Danny Boyle’s Programme Notes

Danny Boyle’s programme notes for the opening ceremony of the Olympics have been circulating on the internet and have already been the subject of much speculation. The last paragraph reads:

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring notion that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

I don’t myself see a political agenda in those words (who could articulate a political agenda in one short paragraph?) but rather a diffuse idealism which is largely Christian in origin and expression. When someone who calls himself ‘spiritually atheist’ draws on the image of Jerusalem to convey his vision of the future, his sense of purpose, we should take notice. The problem for Christians lies in the assumption that men and women have the power to build Jerusalem for themselves. We must do our best, of course we must; but ultimately the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven. It is a gift, given by God; and necessarily so, because at its centre is none other than the Lamb of God.

We no longer have the confidence of our Victorian forebears, who believed in progress and thought the world was getting better and better. Instead, we are vaguely fearful of the future and mistrustful of the solutions proposed by politicians and others. A profound scepticism has taken hold of us. That is why it was refreshing to read Danny Boyle’s programme notes. Yet at the same time I think that more than belief in ourselves is required to bring about the desired end — otherwise all our schemes tend to tumble down around us, like the tower of Babel. Maybe even Danny Boyle has an idea that it may be so. No one else would have dared to incorporate two hymns into the opening ceremony as he did; and though the two he used are well-known football and rugby anthems, the quiet singing of ‘Abide with me’, and the dance into light which accompanied it, suggested a wisdom greater than he may have realised.

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16 thoughts on “Danny Boyle’s Programme Notes”

  1. I thought that it was brilliant and all day have been reading others insights into what they read from it overall.

    I’ve seen it described as Liturgical and many other things.
    Whatever, I believe that it was inspired to allow believers and unbelievers to draw down some of God’s grace and peace.

    And I loved both hymns, which have both come up in our Sunday services very recently. Jerusalem was one of the hymns chosen by I and my spouse at the renewal of our wedding vows along with Guide me Me O Thou Great Redeemer, which means so much to both of us.

  2. Credit to atheist Boyle for including Christian references, but so much of the ceremony was relativist and socialist propaganda, showing how Britain has gone from “power to party, from class to crass” as one commentator put it. To make society completely equal is not Christian – no societies are equal, nor can they ever be. All it does, as with socialism, is bring society down to the lowest common denominator.

    Spectacular and impressive, yes. Promoting a positive vision of the present and the future, no.

    • I didn’t see it as ‘socialist propoganda’, nor, as it happens, do I share your negative view of socialism, which has its origins in this country in the great Noncomformist tradition (which, of course, includes Catholicism). Rather like Christianity, real socialism hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it has never really been tried. However, that’s a purely personal view.

      • I am not in a position to comment as I have seen nothing of the ceremony, but I am heartened to read here that it included references to William Blake. It heartens me to know that not all my cultural references have been lost.
        What I would like to query is this magnificent aside, “the great Noncomformist tradition (which, of course, includes Catholicism).” Catholicism as Nonconformism – this stops me in my tracks.

        • That’s the lapsed historian in me speaking, Patricia. Catholics were lumped together with all other non-Anglicans as Dissenters (i.e. Nonconfomists), and it is from that tradition that so much of what is thought of today as socialism springs. Many more people in this country are familiar with the contribution of Quakers, Methodists, etc than are aware of the Catholic Church’s great body of social teaching, or indeed the work of the Catholic revival in the Church of England among the slums of the nineteenth century.

  3. 3 Hymns actually, Jerusalem, Guide me O’er, Abide with me. 4 if you count the national anthem. I thought I was an amazing opening – Overtly Christian for those who wished to see it that way. It brought me to tears in many parts.

    An added bonus was the tribute to Dr Who in it as well!!

    • Thank you. As we don’t do TV I had to rely on edited highlights via iPlayer: I thought it was very, very British. Not sure how many references must have passed by those who were not ‘in’ on some of the allusions and jokes.

  4. It is hard to address the controversy without sounding partisan.

    I thought there was huge witty content which many of us Brits would pick up on though others would need explanation ( eg Archers theme). There were doubtless other paths that could have been traced through our complex narrative of Britishness.

    The controversy arrives out of Danny Boyle’s reported deliberate decision to “defend” the NHS as many of his persuasion believe. That is a decision slightly discordant with the Olympic ” non political ethos ( which embraces some dreadful regimes). If it is legitimate to make a statement in this context, it cannot be churlish to question it if one disagrees.

    Incidentally, the rest of the world does not lack wit either: an anti Obamacare tweeter remarked that if you followed the UK ” you too can have children sleeping two to a bed in an open air stadium”.

    My worry is that the new Jerusalem Danny identifies is to have the NHS enshrined as some kind of foundational myth which, once established, cannot easily be questioned. With the NHS still capable of some dreadful neglect ( particularly of the old) we cannot allow it to be a no go area for criticism or institutional reform. Our economy is ranked6th in the world; our health care system ranks 18th: we cannot afford complcency

    • Thank you, Martin. My original blog post confined itself to one point, drawn from the programme notes, but after reading your comment I looked at the NHS sequence on iPlayer. (I haven’t read anything about Danny Boyle’s ‘stated aim’ so can’t comment on that myself.) It may be, as you say, that Danny Boyle’s own conception of the new Jerusalem is centred on the NHS, but that wasn’t the impression I got: I thought it was more diffuse, bound up with the concept of the Welfare State but not limited to it. I suspect everyone will take from the ceremony and from the programme notes what they will — just as I have done.

  5. You describe “a diffuse idealism which is largely Christian in origin and expression. When someone who calls himself ‘spiritually atheist’ draws on the image of Jerusalem to convey his vision of the future, his sense of purpose, we should take notice. ”

    Indeed we should. I am very struck, as I look at social media, by the widespread spiritual hunger among the population at large. I think that many, if not most, would say they subscribe to no religion but, judging by the quotable quotes on the meaning of life that constitute perhaps half of my ‘in-tray’, the leitmotiv of our age is ‘Tell us how to live’.

    ‘All’ we have to do now is find a way of communicating why we believe Christianity to be just such a prescription for life.

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