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.