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Danny Boyle’s London Olympics opening ceremony is gob-smacking

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As the world watched the incredible opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the same thought was on many minds: How in the world can London possibly top this in 2012? In the event, director Danny Boyle seems to have been inspired by the title of a Monty Python film: “And now for something completely different.”

I don’t know if Boyle’s opening ceremony was good. I don’t know if it was bad. I know it was surely the sort of event for which the British invented the term “gob-smacking.” It was truly, deeply, British. It was by the Brits and for the Brits. Poor Matt Lauer and Bob Costas labored heroically to soldier through their notes, helping clueless NBC viewers to identify a speech from Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” recognize the 19th century industrialist Brunel, and spot topics they might not have been familiar with, such as the Sex Pistols and the Industrial Revolution. I am not quite sure they ever quite explained Mr. Bean, although luckily Rowan Atkinson comes with his own explanation built right in.

I enjoyed the ceremony enormously. It was . . . fun. And it seemed deliriously close to satire. It was like a cheeky send-up of the very notion of such a ceremony, going right to the edge and then prudently saving itself by hauling in apple-cheeked childrens’ choirs from the four nations of Britain.

Sometimes Boyle seemed to be doing several things at once. Consider his salute to the National Health Service (which came at a time when health care is “currently being debated” in the U.S., Lauer and Costas helpfully observed). Only Boyle might have thought to combine sick children in hospital beds with platoons of Mary Poppinses, parachuting in with their umbrellas. Forgive me, but as the dozens of beds moved in synchronized harmony, I was reminded of the number in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” with the old ladies doing a song-and-dance with their strollers.

It was “the most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen — more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!” said the Conservative MP Aiden Burley, completely missing the point. The Beijing ceremony was an expression of pinpoint mass discipline, as countless well-drilled performers hit their cues like so many pixels on a computer screen. The London ceremony was an expression of good-hearted enthusiasm, not always lucid but always cheerful. It would have been unthinkable in Beijing.

All during the ceremony, I was reminded of Wally Ballou, the radio commentator created by the comedians Bob and Ray. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t heard of him, or them. I’ll explain. The producers always cut to Wally’s remote broadcasts a second late, chopping off the first syllable of his name. “…ly Ballou,” he’d say, “reporting from the scene!”

The genius of Bob and Ray depended on radio. It was important that you couldn’t see what was happening. One of the classic reports by Wally Ballou involved his description of the halftime ceremonies at a football game. “I’ve just been informed that we have lost the video portion of our signal,” he said. He tried to carry on describing what he saw: “…and now, as the ROTC cadets restage the landing at Normandy, the University Symphony Orchestra parachutes into the stadium playing ‘The Stars and Stripes’ Forever, closely followed by members of the home economics department, knitting a huge American Flag! Oh, how I wish you could see this!”

I submit to you that a radio description of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony would by definition be hilarious. All that kept it grounded was the fact that we could actually see it. Wally Ballou was always played by Bob Elliott, who is still alive and active in his 90s, and if he was watching NBC he must have been stirred to pleasant notions...

“. . . ly Ballou here, reporting for the Bob and Ray Network from the new Olympic Stadium in London, England, where our British cousins are about to inaugurate the 2012 Olympics. Our technicians inform us that we’ve lost the video portion of our signal, but I’ll do my best to recreate for you this impressive spectacle.

“At the north end of the stadium, a gigantic mountain has been erected, and the farmers and peasants are marching up its slopes. Now comes a dancing corps of men in top hats and mutton chops! The dancers continue their merry steps around the May Pole, and . . . oh, good gravy, ladies and gentlemen, a helicopter has appeared in the sky, and it looks like . . . let me use my binoculars here . . . yes! James Bond and Queen Elizabeth have just parachuted into the stadium!

“Meanwhile, industrial workers are manning the hydraulic pumps to erect five giant smokestacks, which are emerging from the field and towering high above! I’m told that soon workers from British Steel will begin forging the Olympic Rings in their blast furnaces…but first, look at all those sick children, so well choreographed in their hospital beds.”

And then Wally would have to end on a disconsolate note: “What’s that? Now we’ve lost the audio signal, too? They can’t even hear me? Hello? Testing...”

It must have been quite a show. I can only imagine what it looked like.

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