They said it wouldn’t work, that it was a waste of money. It would be dull and nobody would care, so we’d all forget about it once it was over. Or we’d be the subject of everlasting international ridicule.
That was the reaction of many when it was announced in 2005 that London had won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. There was still rightful jubilation amongst the organisers, athletes and many sports fans of course, and I was very much looking forward to it personally as well. But a lot of people had serious concerns and complaints about everything from the cost (although it apparently ended up being under budget) to the logo. And there were the usual subset of people, online and elsewhere, who were keen for everyone else to know that they weren’t interested – i.e. if they didn’t like it, they didn’t think anyone else should either. They were adamant it would be a pointless disaster, with several journalists and news publications adding fuel to that fire of negativity as well.
How very wrong all the doubters were.
That summer of sporting excellence – topped and tailed by spectacular opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and all covered extensively by the BBC and Channel 4 respectively – blew the vast majority of people away, leaving the few remaining closed-minded grumpy people to languish in a lonely wilderness. It was beyond anything that had been expected, even those of us who were keen to see it, and genuinely made you feel proud to be British. It had its teething troubles and controversies before launch, without a doubt, like any project on such a huge scale. But once it got underway, we showed the world what we were capable of at our very best.
Ten years on, those wonderful memories haven’t faded, and are being celebrated, with special events in the Olympic Park including the lighting of a legacy flame and a special exhibition. I haven’t been to see the exhibition yet, but I have had a little wander around some of the Olympic Park, and will continue exploring further over the weeks ahead, as it has been a while since I last visited, and there’s still a lot of I haven’t seen. Keep an eye on my Instagram for some photos in the coming days and weeks, as well as the few examples I’m including in these blog posts when relevant. Don’t forget you can also look back at my charity abseil down the Arcelormittal Orbit Tower in the park as well!
There are naturally also questions being asked about the legacy of the Games, and lessons are still being learnt from it. There’s no doubting it had a substantial impact in many ways, and the Olympic Park helped to regenerate a big area of East London, so it was certainly well worth hosting the events. But while it did increase the nation’s interest and participation in sport to a fair extent, there are still concerns about the levels of inactivity among the population, which the Covid pandemic hasn’t helped with, and there have been issues for some residents who still live in the area. That’s not the kind of thing I’m going to get into though, as others are far more qualified to analyse the legacy of the Games in detail.
The important thing here is that the Games themselves were a huge success, which we can all agree on. So to mark the big anniversary, this is the first in a series of posts where I’ll be revisiting my personal highlights of the 2012 Olympics & Paralympics.
And to start with, I’m going to extensively review the Olympics Opening Ceremony that kicked it all off on 27 July 2012, mainly focusing on the coverage on the BBC’s Blu-ray box set and the music on the Isles Of Wonder soundtrack album, but also mentioning other content from a playlist I’ve compiled of highlights, behind the scenes footage and other music from the ceremony. So I hope you enjoy this epic post about an epic event!
- The Blu-ray
- Journey Along The Thames
- Happy And Glorious
- NHS Tribute
- Chariots Of Fire
- Thanks Tim
- Welcome To The Games
- Opening The Games
The build-up to the Games began long before the Opening Ceremony of course. When Beijing handed over the baton to us in 2008, we gave the world a small sense of what might be in store, with an enjoyable segment in the 2008 Paralympics Closing Ceremony and an animated title sequence. Then 4 years later we launched 2012 with a huge fireworks display, and the Olympic Torch Relay helped to build the anticipation. Plus, of course, the closer we got to the Games, the more blanket news coverage there was, even if some of it was still quite negative in some quarters.
We were even able to have a laugh at ourselves in typical British fashion, in particular thanks to the BBC mockumentary series about the organising of the games called Twenty Twelve, which was later followed by the sequel W1A. I don’t recall ever watching those shows when they came out, and I’ve certainly never seen them since. But I probably will look at them one day, if they ever get repeated again. They’re not available on iPlayer as I write this, but there are several clips online, and there are various options to buy it on DVD or streaming services for those who are really interested. I’m not that desperate to see them personally, I just feel they’re worth acknowledging as they formed a big part of the build-up.
But the Opening Ceremony was the big moment. It had to be special and memorable, after all the build-up and hype, and to justify all the money that been spent. If we got it wrong, as many assumed would be the case, it would humiliate us and cast a shadow over the rest of the Games.
But, as we know, it didn’t go that way. Very much the opposite in fact. An extraordinary amount of effort went into this celebratory festival of British life, history and culture, and it showed. Danny Boyle worked extremely hard with lots of production staff and a huge team of volunteers to make it work.
