They called it the “Isles of Wonder,” but it was really a parade of British whimsy: sheep and milkmaids, factory workers, the Internet, Mary Poppins, the queen and a snippet of the Sex Pistols’ rendition of “God Save the Queen,” and, oddest of all, doctors and nurses jitterbugging on hospital beds in a tribute to the National Health Service.
The opening ceremony of the London Olympics on Friday was a tableau of national pride that studiously avoided bathos and easy excesses of patriotism. The show opened with music from “Chariots of Fire,” a movie about two principled British runners in the 1924 Olympics, but it was not the famous theme by Vangelis; the creators instead chose the classic hymn “Jerusalem.” The Vangelis song came later, as a joke by Rowan Atkinson in his Mr. Bean persona, comically bored and distracted while playing the synthesizer with the London Symphony Orchestra.
In a video, even Queen Elizabeth II and her corgis did their bit, greeting Daniel Craig as James Bond in Buckingham Palace (“Good evening, Mr. Bond”). Then the queen, festive in a sparkling pink gown and pink-feathered headpiece, pretended, via a body double, to parachute into the Olympic arena at his side.
It’s hard to imagine any other nation willing to make so much fun of itself on a global stage, in front of as many as a billion viewers. It takes nerve to look silly; the cheesy, kaleidoscopic history lesson that took Britain through its past, from pasture through the workhouses and smoke stacks of the Industrial Revolution to World War I and, of course, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” was like a Bollywood version of a sixth-grade play.