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A less biased history from the opening ceremony

This year, our TVs have been dominated by a very certain version of history. As the BBC fawned over the diamond jubilee, Dominic Curran, writing on Left Futures, was right to point out another British tradition and history: that of radicalism.

And to my surprise, this was at least recognised in tonight’s opening ceremony, even if among an outdated national anthem and other relics of the BBC’s preferred version of the events.

On Wednesday evening I shuffled into my seat at the Olympic stadium for the rehearsal of tonight’s opening ceremony. After a considerable wait, we were subjected to the usual cringeworthy warm-up exercises, led by officials befuddlingly described as ‘mechanicals’. When we were informed that the events of the ceremony would include us standing for the national anthem I presumed the worst: that we would be partaking in nationalism of the basest kind.

The ceremony also included a silent ovation for the dead of war as the stands of the stadium were transformed into a simulation of a poppy field. I have always seen the importance of commemorating lives lost on the battlefield and remembering the horrors of war on Remembrance Sunday, but amongst a jamboree of national pride, bringing up the dead of war seems jingoistic and trivialising .

Luckily, the ceremony covered aspects of British history and culture which do merit recognition at such events, but wouldn’t normally be given the slightest coverage. The innocent farmland of the ceremony’s start was dramatically transformed in the spirit of the industrial revolution. But the harsh sombreness of the music and lighting and scale of the masses on stage seemed to pay tribute not only to the development of factories and mines, but to remember the harsh conditions faced by workers and the potential for combination.

In this spirit, we saw not only men at work but suffragettes with placards, the banner of the Jarrow crusaders and a union marching band. The arrival of the Windrush generation of immigrants from the Caribbean is a hugely symbolic moment in the transformation of Britain into a multicultural society, and this too was recognised.

When the performance arena was transformed into Great Ormond Street hospital, with a loudhailer proclaiming our proudest national asset, the National Health Service, it was difficult not to start an audience chant of “N-H-S, N-H-S!” This section seemed to perfectly combine pride in our public services and theatricality, with jiving nurses reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective.

CND was also recognised in a beautiful spectacle, if a brief one.

The opening ceremony can, in part at least, show how culture can present a less biased version of British history. Well, a slightly less biased version, I might say after that sequence with the Queen and Daniel Craig, which wasn’t featured in the rehearsal. Well done to Danny Boyle, doubtless standing up against the government that was dismantling the NHS as the ceremony celebrated it. It’s just a shame that there’s so few other good examples in the Olympic project, which threatens to solidify the profit motive not only in sport, but in public space too.

One Comment

  1. James Moore says:

    So much for “Austerity” when the government is celebrating the Royal wedding, the Jubilee and now the Olympics anyone would have thought austerity would also prioritise those in need ! I think as a country we should be ashamed at the ostentatious display of wealth when people are going hungry and destitute and I think it is to Britain’s shame not pride

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