There are a few extras about it on the Blu-ray set that I’ll mention in a moment, but by far the best account I’ve seen is an episode of the BBC series Imagine… called One Night In 2012. This was first broadcast in 2016, and has been occasionally repeated since, so hopefully it’ll get another airing this year. But I’ve already watched it again, as I managed to capture it using a DVD recorder I had at the time. I had already recorded several programmes relating to the Olympics in 2012, on to a set of DVDs that I still have and am going to rewatch as part of the 10-year celebrations, so I’ll review them in a later post.
Anyway, this particular documentary is really interesting indeed. Presenter Alan Yentob talks extensively to Danny Boyle and his team, and we also hear from the volunteers, performers, and others, through special interviews made for the show, and from footage they had personally recorded at the time.
The bulk of the programme focuses on the astounding volunteer performers and drummers from the Industrial Revolution, NHS and Thanks Tim set pieces of the ceremony. Without them the event could have never happened, so it’s great that they’re celebrated so heavily. We see them going through auditions and rehearsals, find out about the many costumes that were created, and see them performing on the night. It’s incredible to see it all coming together in this way, it gives you a whole new appreciation for it all.
And apart from that, we also learn how Danny first met Sebastian Coe, chairman of the Organising Committee, on Simon Mayo’s radio show, which led to his invite to do the ceremony, followed by the impressive CGI pre-visualisations of Danny’s ideas. There are also insights into the involvement of The Queen, Akram Khan, Emilie Sande and Rowan Atkinson, among others, as well as the challenges of filming in the stadium, some of the political disagreements that took place behind the scenes, and the lighting of the cauldron. So it goes into considerable depth about the whole event.
It was an unimaginable amount of time and work, and so everyone involved deserves an Olympic medal for what they managed to achieve. This mammoth masterpiece was as British as it was possible to get, full of ambition, passion, humour and all sorts of surprises. It didn’t aim to copy the ceremonies that had gone before, it was about making it our own and being inclusive. It was for everyone, and by everyone, as it featured a huge and diverse cast, and celebrated many aspects of British history and culture. It showed the best of us in so many ways, and set the bar extremely high for everything that was to follow.
Visually it also looked stunning, thanks to all the performers involved, the choreography, the costumes, the set design, and so on. There’s also the innovative lighting that included special ‘pixels’ by every seat, which allowed them to form imagery around the whole stadium.
And the music used in the ceremony, arranged by musical director Rick Smith from Underworld, was also spectacular, with excellent original compositions alongside a myriad of tunes by British artists from across different decades and styles. The Isles Of Wonder soundtrack album contains all the best material in that regard, but I’ve expanded the version on my computer with lots of other tracks I’ve bought elsewhere as well, so my copy of the soundtrack is as complete as it’s possible to be. I’ll be mentioning a lot of my favourite tracks in this post.
But of course, until the ceremony took place, very few people outside the Olympics bubble knew about any of that. And, remarkably, pretty much everything was kept secret, apart from one or two inevitable minor leaks here and there. Even the 60,000 lucky people who got sneak peeks in the technical rehearsal & dress rehearsal in the last few days before the worldwide broadcast obeyed Danny’s plea to Save The Surprise by not posting anything online. And a few surprises were still held back even from those crowds. It must have been very hard to stay quiet about it, so it’s commendable that everyone did!
The BBC’s Blu-ray box set for the Olympic Games splits the Opening Ceremony across 2 discs, such is the amount of content and the need to keep it in High Definition. Disc 1 contains the first 3 hours, including the major set pieces at the start, and all 1 hour 40 minutes of the Athletes Parade, and finishing with the Arctic Monkeys. Disc 2 then contains the more formal parts of the ceremony, including the speeches by Sebastian Coe and Jacques Rogge, the raising of the Olympic flag, the lighting of the cauldron, and Paul McCartney.
There isn’t a scene selection menu for the ceremony (even though there is for the sporting highlights programmes in the set), but there are still chapter points so you can skip to your favourite parts. There are also a few small edits to correct faults with the live TV coverage, particularly the inadvertent out-of-sync playout of Paul McCartney’s backup vocal track at the start of Hey Jude (as they had a pre-recorded version of everything to be safe). So that helps everything to flow better as well.
There are also 3 audio options with which to enjoy the ceremony, and subtitles are available for the commentaries:
- The stadium audio in 5.1 surround sound, without anybody talking over it, so obviously that’s the best way to experience the full atmosphere.
- The BBC Sport commentary led by Huw Edwards, as it was heard on TV. The commentators are respectful and don’t interfere unnecessarily, just giving useful and interesting contextual information, but otherwise staying quiet during video sequences and when people are singing or talking. The Athletes Parade is where they really come into their element, naturally, as they’re able to talk extensively about the various countries taking part.
