Literature lights up London Olympics opening
From Peter Pan to Mary Poppins, children’s books took centre stage at Friday night’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, watched by a billion people across the globe, writes Katherine Woodfine
Children’s books took centre stage at Friday night’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, watched by a billion people across the globe
From the blink-and-you’ll miss it glimpse of Mole and Ratty from Kenneth Graeme’s Wind in the Willows in the opening sequence, to the surprise appearance of J K Rowling to help pay tribute to the NHS, references to Britain’s tradition of children’s literature were threaded throughout Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking ceremony.
In a section entitled ‘Second to the right and straight on till morning’, J K Rowling read from J M Barrie’s Peter Pan to introduce a performance by children and nurses representing Great Ormond Street Hospital – the organisation which famously owns the royalties of Barrie’s children’s classic. After being menaced by a cast of enormous nightmare villains from children’s literature – from Ian Fleming’s sinister Child Catcher to Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts, Dodie Smith’s Cruella De Vil and Rowling’s own Voldemort – the children are rescued by an army of Mary Poppins figures, who join forces with the nurses to drive the nightmares away in a powerful tribute to both the NHS and the power of children’s books.
Other references to literature were scattered throughout the ceremony, from Kenneth Branagh declaiming Caliban’s famous speech from The Tempest in his role as Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the ‘Pandemonium’ sequence, to more oblique references to Milton, Blake and Tolkien.
Author Frank Cottrell Boyce – who himself has reimagined Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for a new generation in his book Chitty Flies Again – was part of the team who devised the ceremony. For Booktrust’s Bookstart 20 campaign he has already shared with us his faith in the magic of children’s books and reading:
'I love it best of all sitting browsing in the library and discovering something together that we've never read before. But I also love it when one of my children discovers for the first time something that I first read when I was their age - Tintin, or Asterix or Just William. I love the way books we've shared become part of our family vocabulary, so for instance if we're walking into a cafe on a winter's evening, I'll know we're all thinking of that brilliant picture in The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Or if there are mad thumping noises upstairs in the night - that'll be Where the Wild Things Are. And I love it that we sometimes love a book that no one else seems to have even heard of - so it's like a family secret… I love it when one of my older children comes back from his or her travels with something completely new that they want to share - like treasure they've found under the sea.'
As the ceremony’s writer, working alongside director Danny Boyle, he envisioned the event as a ‘fairy story’. The team made lists of the qualities they wanted to include, such as ‘humour, eccentricity and anarchy’ and devised a motto: ‘This is for everyone’. Speaking about how they came up with their ideas, Cottrell Boyce said: ‘We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children's literature, genius engineers. There was a strangely carefree atmosphere... It was easy to suggest the impossible – floating trees, a parachuting Queen, Voldemort versus Poppins.’
Literary inspiration for the ceremony came from all kinds of different places – from an out of print book about the Industrial Revolution, Pandaemonium by Humphrey Jennings, to an especially apt quote from author G K Chesterton: ‘The world shall perish not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder.’
Together, Boyle and Cottrell Boyce have certainly created a wonderland for us.
Looking for more ways to get in the mood for the London 2012 Olympics? Read our booklist of children’s books about sport or why not take a look at a list of books inspired by the colours of the Olympic rings