So Danny Boyle’s tough task of having to describe and define Britishness to the world (or at least to itself) seems quickly to be turning into a sort of giant Rorschach test for the nation, with everyone drawing the meaning they want to see in it, or on some counts most did not want to see.
For all the people identifying Voldermort and Cruella de Vil as the Tories attacking the NHS, one commenter on a Guardian thread saw Mary Poppins’ intervention as the private sector saving the NHS from its own failures. And with the Romneyshambles fresh in our mind, it hard not to agree with the New York Times review that who felt it was “most inspired by a scene from the movie Love Actually, in which Hugh Grant, playing the prime minister, explains [to his dislikeable American guest no less] that Britain is still a great nation because it is “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot.””
It was of course so much more than that: with its cavalcade of cultural references from the shipping forecast to Kes, Elgar to Brookside, it managed to be simultaneously traditional and progressive – even a little subversive. It was flat out bonkers but also strangely moving.
A cinematic inkblot popped up for me with a clip from A Matter of Life and Death, nodding to one of the many influences on the night’s creative director, the films of Emeric Powell and Michael Pressburger. We know that Boyle is a fan, and long-time collaborator producer Andrew Macdonald is in fact the grandson of Pressburger. With its (sort of) monochrome, bureaucratic, interventionist heaven, A Life Less Ordinary directly homages A Matter of Life and Death, and there is a broader sensibility to Boyle’s cinema that I think he often shares with Powell and Pressburger: the interspersing of the real and the fantastical, the avoidance of neat narrative morality, the simultaneous respect of artistic truth but also box-office imperatives.
It’s important not to read influences too deeply – Boyle is definitely his own man. However, after this ceremony designed to express nationality, I did find myself thinking about P&P and their own explorations of Britishness and Britain’s place in the world – something that they achieved with more honestly and with greater nuance than many of their contemporaries.
A Matter of Life and Death looks at Britain’s relationship with America, and gives us David Niven as the quintessential English intellectual: a poet reluctantly called into the fight, who appeals to the law, to justice and ultimately to love. Black Narcissus explores, among many other things, the uneasy relationship of the British with Empire, a vexed question more or less sidestepped by Boyle in the ceremony (although Bond and a few boys in uniform were there to remind us that we haven’t lost the propensity to interfere in foreign countries.)
Apart from a wave from Churchill’s statue and the Dambusters March, Boyle was smart enough not to mention the war. On their part, P&P were behind some patriotic wartime fare. But what did they do at the height of the Second World War? They made a film about a friendship between an Englishman and German, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It was a film that the Government did all they could to discourage, and Churchill wanted it banned.
Incidentally, P&P are often written about with regard to Englishness rather than Britishness, but they have a much broader canvas (Pressburger after all was a Hungarian.) And if I Know Where I’m Going isn’t devoted to the brooding Scottish Island landscape I don’t know what is.
I thought perhaps most of A Canterbury Tale, among the more idiosyncratic and underrated of P&Ps films. It gives us an intersection of ancient and modern (a falcon becoming a Spitfire long before Kubrick played the same trick with a bone and a spaceship); and a weaving together of myth, religion, humour and the English countryside. All those elements were present in Boyle’s vision. And, notwithstanding its Nazi origins, what was the last 70 days or so of the Torch Relay if not a form of pilgrimage?
Of course all these sort of spectacles can bring to mind the breathtaking ballet sequence in The Red Shoes with its blurring of the theatrical and cinematic, but I’m stretching my point, right? Well maybe a little. Beyond the odd nod and the undoubted underlying influence of P&P’s films on many directors working today, I’m not really saying that Boyle was directly referencing all these films in his ceremony. It’s more a case that, half a century apart, these filmmakers draw water from some of the same wells, mine some of the same seams. Boyle of course has the digital age to inspire him, and the new life breathed into Britain by modern pop culture and multiculturalism (yes, shut up Aiden Burley), which made it all the richer.
Towards the end of his life Michael Powell had unfulfilled plans to adapt The Tempest, the play from which Kenneth Branagh spoke, and I imagine he would have thoroughly enjoyed last night. If they had hired a film director to create the London Olympics opening ceremony back in 1948, the honour would have probably gone to David Lean or Alexander Korda. But if they had wanted something with the imagination, humour and daring of last night’s efforts, they would have gone for Powell and Pressburger.