- Commentary by Danny Boyle & Frank Cottrell-Boyce. This is really interesting, with lots of discussion about what different sequences and elements represent, how things were done, and thanking the many people who helped to make it all happen. On Disc 1 they take a break partway through the Athletes Parade at 1:31:40, as there’s nothing for them to say while that drags on, but then they resume at exactly 2:55:00, before Team GB emerge to rapturous cheering.
Disc 2, when inserted into a computer’s Blu-ray drive, also contains a 239-page PDF listing every single person involved with every aspect of the opening ceremony, including all of the performers, volunteers, technical staff, production teams and so on, as well as music and clearance credits. It’s not something you’d sit there and read like a book, but flicking through the pages really underscores what a phenomenal achievement it was to put together. The list of people is seemingly endless!
Disc 4, meanwhile, contains a few extras relating to the Opening Ceremony as well, including music from the prologue in the stadium before the live worldwide broadcast, the making of the Thames fly-through sequence, and the visuals projected on to the house during the Thanks Tim section of the show. I’ll mention those further as I go through the highlights below.
If you don’t have the Blu-ray, you can watch the full Opening Ceremony on the official Olympics Youtube channel. Naturally it’s a bit different to the BBC broadcast, with different commentators, a bit of additional footage at the start and end, and one or two other little differences during the ceremony itself (they don’t show the animation of the flying Tardis, for example). During their introduction there’s a gorgeous tracking shot along the Thames towards the stadium, where you then get a nice glimpse of what happens before they go live to air (more on that below). Then there are a couple of minutes at the end, after the ceremony has concluded, where you can just enjoy the relaxed atmosphere in the stadium with nice close-ups of the cauldron ablaze.
So with all that said, let’s get into the different parts of the ceremony. I’m not going to go into huge depth about every single aspect of the event, as it’s already detailed extensively online. But there are a lot of favourite and notable moments that I want to talk about in some detail. And, as I said earlier, I’ve gathered lots of highlights and the music soundtrack on my Opening Ceremony playlist if you want to look through it all.
There were a couple of things that took place in the stadium before the live international broadcast got underway, which are available as extras on Disc 4 of the Blu-ray set (in much better quality than the Youtube links I’ve found to illustrate):
- Frank Turner’s performance of Sailor’s Boots, Wessex Boy & I Still Believe, on the model of Glastonbury Tor, lasting 10 minutes altogether. He isn’t anything special by any means, but he’s alright as a warm-up act here. The audience are clapping along quite happily, and they also sing along when invited to do so at the end of the second song. I Still Believe is included on the soundtrack album.
- A beautiful rendition of Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra’s On Track project (90 young East London musicians with 20 LSO members). It’s given a maritime theme, with blue sheets drifting down over the entire stadium audience like waves, video clips of boats at sea, and an extract from the Shipping Forecast. It’s a lovely, relaxing piece that lasts for 3½ minutes, and is played again during the ceremony itself when Kenneth Branagh gives a speech.
While both of those performances are taking place, the picturesque model village in the centre of the stadium is bustling with activity as well, as the volunteers play cricket and football, gather water and wheat, tend to beehives and extract the honey, exercise and have picnics, etc. It sets the scene nicely before the huge transformation that takes place early on in the ceremony.
Away from the stadium, it’s also worth noting that there was a special concert in Hyde Park, featuring 4 artists, each from a different nation of the UK. My favourite part of that show is easily the set performed by Duran Duran, but it also starred Snow Patrol, Stereophonics and Paolo Nutini.
You can also see other footage from the build-up in the Olympic Stadium that audience members recorded, including the Red Arrows flying over at 8:12pm (20:12), part of Danny Boyle’s speech thanking everyone involved, and the moments after Nimrod before they go live. You can tell there’s already such an amazing atmosphere in there, and it came across really well on TV.
The final 60 seconds leading up to the start of the ceremony consists of rapidly-changing numbers from British houses, buses, signage, timepieces and more – which looks brilliant, but I don’t envy the editor who had to put it together!
The punchy music accompanying it is an extract from The Road Goes On Forever [One Minute To Midnight Extended Mix] by a drum and bass producer called High Contrast. It’s a remix of his track The Road Goes On Forever, which is heavier but also sounds cool, and listeners will notice that it samples Baba O’Riley by The Who. I have all the tracks from the special EP released by High Contrast, also called The Road Goes On Forever, which features both of the above mixes, plus special versions of other tracks (called NHS Mixes) that were specifically created for the Athletes Parade in the opening ceremony. Apart from the title track, I particularly like the catchy Strutter and For Years, but the whole album’s alright. The countdown track isn’t on the ceremony soundtrack album, but edited versions of some of the NHS mixes are included by virtue of featuring in the Athletes Parade. I’ve added all the full-length tracks from the EP on to my digital copy of the album as bonus tracks, so it’s all kept together.
