Imagine the culture war the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony would spark now

It still makes me cry. Especially, perhaps, the very first moments, before it really began, when skeins of filmy blue fabric rippled across the excited crowd to the sound of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations – Elgar at his truest, most melancholic self. Looking back on it now, it really was the music of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, 10 years ago today, that was at the heart of Danny Boyle’s brilliant and bonkers production. It wound all the way round from Handel to Hey Jude, via David Bowie and Dizzee Rascal. There was a boy soprano singing Jerusalem. There were the Sex Pistols. It was vaunting, ecstatic, angry, cheeky and reflective by turn, setting the tone for everything. Incredibly slickly produced, the ceremony felt, at the same time, deliciously anarchic.

I wrote at the time that the ceremony forged a new mythology for Britain. It did: it was a national story that managed to weave together the NHS and the Industrial Revolution, maypoles and Windrush, suffragettes and cricket, Fawlty Towers and Blake, The Tempest and punk. It was (to me) thankfully low on military glory, but it did not fail to include the Red Arrows and Winston Churchill: his statue in Parliament Square was seen to wave his cane at Daniel Craig’s James Bond and the Queen as they apparently helicoptered from Buckingham Palace before parachuting into the stadium.

It was a mythology that capitalised on benign national stereotypes: it did not take itself too seriously, in those days before Boris Johnson ruined not taking yourself too seriously. It zoned in on what Britons can be proud of (pop music, inventing the web, universal healthcare and children’s literature). It felt inclusive, even if stitching together the United Kingdom-ishness of it all by means of Danny Boy and Flower of Scotland and Cwm Rhondda was a little artificial.

Yeah, well. Remember how everyone laughed at a Conservative MP called Aidan Burley for tweeting that it was “lefty multicultural crap” (a man who’d been sacked as a ministerial aide for attending a Nazi-themed stag night)? It felt as if he had utterly misread the public mood. From the perspective of 2022, though, he feels like a time traveller from the future. I have no doubt that if the ceremony were to be staged now, agitators would be all over it in a similar vein, never mind the cricket and the Dambusters theme and the Chelsea pensioners, the obviously careful attempts to be encyclopaedic.

It is often said (and I suppose I used to say it myself) that what Britain needs now is a post-imperial narrative as confident as that of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. But it’s too easy to look back on that time as somehow antediluvian: as a gilded moment before the traumas of the Scottish and Brexit referendums; before JK Rowling (who read that night from Peter Pan) became divisive; before the lurch to the right of the Conservatives.

But Britain was already well into the process of fracturing. In an interview earlier that summer of 2012, Theresa May, who was then home secretary, had announced her desire to create “a really hostile environment for illegal migration” – the very same “hostile environment” that would target the Windrush families honoured at the opening ceremony; the same hostile environment that has flowered grotesquely into the Rwanda deportation scheme. Above all, the financial crisis had set in motion far-reaching changes to British society. Inequality, not least generational inequality, was deepening. The scene was set for the rise of the politics of identity, which sharpen when there’s less economically to go around.

Related: London 2012, 10 years on: wrestling with a sporting legacy built on false assumptions | Barney Ronay

The Olympics opening ceremony was seductive. It picked a delicate path through a thicket to present a narrative that was comforting and funny and true, sort of, but at the same time gilded and polished and intensely selective. To create a myth is to tell a story that may have some deep truth about it – but it’s also, often, about suppressing elements that threaten the smooth running of the story.

An ancient Greek myth told in Aeschylus’s Oresteia illustrates this process in a beautiful, literal, dramatic way. It’s a story about how a series of seemingly endless revenge family killings is, eventually, resolved by a reasoned judicial process, offering a stirring origin story for Athenian democracy. The Furies, the terrifying female deities who pursue those who kill family members, have argued that Orestes, who is in the dock, should be punished for murdering his mother, Clytemnestra. But the goddess Athena, who holds the casting vote in the trial, accepts the outrageous patriarchal argument that Orestes did not really kill a family member, since mothers are mere vessels, not parents, for their babies: Orestes is acquitted and the pattern of tit-for-tat killing comes to an end. To deal with the Furies’ rage, Athena transforms them into “Kindly Ones” and they are contained safely beneath Athens’s Areopagus hill. Symbolically, then, the matriarchal order is crushed. But they are still there in the story, like the city’s brooding unconscious.

The myth, in the end, can’t quite eradicate them; and perhaps it doesn’t want to. So it is with the 2012 opening ceremony, if you choose to read it against itself. “The isle is full of noises,” as Kenneth Branagh told us that night: but just as in The Tempest, a play that foreshadows the anxieties of empire, not all of those sounds are benign, and many of them are frightening.

  • Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer

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