London 2012: Magic and emotion

London 2012’s Opening Ceremony was a success because it stuck to the principles of storytelling.

31.07.12 | Opinion

By Scott McCubbin

Hero Blank

It was staggering, breathtaking, compelling. Danny Boyle's Olympic Opening Ceremony at London 2012 was acclaimed for revisiting the storytelling theatre of Sydney in 2000, rather than attempt to compete with the scale of Beijing’s extravaganza four years ago.

It was the right decision, with or without the budgets of the Chinese state.

This gritty, often moving, sometimes humorous take on Britain’s story demonstrated the three main principles that are required to make the host ‘show’ work.


It’s a three point rule that we live by; Method, Magic and Emotion.

Olympic Industrial

Consider the sheer research, organisation, strategic planning and logistical management in delivering 7,400 sq m of turf, overseeing 7,500 volunteers, and ensuring that the lights from seven torchbearers ignited the tiny flames in the 204 copper petals of Thomas Hetherington’s 16 tonne, 185 m high cauldron. A variety of incredible achievements were delivered, that proved that their processes, their Method, was pretty faultless.

But what makes the delivery of the show so special? What gives it the Magic it so badly needs? Was it the innovative way the green rolling hills of old England became a smoky, harsh industrial landscape? Was it the phenomenal formation of the steel rings that emerged from that industrial heritage? Was it the change of pace and introduction of humour?

Olympic Metal Rings

It was all of the above. It created a magical, mesmirising, fast-paced production that used various devices to hold the audience’s attention through the chronological life of a nation. 

Where did Boyle get it so right? How was he able to connect with the ever-cynical and skeptical British taxpayer? How did he keep the attention of the one billion strong international audience, spread from the US to China, from Australia to Brazil? And then there’s the diverse age groups. How do you engage with children and pensioners in one performance without it feeling like a Royal Variety Show? Tapping into such a wide spread of Emotions is put simply, a wide brief.

What Boyle did was tell a story and he never swayed from that commitment. There was no sign of compromise. He also managed to tap into those elements of Britishness that other nations respect and love – the heritage, the eccentricity, the humour, the Queen, 007. This was not a grandiose PR stunt, but an authentic narrative that aroused different emotions.

One report from a Liverpool bar described how Chinese visitors thought the Rowan Atkinson skit was so hilarious that one quite literally fell off his seat while videoing the TV on his phone. My five year-old boy spent the next two days re-telling the story of the Queen parachuting into the stadium, hand over his mouth, tittering.

Self-deprecating, funny, insane, memorable.

Put simply, it was a very British affair. Not a cliché, but brave and brilliant. We congratulate them on keeping to their principles and delivering on this once in lifetime opportunity to tell our story.


Read the thoughts of Scott and others, on the Olympics Opening Ceremony in Design Week on July 30, 2012

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