British Humor and Humanity Captivate the World

By Timothy Spangler

May 15, 2013 6 min read

As the American diplomat Dean Acheson once famously remarked, "Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role in the world."

Danny Boyle's eccentric yet deeply resonating opening ceremony for the London Olympics succeeded artistically on many levels, but perhaps its most unanticipated success was to pose a compellingly idiosyncratic answer to this blunt accusation.

Boyle's fanciful pageant could not have been more different from the massive display of synchronized human endeavor that was offered up four years ago in Beijing. The Chinese pursuit of spectacle and scale unfortunately teetered at times on the brink of tedium. Instead of superficial displays of wealth and power designed to leave viewers feeling shocked and overwhelmed, Boyle took a more British approach. He enthusiastically told a compelling story, with ample amounts of drama and humor.

The London opening ceremony was not nostalgia, in the trite and manufactured sense, although it dealt very directly with the role nostalgia plays in helping us understand and relate to our past. Instead, it was theatrical in the very best sense of the word. And no country on the planet does theater as well as Britain does!

The show featured a cast of thousands, and the role of the British people in the monumental transformation of their country was consistently at center stage. Kenneth Branagh's reading of "The Tempest" — before unleashing the rise of dark mills and smoke-spewing factories — demonstrated how the arts and artifacts of the past can survive and inspire us as the world changes around us almost beyond recognition.

American viewers may have been shocked to see the affection toward Britain's National Health Service that underlined the middle act. Like all human institutions, the NHS is imperfect and flawed. Although it has been constantly subjected to questions about the efficiency and reliability with which it attempts to meet the needs of a country growing in size, diversity and complexity, the simple goals of the NHS are quite effective at binding Britain together.

As is their prerogative, Americans place other goals and aspirations above the welfare and well-being of the youngest and the weakest and the most vulnerable in their society. American society reflects these priorities, and Boyle made sure that these difference were clearly shown. The portrayal of Britons as groups of individuals from various backgrounds who have come together to pursue overlapping and interwoven agendas contrasts markedly with both the solipsistic consumerism of America and the dehumanizing top-down regimentation of China.

The post-modern world, with its complexities and contradictions, was not ignored, and Boyle presented scenes from contemporary British life that were both familiar and prejudice-breaking. In an age of text messaging and social networking, downloading and updating, the digital youth of today's Britain was well-represented in all its exuberance and originality.

As memorable as these 2012 games will be, London has been here before. The British capital has the unique record of now having hosted the Olympics three times. First in 1908 and then again in 1948, London stepped up on short notice to ensure that the modern Olympic movement would continue and thrive. The Olympics have come here again in 2012, and the British have gone to great lengths to ensure that the world feels welcome.

Of course, there continues to be a hefty dose of British skepticism on offer during the first week of the games.

The debacle concerning missing security staff and the fiasco over empty seats in venue after venue are just two incidents where Olympic enthusiasm has not prevented direct questions to be asked about why things weren't handled better. This was never going to be a games "in the middle of nowhere." London is one of the world's most cosmopolitan capitals, and these games are being played at its very heart.

The Olympics are, of course, about much more than simply sport.

The millions of tourists who have descended on London are there to spend money, take photos and craft in their minds memories that will shape their view of Britain for the rest of their lives. As a result, 70,000 volunteers have turned out to ensure that these visitors get an experience they never will forget. In this regard, Britain is following the example first set in 2000, when Australians made an unprecedented effort to ensure that the Sydney games were welcoming and hospitable and enjoyable for all.

The confidence of modern Britain has never been more clearly displayed than during Boyle's film clip featuring the queen and James Bond, portrayed by an urbane and mildly threatening Daniel Craig, on their short commute from Buckingham Palace to Olympic Stadium. The British are known around the world for their sense of humor and their eccentricities. On closer inspection, these are often two sides of the same pound coin.

By staging the 2012 games in their capital city, the British are playing host to the world. As athletes and spectators enjoy the sports on offer and as billions more watch these successes from their homes, images of modern Britain are being offered, as well.

Danny Boyle's personal (and slightly bonkers) vision of Britain is, of course, only one. But it is one that has proved itself to be utterly unforgettable.

To find out more about Timothy Spangler and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at

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