Thursday, 20 December 2012

Danny Boyle's Jerusalem: The High Magic of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony

Bruce Robinson's 1989 film How To Get A Head In Advertising ends with Richard E. Grant paraphrasing William Blake's Jerusalem: "I shall not cease 'til Jerusalem is builded here, on England's green and pleasant land."

This comes at the end of a monologue about the triumph of consumerism. Its inclusion makes more sense in the context of the original screenplay, which differs from the scene as filmed. In the screenplay, Grant also quotes the opening lines of that poem, "And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green?" and denounces them as pure marketing. The idea that Jesus visited England is obviously bollocks, he points out, regardless of what myths they tell you around Glastonbury. Blake was using the old advertiser's trick of false suggestion in order to make his audience believe that England was more special than it really was.

I read that screenplay twenty years ago, but I remembered it whenever I heard Jerusalem. Bruce Robinson had made a strong point and he had skewered the poem for me. I wondered if the reason why those lines were cut was because they were too close to the bone - Jerusalem means a lot to many people, both politically on the left and the right, and exposing the poem as a manipulative sham seemed cruel.

Watching Danny Boyles 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, however, showed me the error in the screenplay's logic and allowed me to understand Blake's poem. To understand why, it is necessary to appreciate why Boyle's ceremony was such a success.

Those involved in creative work have two different approaches that they can take in order to make their audience feel emotion. The simplest and easiest way is to force that emotion on them. This is the approach used in advertising - pummel the audience with emotive music, doe-eyed kids and as much pathos as you can muster. Doing this treats the audience like Pavlov's dogs, and the advertiser knows exactly what bell to ring to bypass the audience's critical mind and force the required emotion on them. It's not just advertisers who use this approach, of course. Writers and directors can make a good living out of it, as Richard Curtis' accountant would be the first to tell you.

Advertisers create that forced emotion in order to link it to a product you would not otherwise buy. The hard cut between a shot of a smiling child and an image of a sugary drink creates a link in a parents mind between their love of their children and the product, and this increases how positively they feel about the sugary drink. Unfortunately, that link goes both ways. Parental love has become linked with some valueless crap, and the parent's personal emotional landscape has been ever so slightly diminished. The arts of advertising are a form of subtle psychic vampire, feeding on what you value most and, over time, leaving you emotionally poorer and unsatisfied. It is black magic. That is why Richard E. Grant's character was evil. This is also at the heart of Bill Hick's advice to those who work in advertising and marketing.

What then, is the other approach?

Instead of forcing an emotion on an audience, it is possible to create a mental environment where that emotion will spontaneously rise within them - when they do not expect it and are unable to say how or why the emotion occurred. This is the approach used by poets and artists, and it is the approach used by Danny Boyle and his team in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. Who, amongst those who watched it, could explain why they felt the way they did when the torch-petals were lit and rose to form the flaming cauldron, accompanied by the simplest of whistled music? There was no bombast or Eye of the Tiger-type fanfare to demand a reaction. Emotions that arise like this are far more powerful than those forced upon you, because they are genuine and they come with deep roots. They are your own emotions, not ones that have been given to you.

Make no mistake, working on this level is hard. It is with good reason why those who succeed in doing so attract the title of genius, while those who do not attract the title of hack.

None of the decisions made by Boyle to lead you to that moment were obvious - from the sheep and the fake rain clouds, to the recreation of the spoiling of the landscape, or the comedy of James Bond and the Queen's parachute jump. The arguments that followed the celebration of the NHS in one section showed how little people understood what Boyle was doing. The use of NHS nurses was just one element in a much deeper tapestry linking children's fiction, the Exorcist theme, nightmares, protection, care and the value of a national community. The Tory MP only saw the surface of what Boyle was doing, and wrongly considered it to be a standalone item that could have been discarded without affecting anything else. He did not understand that Boyle's work was creating links in his subconscious throughout, or that Boyle knew what he was doing.

Boyles' opening ceremony - and ceremony is absolutely the correct word for it - was deeply inspired by Blake's poem. It began with a single child singing Jerusalem, and it reenacted the spoiling of the Green and Pleasant Land with the arrival of the Dark Satanic Mills. The flags of the nations of the world were arranged on a recreation of Glastonbury Tor (a recreation topped with the World Tree rather than St. Michael's Tower) where "those feet" were alleged to have stood. All this, though, brings up the question of what 'building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land' actually means? With all due respect to the citizens of the real city of Jerusalem, there is no desire to recreate that physical city over here.

It's hard to remember now, but before the London Olympics the expectations were that they would be a shambles. When Mitt Romney publicly wondered how well things would proceed during his visit to London, the negative reaction was caused by his undiplomatic rudeness, not by the sense that he was wrong. The build up to the Olympics, with the Visa-only booking, terrible mascots, McDonalds-only chips and the G4S security debacle did not look promising. The opening ceremony, it was thought, would be a pretentious embarrassment which would pale beside the vast fireworks-and-drumming display of state control seen at Beijing in 2008. It was imagined that it would be a empty, vapid spectacle much like, well, much like 2012 Olympics closing ceremony.

But after three hours of Boyle's magic, things were very different. It was not that a theatrical event had gone well. It was that the British were suddenly living in a different country. Our innate cynicism had been dispelled and we were now able to appreciate the sport on the level that the competitors' deserved. More than this, though, was the fact that we knew things had changed. The weeks that followed were a joy. Suddenly we had different values. We behaved differently to strangers. We celebrated the act of contribution. Perhaps in time we will forget how different we felt during those games, but I suspect that part of us will always remember, deep down.

Boyle and his team could have made a ceremony to please the rest of the world, but they opted to be true to the national character regardless of how baffling or eccentric it made us appear - or just what an effect it would have on those living in the UK. Boyle did not make us "proud to be British," as the political cliche goes, he did something far better. He made us grateful to be British. And he did this by evoking our higher values - acceptance, belonging, humour - and merging those ideas with the actual country itself (Oscar Pistorius' comment that "the world will now have to see disability through the eyes of the British" is perhaps the finest illustration of this). Ed Milliband's use of the political slogan 'One Nation' is a direct reaction to Boyle's work.

The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was not as politically radical as the end of the Paralympics opening ceremony, or as blatantly pagan as the start of the Paralympics closing ceremony. It had bigger goals than that, because this bringing down and enacting of our higher values was what Blake was referring to when he spoke of 'building Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land'. That was not advertising, for nothing was being sold. Blake was asking us recognise how much better things could be, should we look through different eyes. And the fallacy of Richard E. Grant's character in How To Get Ahead In Advertising is that he does not know that this is possible. Few people did, of course, until Boyle showed us what 'building Jerusalem' actually meant.

It did not last, alas. You could argue that the spiritually empty closing ceremony acted like a banishing ritual, dispelling the changes Boyle had created. The terrible Damien Hirst Union Flag and the appearance of Churchill brought back the "proud to be British" bullshit, and the cognitive dissonance created by Jessie J singing "It's not about the money, money" as she was driven round in a gold Rolls Royce proved that any coherent meaning had left the stadium. The smiling stage-school faces contrasted strongly with the genuine humanity of Boyle's non-professional cast. Others have detailed the problems with this ceremony far better than I can, but suffice to say that Jerusalem was dispelled and business-as-usual returned. We were back to the Spice Girls.

But we know that it is possible now - and that is Danny Boyle's legacy, right there.

Unlike Richard E. Grant's character, we now know it is possible.