LONDON (Reuters) - “Strange”, “baffling” and “surreal” was how director Danny Boyle described his Olympic opening ceremony. The rest of the world largely agreed.
In the press stands of the arena where the ceremony took place on Friday night, Chinese journalists looked puzzled and asked their English peers for guidance as they struggled to make sense of the artistic whirlwind for their readers back home.
Reaction to the $42 million showcase event at the main Olympic stadium and across Britain, which is hosting the 2012 Games, was overwhelmingly positive.
But the plain-talking Boyle, who won an Oscar for “Slumdog Millionaire”, will not be remotely surprised to hear that “Isles of Wonder”, a kaleidoscopic canter through Britain’s past, left many viewers scratching their heads.
Boyle was braced for bewilderment even ahead of the four-hour ceremony inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and packed with references to British history, literature and music.
The opening minutes of the ceremony “you might find a bit strange and baffling”, he told reporters from dozens of countries before the show. The second half, he warned, would be “actually slightly surreal; some of you will be baffled, I can guarantee it”.
So wide was the cultural divide for some that Spain’s centre-right daily El Mundo pondered: “Are we of the same species as the Brits?”
But underlining how sharply divided opinions have been to the London 2012 opening, other Spanish newspapers were full of praise.
Quintessentially British, the ceremony opened with a re-creation of bucolic bliss, referencing William Blake’s “green and pleasant lands”, before turning dark and recreating the “dark Satanic mills” of industrialization.
William Shakespeare and John Milton made way for Ian Fleming, Lewis Carroll and J.K. Rowling, while Elgar, Handel and Parry were drowned out by the Clash and the Sex Pistols.
Comedy character Mr. Bean crashed the London Symphony Orchestra’s party, while James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, joined Queen Elizabeth in a short, tongue-in-cheek video.
“The opening of the London Olympic Games reminded us that heart and passion are just as important as proficiency and technique!” Nigel Lythgoe, producer of “American Idol” and a Briton working full-time in Hollywood, said.
“As long as the games exist, Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth’s entrance with James Bond will always be remembered. Steeped in history and tradition the opening ceremony made me extremely proud to be British.”
Many of the characters in the show resonate well beyond home shores, but the combination was too parochial for some.
“Of course it was a very British ceremony and it had to be like that, but for me it lacked a certain universality,” Hansel Cereza, a Spanish actor and artistic director responsible for choreography at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, said.
Others agreed with Boyle - the point of the show was to portray what it is to be British.
“There has to be an element of the home team showing off what they’re all about,” said Salman Dadobhoy, a businessman from Islamabad.
From Germany, where sporting rivalry with Britain is keenly felt after crunch clashes at major soccer tournaments in recent decades, there was plenty of friendly feedback.
The Bild tabloid called it “an opening ceremony with lots of goose-bump moments, and a big dose of British humor. Thank you! That was great, Britain.”
Comparisons with the last Summer Games were inevitable, given that Boyle worked with a budget of well under half the estimated cost of the Beijing opener and created a show that was chaotic and more personalized.
“If Zhang Yimou’s dazzling Beijing opening in 2008 was about automaton-like synchronicity and majestic spectacle, Boyle’s epic opera of social and cultural history was a vibrant work of unfettered imagination that celebrated a nation, but even more so, its people,” wrote David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter.
Dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an outspoken critic of the authorities, called the ceremony “brilliant”, singling out a section dedicated to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) welfare system and children’s literature.
“A nation that has no music and no fairytales is a tragedy,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper.
Boyle argued that the memorable scale and precision of Beijing had in fact been helpful.
“There has to be a modesty about it. You can’t get grandiose with this job because you’re following Beijing,” he said.
“The shows get bigger and bigger and bigger and you can’t get bigger than Beijing, so that in a way kind of liberated us.”
“SHOULDERS OF GIANTS”
For a director from working class roots who broke through with “Trainspotting”, a film about down-and-out drug addicts in Scotland, Boyle has travelled a long way to take charge of one of the world’s most prestigious events.
His mischievous spirit and ideals shone through, with the Sex Pistols blaring while Her Majesty looked on and the ode to the NHS seemingly a warning to cost-cutting politicians not to meddle with the cherished service.
Yet the establishment was also there - soccer player David Beckham and former Beatle Paul McCartney played major roles, and even Queen Elizabeth, the fiercely private 86-year-old monarch, joined the party with her film debut, albeit a brief one.
Nearly 27 million Britons watched the opening ceremony, eclipsing last year’s royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, and 19 million were still tuned in well after midnight when the cauldron was lit.
“It’s all very British but as a spectacle it stands,” said commentator Inge Van Meensel for Dutch language broadcaster VRT.
“Danny Boyle said he wanted to stand on the shoulders of giants. After tonight he will be a giant too.”
Additional reporting by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte in Los Angeles, Christine Kearney in New York, Alexandria Sage in Paris, Asma Alsharif in Jeddah, Ed Stoddard in Pretoria, Andjarsari Paramaditha in Jakarta, Iain Rogers and Julien Toyer in Madrid, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin, Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Lefteris Papadimas in Athens, Barbara Lewis in Brussels, George Obulutsa in Nairobi, Anam Zehra in Islamabad, Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam, Sabrina Mao in Beijing and Teppei Kasai in Tokyo; Editing by Peter Millership and Alison Williams