Journey Along The Thames
When the countdown ends, we then launch into an absolutely magnificent flight along the Thames, from its source in the countryside right through to the stadium. It’s superbly filmed and animated, featuring an abundance of British sporting and cultural references.
The first half of the sequence includes nods to former British Olympians, cricket, the boat race (with the Eton Boating Song), the Wind In The Willows, Monty Python (the pointing hand), and an Intercity 125 train, among other things.
And, apart from the boating song, that first section is predominantly accompanied by an electronic track called Surf Solar by a duo called Fuck Buttons – credited, understandably, as F. Buttons in the Blu-ray credits PDF and soundtrack album booklet (even though it’s not actually on the album). It’s hard to imagine the BBC or Olympics organisers allowing the use of a track by an artist with such a name, but it shows the freedom and trust that Danny Boyle had been given. And it does fit perfectly. There are even moments where it pauses while a more relaxing activity is shown – a hand brushing against wheat in a field, ducks walking along, and a game of cricket – reflecting the fact that we do like to escape for a bit of peace and quiet sometimes.
It is a strange track when heard in full by itself, and too long really at over 10 minutes, though a much shorter 7″ Edit also exists. The rest of their Tarot Sport album from which the track comes isn’t very interesting and often quite weird, so I haven’t bought that. But a High Contrast remix of the track Olympians is later used during the Athletes Parade as well, and is included on the Isles Of Wonder soundtrack.
The pace then picks up as we fly into Central London, passing the Pink Floyd pig over Battersea Power Station, with the ‘tick tock’ sound effect from their track Time playing as we zoom into Big Ben. Appropriately, as we spin around and pass the London Eye, the theme to The South Bank Show then kicks in (Variations I-IV by Julian Lloyd Webber, composed by his older brother Andrew) then kicks in.
From there we zoom around the corner towards Tower Bridge, with the Olympic rings hanging from it, accompanied by God Save The Queen – not the national anthem, but a clip of the song by the Sex Pistols, another surprising but inspired choice! It was released in 1977 in response to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and nearly topped the singles chart. The fact that it only got to Number 2 led to accusations of a fix, as its controversial nature even led the BBC to ban it from their airwaves. So, in protest, the band played the song, along with a few others, on a boat that travelled down the Thames towards Parliament.
It was a significant moment in music history that is therefore reflected in this 2012 Thames animation, as the camera retraces the band’s route whilst the song is playing, and the BBC are perfectly happy to go along with it. Of course, the only lyrics you hear are the words from the title – they obviously don’t include things like the “fascist regime” line!
After we fly under Tower Bridge, the camera flips and soars upwards to give an aerial view of East London, which millions of viewers recognise from the credits of soap opera Eastenders. And, on cue, the iconic cliffhanger drums from the show are played – the so-called ‘doof doofs’ – which elicits laughter and a big cheer of recognition from the stadium crowd that isn’t heard in the broadcast (as we don’t hear the audience until the journey ends at the venue). Even if you’ve never watched the show, it’s one of those sounds that every British person knows.
Disc 4 of the Blu-ray set contains a deconstruction of the sequence from the pig over Battersea Power Station to that Eastenders moment. It only lasts just over a minute unfortunately, but it quickly uncovers the layers, wireframes and original filmed plates that were used, often pausing or rewinding the action slightly to do so. It gives a fleeting sense of the detailed work involved in putting it all together.
After that we then dive back down and head towards the Olympic Park, during which we:
- Pass through the Thames Barrier to Under The House by Public Image Ltd. It’s a very weird song that I’m not a fan of, but the drums work well here.
- Take a ride on the Tube accompanied by the “Mind The Gap” announcement and the classic London Calling by The Clash – another controversial protest song at its time of release).
- See Victorian tunnel workers accompanied by Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance – also known as Land Of Hope And Glory, which was sung particularly proudly at the Last Night Of The Proms later that year.
- Pass up through a road tunnel to the opening riff of Smile by Lily Allen. I’m not a fan of her music, but credit where it’s due, it is instantly recognisable.
- And then finally we head into the stadium, with overlays of posters from previous Olympic Games, to the absolute banger of a tune that is Map of the Problematique by Muse (I really must explore their music more). It continues playing as groups of balloons with numbers from 10 to 1 are popped, as everyone in the stadium counts down. You have to feel sorry for the small number of people holding balloons that didn’t burst there!
