O Danny Boyle— Let the Games Begin

Danny Boyle, perhaps best known for his production of the film Slum Dog Millionaire had the proverbial hard act to follow—- the Bejing opening ceremonies extravaganza. Boyle said, in his press release, that in some ways it was liberating that the 2008 ceremonies were so jaw-droppingly spectacular, as he realized there was no competing with that. And so he did not try—- well, not really.

Besides the fun film gag of Bond (Daniel Craig)in Buckingham Palace meeting the real Queen and then being dropped by helicopter into the Olympic stadium, the basic story line that Boyle followed was a chronicle of the history of modern Great Britain from its agrarian culture to ‘the dark Satanic mills’ (the very words of William Blake in his famous poem ‘Jerusalem’) of the Industrial Revolution, and beyond to the modern Olympic games.

Boyle went on to say that the Industrial Revolution, birthed as it was in the U.K., was the most important event in human history. Were that actually the case, it would be hard to explain much of the music that played during these ceremonies. For a start there was the Blake hymn Jerausalem, suggesting of course that ‘the green and pleasant land’ of England was the new Jerusalem. Not quite Biblical, but patriotic enough to be sure. But this was followed by a Welch choir of children singing ‘Guide Me O thou Great Jehovah’ and followed by the theme from Chariots of Fire, a film about a Christian who would not race on a Sunday in the Olympics! (of course somewhat upstaged by the hilarious antics of Mr. Bean playing the one note drone of the theme on the keyboard and then running on the beach). Interestingly, this all morphed into a scene celebrating ‘children’s literature’ (with J.K. Rowling doing a reading, which followed a reading from the Tempest) and the national health service (hence nurses and beds all over the pitch!). The children’s literature in question was mostly written by Christians like Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.

Yes, you heard right, the even more extensive British version of Obamacare was being celebrated at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. The Brits are fiercely proud of this. And rightly so. A country can and should be judged by how it treats its least fortunate, weakest, and most vulnerable members of society. On that scale, America is a pretty selfish country. It would rather have a universal right to have guns of all sorts than universal health care.

This is no knock on all the fabulous work the Salvation Army and churches do for the poor in this country, and all the charitable and pro bono work done by doctors and hospitals as well. But let’s be clear its patchwork and piecemeal compared to the British National Health. No, its not a perfect solution to health care problems…. but it’s way better than what we’ve got. I for one would gladly pay lots more in taxes if it meant we had a truly comprehensive healthcare system for everyone in this country. I just would. We could debate how best to make that happen, but not, I think, that it would be the most humane thing for it to happen.

But back to the Olympics opening ceremony. Had Boyle paid attention, he would have realized that all those British choir boys provided the real clue to the greatest event in human history— not those belching chimney stacks. It was not the rise of the Industrial Revolution, but the rise of Jesus Christ that really changed the world, and that event runs Olympic sized rings around the Industrial Revolution in terms of what has most mattered to the most people and has most changed their lives over the last 2,000 (not 200) years.

  • Jordan Litchfield

    I am an American who has married a British national in the UK and currently live in the UK. Because of multiple health situations in the family, we have had frequent use of the NHS health system. This has helped me appreciate the goal of the NHS: to make sure no one is left on their own, but to provide care even for the poorest.

    On the flip side, it has helped me appreciate the high quality of care available in the US. The NHS is NOWHERE close to it. Service in the US is much quicker, high quality, and is not strapped by huge government debts and cutbacks. Even elderly people are released here in the middle of the night to free up beds – they are really cutting back. Hospitals are generally clean, but not fresh looking like US hospitals. Capitalism may not be very Christian in the way it motivates healthcare in the US and I would be interested in there being changes, but I haven’t been impressed enough by the NHS to want to switch to that system. I would be more interested in how places like Denmark, Sweden, or Germany are set up. I hear that they are better, but I have no experience of that like I do in the US the UK.

  • Ben Witherington

    Jordan you are quite right that care has gone down in the U.K. and if you can afford it, care is better here in the U.S. No doubt. You are also right that Denmark and Sweden, and other European nations are now miles ahead of the U.K. in good care. No question there either. So, how do they do it? For one thing they tax the rich at a proper rate to make it possible, and for the most part, the rich are o.k. with that— including the ones who running companies like Nokia or Volvo. They see it as their part of helping the less fortunate. Rightly so. It could be said about Americans that ever since the American Revolution they have not properly understood the value and role of taxes, rightly and honestly applied, in a large complex country like America. BW3

  • http://Whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    Love it! All us Brits feel very patriotic about the NHS, so it’s nice to hear you commend it (and I love the wider point about the most important event in history – right on.) Just one quibble: Blake was being sharply satirical, wasn’t he?

  • Ben Witherington

    Andrew it was satirical against the Industrial Revolution and against the notion that the U.K. might be the new Jerusalem, but interestingly not against Christianity. BW3

  • http://www.davidbunce.com David Bunce

    Yes, Blake was being Satirical and I think Boyle was self-conscious in using it in this way (ie during the Industrial sequence).

    I think it was a performance in which the realities of Britain’s Imperial glory were very much acknowledged as being in the past (think for instance even of things like Mr Bean’s nostalgic dream sequence along the beach in St Andrews). However it segues from this into a post-colonial positive account of Britain in the digital age under the interpretive phrase from Tim Burners-Lee “This is for everyone”.

    As has been pointed out, though, I think there was a lot of very self-aware Christian references – picking up on a great history of Christian socialism (the NHS for instance), the children characters scene etc. I think there was also a great culmination moment of the Jerusalem movement as “Abide with me” was sung out:

    Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
    Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
    Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
    In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

    In many ways, it was what I wish Christian art were – not preachy and bland in its symbolism, but complex, layered, subtle and unresolved. The inability to pin down a final meaning is what made it such a great show.

  • Max

    I felt a lot different about it. Perhaps it is a symbol of modern Britain–It looked like Hobbiton being torn up into Mordor, all those dark smoking towers, and the rings were over all- Sauron reigns… Our idols are a warmonger, a brutish womaniser and killer, and an industrialist, and we are to be consoled by Mary Poppins and rave parties. You are to forget about Christianity, King Alfred or Shakespeare, or anything remotely Anglo Saxon. The only Christian hero was tripped up and left behind on the beach. This is modern England.
    Very PC. Spectacular but depressing, on a number of levels.