Inside Joke: Interpreting the Olympic opening ceremony's trove of quirky British references

  • Article by: DANICA KIRKA and JILL LAWLESS , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 27, 2012 - 4:08 PM

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LONDON - Baffled?

If elements of Danny Boyle's three-hour opening ceremony for the London Olympics went over your head, fear not. We are here to help.

The opening ceremony production is replete with inside jokes and cultural references that many non-Brits may find baffling. The Anglophile dream tour embraces the "Slumdog Millionaire" director's complex and by turns dark and whimsical vision of life on this island nation.

Who else would have thought of dancing nurses?

So read on, all will be clear.

RING THAT BELL

What is it with Britain and bells? Boyle ordered up a 27-ton whopper from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to ring in the games. Founded in 1570 and officially Britain's oldest manufacturing company, Whitechapel — just a few miles from the Olympic Park — also made London's Big Ben and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. Boyle loved that ringing a bell to begin a performance was customary at the time of Shakespeare. The bell rung Friday will be inscribed with a line from "The Tempest," in which Caliban says "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises."

NURSES, NURSES, EVERYWHERE

Boyle recruited real nurses working for the National Health Service to take part, a tribute to a treasured national institution that started in 1948 amid the ruins of war-devastated Britain. The state-funded NHS provides free health treatment to all Britons, and is embraced by all political parties. While grumbling about its perceived slow service is widespread — and planned government reforms are controversial — its egalitarian ethos is a matter of national pride. When U.S. Republicans criticized the NHS in 2009, a Twitter campaign in its defense became so popular it crashed the NHS website.

WHAT IS JERUSALEM?

Well, there's the one in the Middle East, and then there's "Jerusalem," the hymn that doubles as England's unofficial national anthem, belted out at big state occasions and sports matches alike. It's based on a poem by William Blake, which wonders whether there is truth to the legend that Jesus visited England as a young man: ("And did those feet, in ancient time; walk upon England's mountains green?") Blake — like Boyle — contrasts that with a bleaker nation of industrialized "dark Satanic mills," before calling - "Bring me my chariot of fire!" for a new heaven to be built "in England's green and pleasant land."

SPEAKING OF SATANIC MILLS

Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, when transformations in agriculture, transportation and technology brutally reshaped society between 1760 and 1850. Spinning technology led to the creation of textile factories, which was followed by James Watt's invention of the steam engine, and improved coal mining techniques that powered railroads and ships. The advances of the industrial revolution also led to abuses, which sparked riots by workers and eventually spurred the creation of modern organized labor, as well as overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in British cities that triggered outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.

AMAZING ENGINEERS

All that industry made Britain an innovation powerhouse — and Boyle celebrates its pioneers, past and present. He has drawn inspiration from two Britons whose names many don't know, but whose legacy surrounds us every day — Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Tim Berners-Lee. Brunel was the pioneering Victorian engineer who helped knit Britain together with an infrastructure of iron bridges and railways. He died in 1859 but many of his creations — including the first tunnel under the River Thames — are still in use. Computer scientist Berners-Lee is the inventor of the World Wide Web, the infrastructure of the Internet, which is still transforming the way we communicate and the way we live.

TELEVISION GENERATION

Ask Britons from 6 to 60 about their favorite TV show and one answer will probably dominate: "Doctor Who." The series about a space-hopping Time Lord first aired in 1963; so far 11 actors have played its lead character, an enigmatic alien known only as "The Doctor." The show fuses science fiction thrills with humanism and whimsy and is vital suppertime viewing for millions. Its pulsating electronic theme music is instantly recognizable to sci-fi geeks everywhere.

And Boyle would not be reflecting modern-day Britain without a reference to long-running and hugely popular soap operas like "Coronation Street" and "EastEnders." Unlike soaps in many countries, which are set among the wealthy and glamorous, British soaps have gritty working-class backdrops. One British critic once noted that "American soaps are about watching beautiful people suffer. We like to watch ugly people suffer."

CHILDREN'S CLASSICS

From Britain's rich literary tradition, Boyle focuses on its cornucopia of children's classics. British writers gave the world heroes like Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and Harry Potter — and even-more-memorable villains, from Captain Hook to Cruella de Vil to Voldemort. Perfect material for Boyle, who is drawn to both darkness and light, and directed warm but unsentimental depictions of childhood in the movies "Millions" and "Slumdog Millionaire."

BLOWING BUBBLES?

Despite the British reputation for reserve, get Brits in a crowd — especially at a sporting event — and they love to sing. So no ceremony would be complete without a good old-fashioned sing-along. "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" is the anthem of West Ham United football club, but known to almost everyone. It's also an Olympic in-joke: West Ham, an east London team, is bidding to move into the Olympic Stadium once the games are over.

GREAT MOMENTS IN BRITISH WEATHER

Of course Britain's weather HAD to figure in a show about an island nation, with references to BBC radio's daily institution "The Shipping Forecast." Though it provides crucial data for mariners, the forecast is admired for its melodic and soothing chant four times a day. It's a reminder that even in the jet age, Britain is an island nation where much depends on the movement of the sea.

Boyle also pokes fun, reminding the audience of the moment when BBC weatherman Michael Fish assured his audience that a hurricane would bypass Britain's shores. Alas, it did not. The Great Storm of 1987 was the most severe to hit the nation for centuries.

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