After choirs around the UK sing the informal anthems from all 4 constituent countries, and Kenneth Branagh (acting as Isambard Kingdom Brunel) reads Shakespeare’s Be Not Afeard speech backed by the tune of Nimrod (which was a lot of pressure for him), we then get into what is effectively a massive and highly elaborate scene change. The idyllic scene of rural life in green fields is gradually torn up, as the centre of the stadium becomes a huge factory to represent the Industrial Revolution, with very tall chimneys raised up from the ground (cleverly achieved using inflatables from Air Works). The way this leads to the Olympic rings being forged and coming together in the sky is really impressive and beautifully done. And there are other sights to take in while all of that is going on too, including the Suffragettes, Windrush, Chelsea Pensioners and people wearing the Sgt Pepper outfits by The Beatles!
To see how they kept all the performers in sync with each other, you can watch an insightful bodycam recording from one of the working men in the centre of the stadium, which puts you in the heart of the action, and comes complete with the click track and instructions delivered via their in-ear monitor. It’s a really cool look at the sequence from a whole new perspective. The pride in the lady’s voice when the rings are showering with sparks at the end is quite moving, along with subsequent congratulations from other members of the production team. And I’m sure the volunteers must have felt very emotional indeed, having finally completed their epic performance after so many months of hard work.
The music accompanying it all is a magnificent 17-minute track, especially written for the event, called And I Will Kiss by Underworld, featuring deaf musician Dame Evelyn Glennie, a thousand Pandemonium drummers, LSO On Track, and several other musicians. It has a wonderful rhythmic power throughout, and the drummers were conditioned to use the phrase “Play the drum so your Mum can see you on TV” to get the right beat, which you can hear in your head as you listen to it, it really does work. And that’s all juxtaposed with a soft whistling interlude in the middle when poppies are on display to represent a period of silence for war victims.
The track is included on the official ceremony album, plus there’s a nice alternative mix that incorporates live percussion from the ceremony during the intro, which was released on the 2016 compilation Underworld A Collection 2. That album also includes a copy of Caliban’s Dream from later in the ceremony, and full versions of a few other tracks that were remixed for the Athletes Parade.
It’s also worth noting that around 80 Pandemonium drummers continued to work together after the Games. They released a charity single in 2016 called Champion, in aid of the Teenage Cancer Trust, which is quite catchy and uplifting. They’ve also continued to perform And I Will Kiss sometimes, including festival appearances and a virtual rendition during lockdown in 2020.
Happy And Glorious
The title aptly describes this very enjoyable sequence, with James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) meeting The Queen (played by herself to begin with), so he can fly her to the Olympic Park, whereupon they both parachute into the stadium to the James Bond Theme by John Barry! And talking of music, the scenes at the palace were underscored by two Handel compositions – Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (from Solomon) & Music for the Royal Fireworks: IV. La Rejouissance – while the helicopter ride across London, with the Winston Churchill statue waving up at them, was accompanied by the iconic Dambusters March by Eric Coates.
It was a big surprise to see Her Majesty taking part for real in the opening video segment, but that had been her idea, as she does have a great sense of humour (as illustrated again more recently by her tea with Paddington Bear at her Platinum Jubilee). Danny Boyle and his team had contacted the Royal Family simply to get their general approval, explaining that they’d use a respectable double of The Queen throughout. But she replied to say that she would like to be involved, and even suggested that she say a line of dialogue when it came to filming, as they hadn’t written any for her. It was a delightfully novel way to herald the Queen’s arrival, and since then the Queen has joked about it during a speech and Daniel has spoken about how fun it was.
They used stunt artists for the jump itself of course – Gary Connery for the Queen and Mark Sutton for James Bond. And while they couldn’t parachute inside the stadium because of all the wires and other things that were in the way, it still looked cool to see them landing just outside the stadium instead. Mark very sadly died in a wingsuit accident the following year, but the memory of his involvement in the Opening Ceremony has been preserved not only in the TV footage, but also in his bodycam video of the jump, which gives an amazing new perspective on that special moment.
After the Queen had been warmly welcomed, the Union Jack was then brought in to the tune of Sundowner by Blanck Mass & the London Symphony Orchestra, a reworking of the original track from Blanck Mass’s self-titled album the previous year. It’s interesting to observe that Blanck Mass is a solo project by Benjamin John Power, a founding member of Fuck Buttons, who played a prominent role at the start of the ceremony.
The flag was then raised alongside the national anthem, which was sung live by The Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children, the only deaf and hearing integrated choir in the UK. What a lovely touch it was to have a group of disabled youngsters performing in such a key moment, they’ll treasure that forever.
