A British Critique Of The Olympic Opening

The 2012 Olympic Games opened Friday, with a ceremony that included James Bond and Queen Elizabeth parachuting into the stadium, flyovers, rippling Union Jacks, Shakespeare, sheep and fireworks. Host Scott Simon talks to Simon Hoggart, political sketch writer for The Guardian about the opening ceremony.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The 2012 Olympic games opened last night with a ceremony that included James Bond and Queen Elizabeth parachuting into the stadium practically cheek to cheek, flyovers, rippling union jacks, Shakespeare, sheep and fireworks, lots of them. Danny Boyle wrote and directed the opening ceremony. Of course, London has some of the toughest critics in the world. One of them might be Simon Hoggart, political sketch writer for The Guardian newspaper in London.

He joins us now, not from the Olympic village, but his own bucolic setting in East Anglia. Simon, so good to have you back.

SIMON HOGGART: It's great to be back.

SIMON: I loved these ceremonies. What did you think?

HOGGART: Well, I, too. I loved it. I was prepared to be very, very cynical, skeptical, critical, but I thought it was terrific. And I tell you what really made it was four years ago, we had this amazing display in Beijing, but it was a display of a Communist country, you know. Everybody - you could get 10,000 drummers drumming in unison. And ours was more of a democratic display. Things went wrong, not everything was perfect.

Most of it was very eccentric and some of it must have been frankly baffling to a non-British audience. But, hey, you know, that's what you get when it's a comparatively free country. So we've enjoyed an enormously. I must say (unintelligible) everything except the Queen who sat there looking so miserable and cold. She looked as if she'd rather be anywhere else than the opening ceremony.

And people were paying up to $10,000 a ticket. She'd have been rather back in the palace watching it on TV like we were.

SIMON: Well, you know, she does see a lot of high level theater and everything so maybe, you know, she's got different standards than the rest of us. Why was Kenneth Branaugh dressed like Abe Lincoln?

HOGGART: No. He wasn't meant to be Abe Lincoln. He was meant to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the man who paved the way for the railroads by inventing the way the track went, you know, that it flibbed(ph) very gently, wonderful bridges, amazing viaducts. He was just as much a part of the coming of the railroad around the world as the guy who invented it, George Stephenson. So it was another tribute to Britain which would have been missed by anyone who wasn't British.

SIMON: Well, there were times it felt a little bit like a high school history pageant.

HOGGART: Yes, it were. And the industrial revolution symbolized by five gigantic phalluses or was it six, springing up from nowhere. That was kind of weird. The national health service - I know that a lot of Americans think that's socialist medicine and has been a huge controversy in your country about that. But, you know, people here really love it because it means no matter how poor you are or however sick you are, you can get treatment.

And so they celebrated this by having real nurses bouncing on giant beds. That was kind of weird, wasn't it? But, hey, you know, it was eccentric, a bit strange. You never would have got that in China.

SIMON: Well, I loved the touch of running the torch at the end through a phalanx of 500 of the construction workers who built the Olympic stadium. And it did remind you, this is a society that helped invent liberty.

HOGGART: Yeah, you sometimes think you're in a little bit danger of losing it, but yeah, that was good. And the fireworks at the end were pretty sensational, I thought. And there was a lot to enjoy in it and it was - given the problems that we've had, like security and transport and the threat of strikes at the airport. All that stuff, it was just forgotten and it went really, really well.

And you look at the organizers faces at the end, you could see the relief that, thank goodness we got this far without some terrible catastrophe. Well, 16 days to go, so we'll see.

SIMON: And I loved seeing Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean and the comical audacity to turn a performance of the London Philharmonic into comic shtick was wonderful.

HOGGART: That was really nifty, wasn't it? And I loved the way that he played that single repeated note from "Chariots Of Fire" theme by holding it down with a very (unintelligible) umbrella. That was a really neat touch. And it was even great to see some cult heros, I suppose. I mean, J.K. Rowling, best-selling children's author ever and Paul McCartney. What a reminder, you know. He was one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever seen and now one of the more mediocre singers the world has ever seen.

SIMON: Some of us will listen to Paul McCartney sing until he has to begin to sign the lyrics.

HOGGART: Which may come sooner rather than later.

SIMON: Simon Hoggart of The Guardian newspaper in Britain. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOGGART: It was my pleasure.

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