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Prominent role for industry in Olympic opening ceremony

Advance publicity of last Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony claimed that it would focus on a ‘land recovering from its industrial legacy’ which, given the importance of industry to our economic future, didn’t seem to us like a particularly good idea. 

But we needn’t have worried. From the dramatic portrayal of the impact of the industrial revolution, culminating in the simulation of steel being tapped from a furnace to form the Olympic rings, to the unexpected appearance of Tim-Berners Lee - inventor of the world wide web - the ceremony made a pretty clear link between Britain’s industrial past and present.

Of course, some might argue that Danny Boyle’s homage to Britain could have done more to champion modern engineering. With the exception of Berners-Lee, there was little mention of Britain’s modern technology success stories. There were no Range Rover Evoques hurtling round the Olympic stadium, no UAVs slaloming through the Olympic rings and, as far as we could see, none of those taking part in the NHS section were operating robotic surgery systems. Meanwhile, the prominence of Brunel  - amusingly mistaken by some US commentators as Abraham Lincoln - perhaps underscored the fact that we too frequently look to the past for examples of inspiring industrialists. 

Writing for the BBC’s website this week James Dyson -  sometimes held up as the closest we have to a modern day Brunel - suggested that in focusing on Britain’s industrial heritage the ceremony did little to change outmoded perceptions of what the manufacturing industry’s all about. Though he stops short of criticising the ceremony, Dyson suggests that images of dark satanic mills and brutal social upheaval are unlikely to inspire anyone to think differently about engineering. He may be right. Although it’s unlikely that the sight of someone quietly vacuuming the centre of the Olympic stadium would have  resonated in quite the same way.

But all this is perhaps missing the point. The purpose of the opening ceremony was not to send out a positive message about British manufacturing, but to provide a compelling opening to the world’s biggest sporting event. And it’s not difficult to imagine a far more anodyne, opening ceremony, an airbrushed version of Britain’s story - complete with dancing Beefeaters and morris men - with no reference to the powerful industrial forces that have shaped the place in which we live today. 

By weaving these elements into a powerful, subversive, chaotic and amusing narrative that appears to have caught the world’s imagination, Boyle’s set-piece has perhaps sent out a stronger message about Britain’s ability to rise to a challenge than any other initiative of the past decade. And for that we should all be grateful.

Readers' comments (13)

  • Viewing opening night from across the "pond" I was somewhat confused by what was happening there in the Olympic Stadium. However, we did have a script that was being read off to us as we watched those procedings here in Las Vegas. Once it was understood about the direction of things being done on the field, it was not all that hard to follow along. As with all of thie Olympic opening nights, it is a massive effort done by many, many people. The UK did not disappoint the world. It was just a little confusing to understand what was happening and the narration of it solved that for us. I am looking forward to seeing the closing ceremonies to see if it will have changed somewhat. The Engineering of the various buildings that were constructed for this Olympics is a World Class Act by itself. Great Job my UK Friends.

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  • I thought it was just great, and very appropriate. No arrogance or chest thumping, just an excellent demonstration of what the developed world owes to the UK. Well done!

    What I'm really interested is the mechanics of the event, how it was done, and by whom.

    How about a series of articles with diagrams showing how the flowers were lifted to make the cauldron, how the smoke stacks were raised and how they floated the rings? How did they relocate the cauldon? How did the projection system on the house work?

    I'm sure many engineers around the world would be very interested in having those incredible effects explained, as well as information about the designers and companies who did the work.

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  • I think that you’ve perhaps unwittingly identified the issue with the sentences “the powerful industrial forces that have shaped the place in which we live today” compared with “Range Rover Evoques” (essentially fashion items), UAVs (main aim to snoop or kill), Dysons (good consumer products but hardly world changing and Dyson himself, through no particular fault of his own is no Brunel). Robotic surgery is more of a positive, forward looking technology, but biotech is probably likely to ultimately have a greater impact on human welfare.

    In the UK especially, engineering that is powerful and has the potential to *shape* the world (rather than go with the environmental flow) is seen as suspect and likely to have caused many of the supposed problems we have (or may have) today, starting with climate change, environmental degradation (mining, large scale agriculture) down to over production of consumer goods (making us unhappy) or food (obesity). Any defense or promotion of engineering has to address and firmly rebuke these ideas, although many in the engineering community probably do think that engineering is responsible for the above woes.