This section – called “Second to the right, and straight on till morning” – was a beautifully choreographed celebration of the NHS (founded during the year of the last London Olympics in 1948) and children’s stories, featuring lots of staff and volunteers from the health service, and children from Great Ormond Street Hospital. The healthcare workers dance while the children bounce happily on their beds, which illuminate to reveal the NHS and GOSH logos when viewed from above. Then night falls, and evil beings including the Child Catcher and Voldemort creep in, only to be thwarted by a swarm of Mary Poppins characters who fly in from the heavens and chase them away. J. K. Rowling also reads an extract from Peter Pan during this part of the show.
It’s all good fun, and is accompanied by a fantastic medley by Mike Oldfield, that incorporates:
- The well known intro from Tubular Bells (from the album Tubular Bells and made famous by The Exorcist).
- Secrets & Far Above The Clouds (the final two tracks from Tubular Bells III).
- In Dulci Jubilo (his festive single).
This medley, along with And I Will Kiss from earlier, are my 2 favourite pieces of music from the entire soundtrack, because they’re captivating and catchy, and have enough variety over their extended length to keep you engaged. There’s also a camera view from percussionist Alasdair Malloy online as well.
It’s strange to think that there was political pressure to cut this section, but thankfully Danny Boyle fought to keep it in, threatening to pull out all the other volunteers as well, such was his passion for it. Mind you, it’s even more bizarre that conspiracy theorists have nonsensically claimed that it predicted Covid. Yes, they really will pick on anything, but this is easily debunked like so many of their other assertions. It’s easy to find patterns in anything if you’re looking for them, which you can then twist out of context to spread false information.
Chariots Of Fire
Simon Rattle & The London Symphony Orchestra give a fabulous performance here, playing a sublime version of the classic tune by Vangelis, who sadly died this May at the age of 79. Renowned composer Howard Goodall paid tribute to him, as he had been asked to reconstruct the song for the opening ceremony. This piece of music also resonates closely with me from my youth, thanks to the Ten Tors hiking events, so it’s one of the reasons I’m a big fan of this section. But it’s not the biggest reason.
To start with, it appears to be a regular, serious performance. Which, on its own, would have worked perfectly well. But then the camera pans up to reveal the one and only Rowan Atkinson, causing an eruption of cheering throughout the stadium. The crowd immediately know that they’re in for something very funny and special, and that is exactly what they get. It’s a sequence that always makes me smile and never gets boring, no matter how many times I see it.
Rowan’s incredible ability for physical comedy, including his facial expressions, have made him a star worldwide. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak – if you can see what he’s doing, or have it described well to you, he can and will make you laugh. So it was a masterstroke to incorporate him into a globally televised ceremony. It’s widely assumed, understandably, that he’s playing Mr Bean here, but Danny Boyle has said that he’s actually portraying a different character called Derek, and Rowan confirmed that it wasn’t intended to be Bean in the 2021 Happy Birthday Mr Bean documentary.
But whatever you want to call him, he’s really funny, as he tries to deal with the monotony of playing the same note repeatedly, has to find a way to wipe his nose while still playing after he sneezes, and then relaxes into a dream sequence where he’s cleverly edited into the footage of people running on the beach from the film Chariots Of Fire, and resorts to cheating with a car in order to win the race. When he does finally wake up, he realises that everyone in the stadium is waiting for him to finish the tune – which he does with a nice run of notes up the keyboard, only to then lean on the lower end to generate a fart noise, another typical cornerstone of British humour!
The basic story of this section of the show centres around 2 young people, Frankie and June, who spot each other in passing on the Tube, then eventually meet and fall in love, after Frankie finds the phone that June dropped and is able to call her sister to track her down.
But it’s not just about what’s going on between them – it’s about the connections between all of us, including the families spending time together at home, the friends meeting up for a night out, the communications that people exchange via mobiles and the internet, and the TV shows, films and music that resonate with us all. The whole section is a densely packed cultural showcase of the best of British society and culture.
The centrepiece for this sequence is a big family house, on to which is projected images and video footage of classic TV shows, films, musicians, comedians, the London Underground, newspapers and much more. A 17-minute extra on Disc 4 of the Blu-ray set presents an unfolded, flattened view of the house walls, so you can see everything that was projected upon them, including elements that were missed during the live broadcast when the cameras were looking elsewhere. There are also smaller boxes showing what was on the stadium’s 2 big LED screens, including some additional film footage, such as Michael Fish’s infamous hurricane dismissal from 1987. There’s a lot to take in, and it’s incredible to see how much was represented. Danny Boyle gives an insightful commentary on this section’s scale and complexity throughout this bonus feature as well.
The other main aspect of this section is the music of course, as it features snippets from many well-known tracks, beginning with:
- Girls In Grey by Charles Williams & His Concert Orchestra – Used for TV newsreels in the 1950s.
- Barwick Green by Arthur Wood – The theme tune to The Archers.
