The opening ceremony was a triumph of togetherness but it’s unlikely to change minds set on separation, writes Lesley Riddoch
SO THE Devil doesn’t necessarily have all the best tunes.
“Magnificent, inventive and offbeat – so British.”
“A reclamation of British identity.”
“A modern Britishness that is confident, generous, warm, inclusive and funny.”
Euphoric pro-union campaign chiefs say Friday’s breathtaking and moving Olympic opening ceremony has been a game-changer in the Scottish independence campaign – proving the Yes campaign has no monopoly on stirring performance and the UK really is Better Together.
Danny Boyle, the creator of the opening ceremony, has suddenly become the acceptable face of modern Britain. Born near Manchester into a working class Irish-Catholic family with neither a silver spoon nor an Eton education in sight, Boyle has a degree in English and drama from Bangor University and supports Bury FC. No wonder this 50-something has a keen sense of history. Bury last won the FA Cup in 1903.
Boyle is rooted firmly and unapologetically in the world of the English underdog – not the British bulldog. No wonder many Scots believed he must be “one of ours” when he propelled unknown Scottish actors to superstardom in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. His Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire was an equally well observed portrayal of life in the slums of Mumbai.
Boyle’s “secret” is simple. He transcends culture differences by celebrating, not ignoring them. So it was on Friday night that progressive supporters of Better Together unexpectedly watched their own world view laid out in glorious technicolour – personified and dramatised for perhaps the first time. Within minutes of watching the bewitching, barking spectacular you could feel the cry rising – whaur’s yer Proclaimers noo?
In many ways the mocked Tory MP Adrian Burley was right. In full view of watching billions, the Establishment view of British society was temporarily sent packing. It was a profoundly political moment.
Just as the Daily Mail was trying to whip up a frenzy against Scots Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke for not singing the national anthem, the Olympic opening ceremony was embracing the Sex Pistols – whose punk version of God Save the Queen was once banned by the BBC.
Who could imagine Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon would accompany the heavily anticipated moment when the Olympic cauldron was finally lit, by unknown teenagers, and not, as had been expected, by a single, famous veteran Olympian?
Of course the finale was a fabulous idea – the very sort normally dismissed as inappropriate. Too daring. Not “official” enough. Not playing to the Queen’s generation in her Jubilee year. Next time. Maybe.
It was gobsmacking to witness the unofficial counter-culture of my generation take confident centre stage. Even the Queen was included (though unsmiling expression throughout suggested she was hardly “involved”).
Twitter commentators pointed out it was the first opportunity to be disrespectful about British national icons in months. Another said: “soon we will be sending planes to the moon, but when can we get Paul McCartney to dye his hair properly?”
Robust, irreverent and moving by turn, this was no repeat of Beijing. Conformity and the restriction of individual expression created impressive, powerful moments in China. Danny Boyle’s British tableau by contrast was a glorious celebration of the diversity and creativity embedded in European culture.
On Friday night the generation running Britain finally owned its own heritage – thanks to the capable confidence of Danny Boyle and the political inspiration of appointing him. As another tweeter observed, this is why you put an artist not a PR company in charge.
Having said all that, and having felt all that, the question still remains: Is there really a political residue for Better Together to recycle? Or will the attempt to “repurpose” the unsullied emotion of the opening ceremony backfire badly? After all, as the Bard once observed: “Pleasures are like poppies spread, you seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed.”
In our very visual world “show, don’t tell” is the new gospel. Danny Boyle showed us a sympathetic version of Britishness. You’d have to be Mitt Romney not to feel the love. But you’d have to be an artist to reproduce it.
And there’s the rub. There is absolutely no doubt the opening ceremony surpassed general expectations. I doubt though it will loom large in the two-year battle for hearts and minds ahead.
For one thing, the stolid upright folk of politics (who didn’t rate this rich vein of British popular culture in the first place) are almost incapable of exploiting or reproducing it. In part that’s because aspiring causes tend to be more culturally based than “defensive” ones which are institutionally based. In part, it’s because popular culture is an impossible beast to tame. Can anyone see The Who, Pink Floyd or Dizzee Rascal supporting Groovy Dad Dave in his bid to Save The Union? Ask Cool Britannia creator Tony Blair or even Sean Connery’s best pal, Alex Salmond.
And of course there’s the mismatch of the high-minded opening ceremony and grubby Olympic reality – all those stadium seats unfilled by the Great and Good squandering places the much-lauded youngsters of the opening ceremony would have treasured.
The loftier the ideals the starker the contrast – in the Olympics (and in life) it’s who gets what in the end that matters. It’s the hopelessly London-centric, greed-based, aimless and essentially conservative and conformist politics of the past decade at Westminster that’s caused so many Scots to push against Britishness – not the absence of good songs or dance routines. That and the shrill insistence on toeing a single cultural line.
Thanks to Kim Little, I know I’m not alone in finding the national anthem makes me feel less British. Likewise being forced to stand for the Loyal Toast (as a Republican) or sing Jerusalem – a “hymn” that doesn’t actually mention Britain once but reveres an idyllic version of the English countryside and demonises industry and urban life as “dark satanic mills”.
So the opening ceremony was a double-edged sword. It swept away these tired, formulaic, box-ticking conceptions of national identity and raised the bar – probably well beyond the louping ability of any politician. Therein lay its artistic strength and transformational power. Danny Boyle reminded us of what we already know. Corporate slogans, empty gestures and patriotic words wither creative talent and damage the authenticity which is the lifeblood of cultural identity north and south of the Border.
In any language, he played a blinder.