    If there’s anyone out there who would confidently continue to develop “the powerful industrial forces that have shaped the place in which we live today” into the future I’d be keen to meet them.

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  • I thought the opening ceremony was well executed, pulled off like few other people's can do, and I, like Rob Brunswick, would love to know the behind the scenes details. However, I felt that certain areas were over emphasised, in particular the music sections, where we went on for far too long on what seemed a pointless ramble with rap and punk etc taking up an inordinate amount of time. Lest I be accused of being a fogey, even my 20-something daughters could not understand the significance of some of it. I was watching from Zimbabwe, via satellite TV, and the script being read was useful, but felt dry - I'm sure the commentary in the UK was much more illuminating. However, very well done to Danny Boyle and the thousands who took part, I felt very proud of my British heritage. You all deserve a medal.

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  • Well said Paul Reeves, my thoughts exactly.

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  • Opening Ceremony = Marxist clap-trap + over-the-top multiculturalism. It was enough for you to refrain from singing the National Anthem!

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  • To echo Conservative MP Gavin Barwell, as Londoners, we're rather proud of the city's diversity.

  • I presume, from the name A.W.Borucki, he/she is part of the multi-cultural mix in this great country of ours, making me feel justified in ignoring his comment. The opening ceremony was fantastic, except the music section, and I hope a precursor to a closing ceremony that will continue where the opening left off.
    I totally agree that, while Dyson is good, Brunel he ain't!

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  • Brunel - I didn't recognise him at first - without the Great Westerns chains in the background - the industrial revolution scenes did paint a dour picture of Britain (it was around this time we became Great , was it not ? ) Despite the WW1 scene being out of synch. where was the link to modern engineering A Formula one car with its screaming engine , a model of Concorde (part French I know ) or the Tornado or satellites etc to show modern technology , what happened to the image of the flying Scotsman or Mallard , the great ocean liners or a spitfire Lancaster etc . I am glad they didn't show the current phase of Great Britains development through the ages . Industry sacrificed by Thatcher for the prevailance of the banking sector (great job they did thanks ) to what we have today . Unemployment , lack of investment, charity shops on every high street, nimbys regarding HS2 and renewable energy . Never mind Great Britain will soon be turning full circle and life will be back as at the start of the opening ceremony . Country yokel kicking a pigs bladder around a field spectated by milk maids and country folk living in unheated country cottages but with high speed broadband. Oh well !

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  • A.W.Borucki - I mention you only to ignore you.

    I don’t think anyone has picked up the extraordinary creativity of the "cauldron". Following on after the brilliance of forging that ring, the technicalities involved in the post-parade section of the ceremony (and here for once the term does seem appropriate) were truly awe-inspiring (except Becks, who smiles nicely but with less gravitas than Prof. Brian Cox). As others, I would love to know the background of the whole production, and particularly the engineering behind the progressive ignition and ultimate raising of the 204 flames into the unified cauldron. The effect was sensational!

    Is this where UK Ltd can score a lasting hit from the event? A feature length film would, I suspect, be a popular seller. It might start with a recording of the actual pageant and bring in a documentary explanation of what was done to achieve it. Please, please reassure me that someone kept a camera handy and made a record of the design and production process.

    Last point – why in the name of all that is wonderful are the achievements of the construction heroes not emblazoned on something, even if they can’t be emblazoned on everything? Lord Coe and LOCOG have done a brilliant job, but it is the many engineering contractors who have turned their aspirations into reality. A crowd of anonymous individuals from the construction teams was given a role in the shadows on Friday night, but the masterminds ought to be welcomed into the daylight and free to reap the rewards for Britain that will flow as a result of their success (as the current house prefect assures us).

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  • Indeed, the opening ceremony was interesting, but as some have said, a little biased toward the grimy side of engineering and rap music, neither of which are totally representative of the totality of this country and its heritage.

    John Douglas mentions the lack of credit for the construction companies involved. I believe an unshakeable element of winning a contract for building part the olympics was a 'no publicity clause' unless approved by Lord Coe & co. Seems a little parochial, as I would have thought all the companies involved would like nothing more than to shout about their involvement in this enterprise, providing a boost both for themselves and more importantly, Great Britain.

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