- Black And White Rag by Winifred Atwell – The theme tune to Pot Black.
- Push The Button by Sugababes
- Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
- Food, Glorious Food by Lionel Bart – The opening song from the musical Oliver!
- When I Was A Youngster by Rizzle Kicks – Includes a sample from Revolution Rock by The Clash, giving them another little nod in the show.
- Going Underground by The Jam – Played when the performers are pretending to be on the Tube.
- Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton – Played when Frankie and June first notice each other.
We then get into a dance medley of big hits, with hundreds of performers, wonderful costumes and brilliant choreography, as we’re taken through the decades from the 60s onwards. One of the performers filmed a backstage vlog of her experience, and some of them have done flash mob performances of the dance sequence elsewhere too.
The hits medley includes:
- My Generation by The Who
- (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones
- My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small
- All Day And All Of The Night by The Kinks
- She Loves You by The Beatles
- Tiger Feet by Mud
- Trampled Under Foot by Led Zeppelin
- A Message To You Rudy by The Specials
- Starman by David Bowie
- Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen – As a big fan of both Queen and Doctor Who, it was great to see a clip of the Tardis flying during the heavy section of this song (you only hear the sound effect in the video on the Olympics channel, but you actually see the Tardis on the Blu-ray).
- Pretty Vacant by Sex Pistols
- Blue Monday by New Order
- Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood
- Back To Life (However Do You Want Me) by Soul II Soul featuring Caron Wheeler
- Step On by Happy Mondays
- Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) by Eurythmics
- Firestarter by The Prodigy
- Born Slippy .NUXX by Underworld – Used in Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting.
- I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles – Sung by the crowd as Frankie and June approach each other. This choice of song is very significant, as it’s the anthem of the local West Ham United Football Club, who at that time were bidding to take over the stadium after the Games had finished. And they did indeed achieve their goal, so to speak.
- Song 2 by Blur – Played when Frankie and June kiss, accompanied by a montage of famous screen kisses including the Brookside pre-watershed lesbian kiss.
- Bonkers by Dizzee Rascal – Performed live in the stadium by the rapper. Dizzee was born and raised in East London, so it was very appropriate to have him there. This song is included on the Isles Of Wonder soundtrack album.
- Nimma Nimma by A. R. Rahman featuring Jaspreet Jasz – Specially composed for the ceremony to celebrate Indian influence in the UK. This is also on the soundtrack album.
- Valerie by Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse
- Uprising by Muse
- Random Antics by Mikey J featuring Kano – Grime isn’t my type of music at all, but there are lots of mentions of East London and some other cultural references in this.
- Pass Out by Tinie Tempah
All of those tracks are on my ceremony playlist of course, including full length album versions when they’re longer than the music video or single edits.
Finally, to the sound of Heaven by Emeli Sandé, we see the house raised into the air to reveal Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, tapping away at a computer. He tweets “This is for everyone”, which is displayed in big LED lights around the stadium, and refers to the fact that he kept the Web free for everyone to use. The ceremony had celebrated the Industrial Revolution earlier, and here it was honouring the Digital Revolution that shapes our lives so much today. The ability to communicate and share things instantaneously with our family, friends and a global audience, from anywhere at any time, is something that we very much take for granted, and for today’s young people it’s really hard to imagine a time when that wasn’t possible.
Welcome To The Games
Following those major set piece displays – celebrating the Industrial, Healthcare & Digital revolutions – we then build towards the actual launch of the Games. There isn’t quite so much to write about each aspect of things going forward, so I can skim through it all a bit quicker:
- There’s a nice montage of the Torch Relay, with the song I Heard Wonders by David Holmes. The sequence finishes with two renowned footballers making their way along the Thames to the stadium, with David Beckham driving the illuminated motorboat, at the front of which Jade Bailey stands proudly with the torch.
- A memorial montage of photographs is then introduced, in tribute to people related to those in the audience who were unable to attend the Games because they had passed away, including victims of the 7/7 bombings in 2005, which happened the day after London won the hosting bid. The music here is the very fitting An Ending (Ascent) by Brian Eno.
- Keeping in the sober, reflective mood, Emeli Sandé performs Abide With Me, underscored by a heartbeat and soft instrumentals, while dancers perform with their choreographer Akram Khan. It’s nicely done.
- Things then pick up pace again for the Athletes Parade, which lasts 1 hour 40 minutes as each of the 205 teams takes their rightful moment in the spotlight. A special mix of music was put together to keep things moving at a steady pace, an edited version of which makes up Disc 2 of the soundtrack album, with the tracks flowing directly into one another. Most of the music is by Underworld and High Contrast, who had a lot of involvement in the ceremony, and some of High Contrast’s mixes can be heard in full on their EP The Road Goes On Forever. But High Contrast have also remixed songs by Fuck Buttons, Pet Shop Boys and U2, and the mix starts and ends with extracts from Galvanize by The Chemical Brothers.
