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Culture Re-View: A look back at Danny Boyle's incredible 2012 Olympics opening ceremony

Fireworks explode over the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, July 28, 2012, in London.
Fireworks explode over the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, July 28, 2012, in London. Copyright Ben Curtis/AP
Copyright Ben Curtis/AP
By Jonny Walfisz
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27 July 2012: The London Olympics opens with a bang

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On this day 11 years ago, the last Summer Olympics to take place in Europe started with an incredible opening ceremony. The London 2012 Olympics didn’t have the budget or sheer manpower to put together a ceremony like 2008’s opening in Beijing — filled with impressive large-scale choreography and a metric sh*t ton of fireworks — so it had to rely on something else… Danny Boyle.

The English director of celebrated British films such as Scottish heroin drama Trainspotting and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire was offered the chance to orchestrate the opening ceremony. With a budget of £27 million (approx. €31.5 million), under half what Beijing spent on their opening ceremony, Boyle set to work crafting an event that would define both the UK and the upcoming games.

In the end, Boyle settled on a schedule of 13 sections, marked by 10 distinct chapters in Britain’s history, that would fill the Olympic Stadium in Hackney for more than four hours. The culmination of which would be one of the greatest events of performance art in history.

The ceremony began with British folk-punk artist Frank Turner performing songs from a model of Glastonbury Tor, filling the centre of the stadium with an image of Britain’s rural countryside.

David J. Phillip/AP
The Glastonbury Tor settingDavid J. Phillip/AP

The countdown sounded, Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins rang the bell, and the first chapter, Green and Pleasant Land, began.

Choirs sung songs representing each of the UK’s four nations to a live panorama of Britain in times of yore. This didn’t last long before the ceremony switched to its second chapter, Pandemonium.

Mark Humphrey/AP
The change to the industrial revolution settingMark Humphrey/AP

Capturing the atmosphere of the country during the industrial revolution, nearly a thousand drummers took to the stage as the rural setting was switched to reveal a chimney-stacked smog-filled grimy chapter of British history. Boyle called it the “biggest scene change in theatre history”. Tributes came in for those lost to the World Wars, to women’s suffrage, Caribbean immigrants arriving on the HMS Windrush, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, among others.

Then, in one of the most well-known moments of the ceremony, the action cut away to a short film, also directed by Boyle. In it, James Bond, played by Daniel Craig, enters Buckingham Palace and escorts Queen Elizabeth II into a helicopter. The Queen, playing herself in the film, then has a body double parachute out of the helicopter into the stadium.

The next section celebrated the country’s health service and children’s literature. After that, Rowan Atkinson reprised his beloved character Mr Bean to help in a performance of ‘Chariots of Fire’, before a section celebrating the arts in Britain, including a live performance from Dizzee Rascal. 

Matt Dunham/AP
Actor Rowan Atkinson performs during the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 27, 2012, in London.Matt Dunham/AP

Other highlights that came later in the ceremony also included a performance from beloved Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys, playing ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ and ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles as 75 cyclists in butterfly costumes circled the stadium.

Eric Gay/AP
The Olympic cauldron is being lit during the Opening CeremonyEric Gay/AP

The Olympic torch was lit. The cauldron, by English designer Thomas Heatherwick, had been kept a secret until the ceremony. It was revealed as a mechanical ball of tulip-like flowers, all blazing from their petals, that retracted to form the singular torch.

Matt Dunham/AP
Paul McCartney performs during the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Summer OlympicsMatt Dunham/AP

Finally, to a performance from Paul McCartney, fireworks illuminated the sky to signal the beginning of the 2012 Olympic Games.

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