good evening Mr Bond?”’ I was like: ‘I cannot believe the Queen is saying this.’”

London 2012 the queen
The Queen drops by to enjoy the festivities. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Outsiders were also struck by Boyle’s approach. “One thing that has always stayed with me was Danny’s sense of teamwork and collaboration,” says the dancer Akram Khan, who choreographed and performed a memorable sequence on the theme of mortality, backed by Emeli Sandé’s rendition of Abide With Me. Kahn recalls his first meeting with Boyle and about 20 others: “If you didn’t know what Danny Boyle looked like, you wouldn’t know who the hell was leading the meeting … He didn’t lead by dominance or by being extrovert; he led by listening. We all felt heard. And I think this work turned out the way it did because Danny was such a great listener.”

Amid the near-unanimous praise heaped on the ceremony, there were a few dissenting voices. Some wanted something more traditionally jingoistic; others objected to the “jarring and fantastical cult-worship” of the National Health Service (as Douglas Murray put it in the Spectator). Eyebrows were also raised at vaguely political elements such as the Suffragist campaigners, the Jarrow marchers and the CND symbol being represented. Conservative MP Aidan Burley called it, “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen.” Toby Young described it as “a £27m party political broadcast for the Labour party”. The Spectator’s Harry Cole remarked: “Not even communist China were so brazen as to extol their nationalised stranglehold on their country so blatantly.” Many on the right wondered how David Cameron’s coalition government could have let Boyle get away with it.

“If you choose Danny Boyle, you’re gonna get something punk and exotic,” says Tildesley. “But it really wasn’t driven to be political, never. I know some people will cough and swear and say it was very left wing, but Mr Bean is not left wing. The green and pleasant land is not left wing. Cricket is not left wing. Soldiers whistling tunes is not left wing. Emeli Sandé singing is not left wing.” Few would label the Queen or James Bond as particularly “left wing”, either.

There was arguably politicisation the other way, too. Boyle later revealed how the incoming culture secretary Jeremy Hunt pushed to reduce or cut the NHS sequence. Boyle refused, and threatened to remove all the volunteers from the ceremony. The government side (who were, after all, funding the show) brought their own wishlist of things to include, such as references to Magna Carta, Britain’s role in the world wars and more Shakespeare. Boris Johnson, then London mayor, apparently “got it”, but many other politicians didn’t.

Khan recalls watching a rehearsal of his dance sequence in the stadium alongside some visiting politicians (whom he prefers not to name). The dance included autobiographical elements drawn from Khan’s experience growing up in London as the child of Bangladeshi immigrants, and featured a child dancer. “They didn’t know I was there,” says Khan, “and this official said: ‘Just out of curiosity, why is there an Indian-looking boy?’ The room went silent. It was quite a shock. And Danny said: ‘Because this represents London. This represents England. This is us.’”

From today’s perspective, perhaps it is more a case of “this was us”. “It should be part of the national curriculum,” says Seaward. “To say: ‘This was the moment and this is what the UK represented at that time,’ because it feels like in the intervening 10 years, most of that has been deconstructed. The welfare state is being deconstructed. The NHS is in utter crisis. Educational authorities are in crisis. The union itself is in crisis. So there was this moment that we were holding in our hand like a treasure, and that has been over the 10 years, picked apart. And when I look back at it, it makes me feel really melancholic, actually.”

Mr Bean
Mr Bean prepares for his solo during Chariots of Fire. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Admittedly, Britain circa 2012 was still a long way from anyone’s dream of Jerusalem. The Conservative-led coalition government had already begun making savage cuts to public services under its austerity programme. In August 2011 there had been riots in London and other British cities. In May 2012 then-home secretary Theresa May introduced the term “hostile environment” to describe her government’s increasingly hardline immigration policies. As the Guardian’s Owen Jones put it earlier this year: “The obsession with the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony is revealing, because this faction think Britain was a utopian wonderland at the time. It wasn’t. It was four years after an epic financial crash and the Tories were hacking the British welfare state into tiny little pieces.”

Maybe England was dreaming after all, then. Pining for an imaginary time “when Britain was great” can be a counterproductive and possibly hypocritical road to go down. After all, this is a stick progressive-minded Britons usually use to beat their more conservative opponents.

Like all opening ceremonies, London 2012’s was never designed to be a documentary. “You can’t do the Olympic opening and tell the entire truth,” acknowledges Khan. “Because [Britain] dominated and raped and has a bad history of divide and rule, of the Empire basically. There’s a lot of anger towards that because it runs through generation after generation. Institutional racism is still very prevalent within the police force, within the government.”

That does not make Boyle wrong for wanting to tell a positive story, says Khan. “He wanted to tell a story of the beautiful things. And to celebrate Britain in the way Britain should be celebrated, as a place of confidence and warmth, and kindness and everything that I felt when I was growing up, but the world has changed.”

It wasn’t just about politics, says Catherine Ugwu: “I think that also people feel nostalgic about it because it’s something that everybody thought that made Britain look great. We’re a sceptical kind of nation, because we think that we’re not confident enough to believe that we have the skills and ability to deliver these things. But then when we do, and when we point out to everybody all the amazing things we do … I think people felt proud. Yes, it hand-picked the things that we want to refer to, but then isn’t that what celebrations are about? And isn’t that what sometimes we need to do? Which is to remind ourselves of what there is to love about who we are.”

Identity is always about storytelling, and as much as it was a cultural event, Isles of Wonder was one of the few attempts to tell a fresh, modern, inclusive story about what Britain was, is and could be. We might not have lived up to it in the short term, but the fact that the vast majority of us responded so positively to it is as important now as it was then. Given all that’s happened since, Britain needs stories like this more than ever.