- But, of course, the most important song in the parade is Heroes by David Bowie, which is played when Team GB emerge last as the host nation, to the biggest cheers of the entire night as you’d expect. About half of the 541-strong team were able to make it to the parade, so we were very well represented. It was a nice touch to have all of the flags going up together on the big model of Glastonbury Tor in the stadium, and one person from every nation carried a copper petal that had an important role later on.
- The Arctic Monkeys then mark the end of the parade by playing their hit I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor and a cover of Come Together by The Beatles, which is nowhere near as good as the original but is ok for the occasion. The latter is accompanied by 75 cyclists made to look like doves of peace, with one of them flying into the air, and you can see a bit of their rehearsal footage online. Copies of both songs, recorded during a rehearsal for the ceremony, are on the soundtrack album.
Opening The Games
Now we get into the official protocol, which is where Disc 2 of the Blu-ray starts, and there are a number of elements here.
We hear great speeches by London Games Chairman Sebastian Coe & IOC President Jacques Rogge first of all. It’s pointed out that London is the only city to have hosted the Games 3 times, spanning more than a century. There’s also a huge cheer for the volunteers, and another for the fact that all the participating teams have had female athletes for the first time. The Queen then officially opens the Games.
Next, 8 people who embody the Olympic values carry the Olympic Flag through the stadium, and over to the legendary Muhammad Ali, who deservedly gets a massive ovation from the crowd. He was unable to speak or carry the flag himself due to his Parkinson’s Syndrome, so it was really wonderful that he was able to be present at all for the occasion, supported by his wife Lonnie. He had previously lit the flame in Atlanta in 1996. The flag is then raised with the music of the Olympic Anthem, followed by the Olympic Oath.
What follows next is another very beautiful highlight of the ceremony. The motorboat pulls into the Olympic Park, so that David Beckham and Jade Bailey can pass the flame to Sir Steve Redgrave, who jogs into the stadium with it, past an honour guard of 500 of the construction workers who built the Olympic Park. He then passes the flame to a group of 7 young athletes, representing the next generation of sports stars, who have been nominated by former British Olympians. The teenagers pass the flame between them as they jog around the stadium, before meeting the people who had nominated them. And it wasn’t just those 7 former Olympians who were there – 260 of Britain’s gold, silver and bronze medal winning Olympians since 1948 were there to witness this special moment.
All 7 youngsters are then given a flame of their own, and they head into the centre of the stadium, where they each light a copper petal attached to a long pole laying on the ground. During the Athletes Parade, one person from each of the 205 nations had carried a copper petal into the stadium, and now their purpose became clear. The 7 petals lit by the children cause a spiralling chain reaction, lighting all the other petals. They then rise on their poles and meet in the centre to form the cauldron, a big fire bursting into life as they come together. It was a marvellous piece of engineering and a very well kept secret, and the symbolism of all the countries coming together was very nicely done. It was such a special and memorable moment for those young athletes too, as Desiree Henry recently recalled for the BBC.
And the music accompanying the entire sequence, from the moment Steve Redgrave enters the stadium, is the beautiful Caliban’s Dream by Underworld & Dame Evelyn Glennie, with the Dockhead Choir, Only Men Aloud and others, written specially for the ceremony. Presenter Clare Balding, who covered both the Olympics on the BBC and the Paralympics on Channel 4, nominated the track as one of her selection on Desert Island Discs the following year.
There’s then a huge fireworks display, set to Eclipse by Pink Floyd. before Paul McCartney plays Hey Jude (after the closing section of The End). There was an audio issue at the start, where the pre-recorded vocals (which everyone had produced in case of technical faults) were played alongside his live singing. You can hear that in the video on the Olympics channel linked above, but it’s been fixed on the Blu-ray, thankfully.
And that’s it, we finally made it to the end. The fact that so much of the ceremony sticks in the mind ten years later, even when you haven’t watched it for a while, and still gives all the feels when rewatching it, due to its powerful and passionate celebration of what it is to be British, is a testament to Danny Boyle’s vision, the work of his production team, the talents of the technical experts, the variety of excellent performers, the thousands of exceptionally dedicated volunteers, and so on. It was a massive gamble and a colossal amount of work, but by golly it paid off and made us all feel so proud.
So I hope you enjoyed that, and don’t forget you can flick through the videos on the playlist I’ve put together while writing this post. Next time I’ll go through some of the sporting highlights, of which there were many, as showcased extensively on the Blu-ray, including a rather special Saturday. So I’ll see you again soon for that!
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