Public History

Danny Boyle’s Interpretation of History

‘Pandemonium’ at the Olympics Opening Ceremony. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I thought the London 2012 opening ceremony wondrous and moving.  I missed so much which the newspapers, daughter, grand-daughters (a bit daunted by the shaky opening) and others only later filled in.  TV camera work was spectacular but could not contain all the images all at once.

Danny Boyle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before we claim too much for radical history – this was a ceremony made by a team of brilliant entertainers.  Who else would have had the courage to open up the themes – (for those who weren’t there, industrial and digital revolutions; the NHS, children’s literature, popular music and politics) – to 10,000 volunteer performers; to delegate so much – design, choreography, sound (oh, the compelling drumming); to trust to simple truths and stories – including the bad ones?  Historians are much too cautious, slaves to the disciplines of their trade especially pedagogy.

I fear I would have screened Dizzee Rascal’s words … cut the scenes from Trainspotting … and is there a historian who would venture the Queen with Bond as a metaphor of modern Britain?  Well, perhaps given the military metaphor of helicopter flight.

This version of Britain had affinities with Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, whose depredated countryside is inhabited still by anarchic heroes in thrall to dystopian, as well as radical, visions; or Danny Boyle’s recent production of Frankenstein which revealed man’s inhumanity to man through his insatiable curiosity, dread of feeling and desire to play god, and which opened – as the NHS sequence finished – with birth, with new life.

For the radical historian there was much to question.  Industrial revolution?  Was that our grandest modern moment?  Historiography in the past thirty years has lost the plot of revolution, or rather replaced it with long uneven development of new inventions, persistence of handicraft and unskilled work, above all has reasserted the slave trade as harbinger of capital and labour.  Last week there was not a slave ship in sight, in fact no ships at all.  Britain’s nations were landlocked.

And yet there was much to build on too, and not just the familiar figures of Jarrow marchers, suffragettes.  Boyles’ vision (and he claimed in every interview it was the work of the team and the volunteers) was a description of the present in which new lives, voices, love affairs and as the Games themselves unfold, new political choices are to be made.


  1. It was magnificent, quixotic, baffling, eccentric – and remarkably it worked. There was Blake – the suffragettes – socialised medicine – and the CND symbol. If Mitt Romney had stuck around, he would certainly have found that ‘disconcerting’. 

  2. Despite claims from the right that it was somehow radical, socialist or even Marxist in nature (Boris Johnson even suggested that it showed the ‘rise of the English working class and their triumph over the capitalism’ on TV the next day), in fact it was a kind of Lord of the Rings-esque Mid Summer Nights Dream for the lost world of British Social Democracy (not least with its focus on the Island Story of Britain and so no need to mention empire/slavery).   As I think someone remarked somewhere, it needed an 80 foot giant axe-wielding Margaret Thatcher (perhaps riden by a little David Cameron look-a-like) to come striding into the stadium to kick over all the industrial chimneys – that might have given people more of a political awakening to contemporary reality…

  3. Actually, there was one ship – Windrush made a brief appearance, as the Daily Mail noticed:
    The Windrush, representing the ship that brought the first West Indian immigrants to Britain in 1948, was assembled by hidden crew carrying four parts made of steel rods covered by fabric made to look like newspapers from the time. Wires decorated with bunting kept the ship upright, while actors on stilts played its passengers.

  4. … and Berners-Lee in a suburban house seemingly typing out the message: ‘THIS IS FOR EVERYONE’ was a vaguely powerful – or powerfully vague – moment for all of us generation Xers who spent too much time playing computer games.

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