(This was one of a series of daily columns I wrote during the 2012 Olympics in London)
London – I have been, and will probably always be, laughed at for my utter belief that Push the Button by the Sugababes is one of the great pop songs of all time. It has all the elements of a classic – an instant hook, a trippy, a get-on-yer-feet spine-bender of a beat, a chorus that you can sing into a turned-up shampoo bottle and lyrics about a girl who fancies a bloke and he just can’t see it. And they played it at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Good lord. It was all I could do to stop myself from busting out a few moves in the press tribune high in the Olympic Stadium on that Friday night.
Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony may just have been the best show I have ever been to. After all the pessimism from the British – a safety measure in case the show was rubbish, so they could fold their arms and say, “I told you so” – Boyle produced a show that was, most importantly, enjoyable. It was a party. It was, as Polly Stenham, the playwright, described in yesterday’s Observer, a “massive school play! You had the best boys in the band, and the headmistress the Queen, then all the audience participating. You had the bits that weren’t so good, that kind of fucked up, but it kept in the spirit of England’s school play. I felt very uplifted by it.”
AA Gill, the critic and writer, agreed with Stenham in yesterday’s The Sunday Times: “It was the best end-of-term school play and I mean that with great affection. It was funny and exuberant; it was moving and committed. And it wasn’t the headmaster’s or the Establishment’s view of the nation.” What Boyle managed to do was ensure that the opening ceremony was not a public relations commercial, a puff-piece to be packaged and sent to the United Nations to place in their gallery of national characters. This was not a show of how Britain wanted to be perceived by the world, but as they were, an honest appraisal of where they come from and what makes them the nation they are. From pastoral prettiness to industrial revolution ugliness; from suffragettes to sex with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”; from the national health service to the national sports of cricket and football. It was, as one Conservative politician tweeted, leftie, multicultural nonsense. Well, duh, buddy. That’s what your country has been rather good at down the years.
It was not as up its own arse as Athens and Beijing, where they rolled through thousands of years of culture and history in shows that were visually beautiful and robbed the breath with the brilliance of their special effects. In Beijing I sometimes felt as though I was being taken through their history in real time. The Chinese invented printing, and their display to show this was astounding for its precision in execution, but the British invented punk, and they played it. You suspect that if Britain had had a Tiananmen Square, then Boyle would also have incorporated that.
If he had, then the British audience of 27-million who tuned in would have loved it. You see, this was a show for them, not for the British government nor the rest of the world. Oh, we were invited to watch, but this is their Olympics after all. They tend to embrace their faults here. In Beijing they tried to hide them all. I never felt comfortable there during the 2008 Games, like I was being fed a fake smile and told how wonderful it was for free speech to be denied. In London they played “God Save the Queen,” by the Sex Pistols, then “Pretty Vacant”. Then they introduced the Queen, who made James Bond seem like a little boy. Rowan Atkinson did a comic turn that had Prince Charles in stitches, Kenneth Brannagh, the Northern Irish actor and director let me remind you, hit the right tone with his reading of The Tempest and when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Boyle unleashed the Arctic Monkeys. Dilliness and silliness. Air guitar, singing “I bet you look good on the dance floor” and “Come Together” at the top of my voice.
The Olympic album is available on iTunes. I’d buy it, but I already have most of the songs on my iPod. Ah, hell, I’ll buy it anyway – okay, altogether now: “If you’re ready for me, boy, you better push the button and let me know…