In some respects, London’s Olympics opening ceremony was a lot like an Oscars opening number. Amid the theatrical take on the industrial revolution and the National Health Service were a giant Captain Hook puppet, James Bond, hundreds of Mary Poppins look-alikes, and Sir Paul McCartney. Pop culture in all its forms—from brief film interludes to live musical performances—were used to help define what it means to be “Great Britain.” The dominance of culture in the show makes sense, given that Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) served as ceremony director; his influence was certainly felt in the filmmaking style of a number of brief pre-recorded skits and the kinetic percussion stringing the ceremony’s phases together.
Yet if the Olympics are regarded as a kind of sacrosanct, globally “high culture” experience, we should try to understand how the inclusion of so much “mass culture” iconography might speak to a more multi-discursive concept of “the nation.” While the first half of the ceremony stuck to a linear, almost one-dimensional story of Great Britain’s history, the pop culture-infused segments speak to a history and an identity built from many kinds of figures and forms. If anything, this points to Boyle’s conception of the show as postmodern. I speak of postmodernity here as, in part, the intermingling of “icons” from high and popular culture to reconfigure the meaning of high culture, and culture in general. Certainly, pop culture has seemingly consumed sports as a whole: look no further than the Super Bowl, which is as famed for its musical half-time show and advertisements featuring celebrities and movie trailers as it is for the actual football game. But the Olympics, by the very nature of their quadrennial status, global scope, and multi-millennial heritage, have largely resisted a similar conception. Even pervasive advertisements from corporate sponsor Visa portray a literally gold-hued reverence for the athletes and the global unity of the Games.
As the Games have gone on, the water cooler discussion—or is it more appropriate to simply call it the Twitter discussion now?—has found its way back around to this ceremony despite rousing stories of Ryan Lochte, Usain Bolt, and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. It seems appropriate, amid all this conversation, to consider how the opening ceremony used pop culture as a core element of constructing the nation, even at the expense of other aspects of British history. If Twitter is any indication—and let’s assume it functions as a kind of cultural barometer for the purpose of this discussion—the most talked-about bit of the evening involved Daniel Craig and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In a short film, Craig, playing iconic spy James Bond, escorts Her Majesty to a helicopter. From there, the duo fly through London before arriving at the Olympic Stadium and parachuting out. The weirdest part of Her Majesty’s entrance was not the parachuting, as odd and humorous as it was, but that she was accompanied by the “James Bond Theme” rather than the traditional “God Save the Queen.” The Queen did physically enter moments later to a rendition of the British anthem, but this structuring exemplifies Boyle’s overall strategy for the ceremony: give symbols of mass culture (James Bond) precedence over traditional emblems of British culture (The Queen) and rework a relationship between the two.
There are two main reasons this moment seems so striking and representative of the ceremony’s ideas. First, the ceremonial reverence for the Royal Family is, at least to these foreign eyes, the most “high culture” element of British society, even despite the Royal Family’s popularization over the last 20 years via many a film about them, as well as Princess Diana’s public image. The multitude of popular texts and images about and of the Royal Family signals a desire to examine the monarchy through popular culture forms. The focus on The Queen herself may represent an acknowledgment of the country’s history, the importance of The Queen as a foundational image of Great Britain, and a compulsion to explore the dimensions of this image. The irreverence of the Bond theme accompanying The Queen’s entrance again puts “mass culture” in a privileged position, turning The Queen, however fleetingly, into something of an action star.
Second, this skit converges two “levels” of culture, creating a moment in which a Bond film can seemingly come to life, or transgress its usual cinematic space. In a way, it’s a bit of actualization, making Bond “appear” to be a real person who actually protects The Queen and, by extension, Great Britain. The skit merges two different icons of national mythology. As a symbol for the country, the Queen represents a stabilizing continuity in Great Britain’s history; Bond, on the other hand, stands for an unflinching ability to protect Western civilization from the conniving hands of Communists, terrorists, and mentally unhinged businessmen. They have in common that they both have been physically “played” by different people, whether in the legacy of previous queens or the martini-drinking men from Connery to Craig.
Flaunting The Queen as a popular culture symbol on par with mass culture icon James Bond ties back to the potential of different media forms and individual texts for shaping perceptions of the Royal Family. Take, for example, two of the most recent films made about Britain’s monarchy: The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) and The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010). In both films, the use of technology is configured as a necessary means of uniting the nation. In the former, The Queen must appear on television—a means of “facing the nation”—following Princess Diana’s death; in the latter, a radio address symbolically unites Britain on the eve of World War II. These films, while giving a “behind the scenes” look at their respective moments of history, also support the Royal Family’s mythological symbolism. In these texts, the respective monarchs strengthen the collective nation through their own mastery of media forms. The Olympics, then, engages not just with the technology of the globally televised event, but also with popular culture.
Certainly, if Boyle’s aim was to flaunt Britain’s best aspects to the global audience, it makes sense that James Bond and The Queen would (separately) be involved, seeing as they are arguably the country’s most recognizable icons—maybe next to only the Beatles. But these “national symbols” point more to the Olympics’ own mythology of union and triumph than they do to any actual political turmoil or complexity in the country’s history. The ceremony-as-history-lesson largely fails in this regard, for its display of the transition from agrarian to modern society manages to elide almost any image of strife, globally transmitting an overtly simplified image of the nation. On the other hand, the ceremony demonstrates the ability of such events to intermingle otherwise disparate areas of the nation’s history. Boyle’s choice to focus so heavily on culture—specifically the culture of the last century—speaks not only to how postmodernity might be reconfiguring how we ascribe meaning to “high” and “mass” cultural forms, but how that iconography can be juxtaposed to form a more holistic idea of how to constitute the nation for a global audience.
James Gilmore is currently an M.A. student in UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies program. He received his B.A. in Film and Media Studies from the University of South Carolina. His research chiefly focuses on how films and other forms of media work to construct, critique, or challenge perceptions of the Nation. He also writes about genre, visual analysis, adaptation, and film history. You can follow his mostly sarcastic observations on Twitter @Jim_on_Film.