Five-ring Circus

Monty Python’s Flying Olympic Opening Ceremony

The incredibly goofy kickoff to the London games.

British athletes at the opening ceremony
Athletes from Great Britain parade into the stadium during the opening ceremony.

Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images.

Would it be the Fawlty Towers of Olympic ceremonies? Would the spirit of Benny Hill invade the turf?

The run-up to Friday night’s 27 million pound opening fiesta had been less than auspicious. The press had been awash with skeptical speculation about security capabilities and about Danny Boyle’s overly conceptual design.

So I curled up on the couch next to Liberace, my aging Norwich terrier, to watch the games begin. Was it riddled with Cleeseian chuckles and dead parrot moments? No. It was actually quite grim and melancholy, especially at the outset.

The show kicked off with an agrarian fantasia featuring rustic wenches tossing cider-apples at each other and children skipping round maypoles. It could have been camp, but it wasn’t. It was very poignant and Thomas Hardy-ish, especially when the fake rain cloud began to drizzle. I felt like I was pulling turnips out of the mud a la Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

A pastoral opening ceremony
Farm animals graze the field.

Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Things took a turn for the worse when the farmyards and village greens were displaced—dramatically, shockingly, and impressively—by the smoke stacks and oppression of the Industrial Revolution. Suffragettes and the industrialized warfare of the First World War followed shortly thereafter. I am not sure what this soot and toil was supposed to evoke in the viewer. It felt more like a sociological tableau vivant than a celebration of sport. The montage of the industrial past—this section went on for so long it felt as if it was in real time—was a jarring reminder that Britain unfortunately has no industrial present.

Things perked up a bit when James Bond accompanied her Majesty the Queen to the stadium via helicopter and they—or rather their stunt doubles—parachuted to the ground.* During the descent we were treated to a lovely view of her Majesty’s fluffy foundation garments.

And then we came to the medicinal portion of the evening: a celebration of—you are not going to believe this one—the great British National Health Service, with a special emphasis on sick children. Hey! It’s the Olympics! Why not pause and look back at that horrible period when polio and smallpox were raging, and people walked around with pendulous hernias and prolapsed thisses and thats.

Children on hospital beds
Children dance on hospital beds during the opening ceremony.


Then they all bedded down for the night—spectacular visuals of ailing kiddkes in lit-up beds with buxom nurses in attendance—and had horrible nightmares. The villains from Brit lit—Captain Hook, Voldemort et al—sprouted up everywhere, scaring the crap out of me and my pooch.

But not for long: A thousand Mary Poppinses came to save the day. This moment of jollity was quickly eclipsed by what would turn out to be the most enigmatic moment of the evening: A giant creepy baby was wheeled onstage while the orchestra played “Good Christian Men Rejoice.” Was that supposed to be Jesus?

Things perked up with a Chariots of Fire piss-take—finally, something sports-related!—featuring Mr. Bean aka Rowan Atkinson. I was chuckling until they intercut a scene from the movie. There was the lovely Ian Charleson, an old acquaintance who died of AIDS in 1990, running along the beach. Another mood swing.

The next segment lost me completely. A teen love story involving a lost cellphone? WTF? Liberace took advantage of the confusion and asked to be taken out for a widdle. We returned a minute or two later to find hordes of smiling teens becoming slaves to technology and social media and rap and sex and drugs and Trainspotting (Mr. Boyle’s best movie) and Amy Winehouse and … what the hell has this got to do with the Olympics?

Dancing at the opening ceremony
The pop music portion of the evening.

Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

A truly demented pop-music montage then ratcheted things up to a whirling carousel of dada confusion, recalling the shonda that resulted when producer Allan Carr famously schlocked up the Academy Awards in 1989. Remember Rob Lowe singing “Proud Mary” to some chick dressed up as Snow White?

Was it boring? No. Was it creative? Totally! Was it riddled with post-colonial guilt? I have a horrible feeling it might have been.

Thank God for David Beckham zooming down the Thames in a speedboat and bearing the Olympic torch. Finally! A fabulously successful, flashy, handsome, godlike athlete in a tight shiny suit.

Correction, July 28, 2012: This article originally referred to her Majesty the Queen incorrectly as Her Royal Highness the Queen. (Return to the corrected sentence.)