Armchair Pundit

A masterpiece, not a ceremony

Alex Chick

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'I'm not really a ceremonies person.'

I said that all week. I didn't think I would go to the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, and I wasn't really bothered.

Even when positive reviews came from those who had seen the rehearsal, I remained unmoved.

What's the point of going to a big sporting event if you aren't going to watch any sport?

Then, on Friday lunchtime, I found out that there was, in fact, a place open if I wanted it.

I'm not really a ceremonies person - but you're not going to say no, are you?

This week, Eurosport replayed the Beijing Opening Ceremony. It was absolutely astonishing.

It featured thousands of performers, perfectly choreographed, and enough fireworks to tilt the earth off its axis. The production absolutely reeked of money.

The London Ceremony cost £27m - there is no published figure for Beijing, but I would not be surprised if it were 10 times that amount.

The national fear: Was the London opening going to be a low-budget embarrassment like that god-awful Boris bus four years ago?

Speaking on Friday morning, one of the London choreographers talked about "changing the game".

We can't compete with the scale and explosive impact of 2008, so we won't try, he said. This would be a triumph for story-telling, eccentricity and surprise.

It managed the latter long before proceedings got under way in earnest.

One of the great joys of watching a stadium event is the moment when you walk into the open and catch a glimpse of the arena.

The first thing that took my eye was a rustic cottage with smoke issuing from its chimneys. Then there were the maypoles, the water mill, the ploughed fields and the livestock. None of those in China.

As someone hailing from the muddy end of Leicestershire, it was a delight to see the London games representing Briton in all its bucolic splendour.

Then it started, and all expectations were not so much surpassed as destroyed.

The celestially brilliant 'Pandemonium' sequence, in which the rural landscape turned industrial, culminating in molten steel Olympic rings showering the arena with sparks, was one of the best things I have ever seen.

Not one of the best ceremonies, pieces of performance art, or events I have seen in a stadium. Just one of the best things.

The thumpingly powerful drums blended perfectly with the sense of historical sweep, upheaval and chaos.

Of course, Beijing had drums. Lots of them. Noisy, synchronised and relentless.

London's drums were different - they were part of an artistic masterpiece.

Yes, there were extremely clever special effects, and a booming sound system helped. But they were only ever a secondary concern to the brilliant madness unfolding below.

Beijing had serried ranks. London had chaos and complexity. It also had intimacy - no small feat given my vantage point at the very top of the stadium on a photographers' gantry.

As the show went on, it became increasingly clear that when they said Danny Boyle had full creative control, they certainly meant it.

Quite what viewers in Tokyo or Tanzania made of references to Great Ormond Street Hospital or Michael Fish is anybody's guess.

It doesn't really matter. Any celebration of Britain that feels it has to tone down the Britishness has fallen at the first hurdle.

Then there was the politics. The excellent but ludicrous NHS sequence was a direct slap in the face to a government apparently bent on dismantling it.

There were plenty of other, more subtle political touches, such as the Jarrow March recreation in 'Pandemonium'.

Whatever your views, you couldn't help but feel heartened by such freedom of expression at the start of the Olympics - an institution thought to be losing its soul to a mass of faceless corporate interests.

On it went, as Rowan Atkinson throwing Mr Bean shapes segued into a breakneck tour through British popular music history - an open goal for the organisers.

Even the team presentation - not easy to jazz up, had the appealing visual of flags planted on the bank below a tree.

The lighting of the flame threw yet another curveball that seems obvious once you know it; no single athlete, no cult of celebrity.
Did the night have anything to do with sport? Not really. And Boyle was gracious enough to acknowledge enough at the start of the show.

Nothing to do with sport, but anything to do with the Olympics? Absolutely.

The Opening Ceremony sets the tone. Whether the rest of the Games can live up to Friday night's standard is doubtful, but here was a promise of an Olympics full of joy and imagination.

This Opening Ceremony aimed to change the game and succeeded magnificently.

You didn't have to like ceremonies to enjoy this. You just had to like fun,

If even a tiny fraction of the opening ceremony's sense of adventure and excitement rubs off on the rest of the Games, London 2012 will be a huge success.

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Saturday - I'm off to Box Hill to watch the British dream team attempt to conjure road race gold for Mark Cavendish.

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Alex Chick will be writing about the Olympics throughout London 2012.

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