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rrramble retrospective: London 2012 Olympics – Isles of Wonder Opening Ceremony

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Well, would you believe it? It’s been 10 years since London hosted the 2012 Olympics! Which means it’s been 10 whole years since Danny Boyle directed the Opening Ceremony – Isles of Wonder. An insanely large-scale arts-meets-sports extravaganza, designed to to show the UK in all its ‘glory’, and to show the world what it means to be British.

Now, 10 years on, does this event make us feel reluctantly patriotic, or a little bit embarrassed? In fact, does this ceremony resonate with the Britain we know at all? Three of our writers revisit Isles of Wonder to give us their thoughts…

Multiple images from the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. On the right, a large image of huge chimneys surrounded by people below. In the background, you can see a packed stadium. To the left, a distant picture of the packed stadiums and chimneys smoking. Below, an image of a green hill with a tree at the top. The hill is covered in flags from countries participating.

Feeling patriotic?


A full decade since the London 2012 Olympic Games does seem slightly mind boggling. I remember looking forward to the games; I’m not particularly invested in any sport, but there is something so inescapably infectious about the excitement surrounding the Olympics. I do remember watching a little of the opening ceremony at the time, but I obviously hadn’t quite been infected by the second-hand excitement of other people enough to sit and watch the whole thing. General consensus at the time was that Danny Boyle, director of the spectacle entitled Isles of Wonder, didn’t do a half bad job. But how has it stood up to the test of time?

The ceremony starts with an apparently picture-postcard portrayal of traditional pastoral England. The Olympic Stadium has been transformed into a lush, green paradise of simpler days gone by: it’s all maypoles and rosy cheeks. I actually think this still works pretty well as an opener. A series of small fields lie at the feet of a great tree, all of which is carefully constructed in such a way that it seems wherever you were seated in the expansive arena, you would be involved in the action. In a venue of this scale where this could quite easily be a logistical nightmare, I think Boyle did a pretty good job.

As the ceremony continues to tell the story of the Isles of Wonder, moving through the Industrial Revolution, I was struck by how surprisingly patriotic I felt. Actually, I wasn’t sure if what I was feeling was patriotism (I have some mixed feelings about this idea) or a genuine awe at such a large-scale arts performance. Either way, whatever Boyle was doing, it was making me react in a surprisingly emotional way even after a full decade. And surely any emotional response is the goal of a piece of art. Moving through scenes of the Industrial Revolution, British acting heavyweight and Shakespeare loyalist, Kenneth Branagh plays social change heavyweight and industrial loyalist, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Apologies in advance if this is a controversial opinion, especially as I have little evidence to support the following statement…but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like Branagh. I don’t like Kenneth Branagh. There, I said it. With a subsequent, thankfully short, appearance from JK Rowling, I was left with a slightly sour taste in my mouth thanks to these two. It goes without saying, that not every aspect or participant of the ceremony has aged gracefully.

There are certainly some sections of the ceremony that don’t work particularly well now because they didn’t work particularly well then, either. I loved the idea of the celebration of iconic characters from children’s literature, but I’m not sure the sequence with the children on the light up beds flowed as coherently as those that came before it. While we’re on the subject, I’m unconvinced a short flash mob was quite the right way to appropriately honour the NHS. In a similar theme, the music section didn’t really do it for me either. On the whole I understand what Boyle was trying to do, but told through the lens of a modern day tech-based love story didn’t quite work as the right medium for me.

So, some of it still works, some of it doesn’t, and some of it never really worked to begin with. There is an overriding feeling of joy about the whole thing though. Even in the sections that don’t hit the mark, it is clear how much genuine fun those involved are having. And you know what, I had fun re-watching a decade later, too.

A distant picture of the packed Olympic stadium, with hoardes of performers gathered around smoking chimneys. Large close-up screens are suspended above the stadium on wires, as well as speaker stacks. The stadium is lit in blue, purple and pink (which feels unintentionally bisexual).

Almost certainly unintentional bi-pride colours… but we’ll take it


I remember the opening ceremony of the London Olympics the same way most people remember a night out where they had too much to drink. The details are fuzzy and whatever people tell me about it I think… Surely that didn’t happen, did it?  Watching it now, I can see precisely why I elected to remember only snippets of this spectacle and lose the rest to the abyss of time and abysmal long-term memory. 

Did we need a theatrical rendition of the industrial revolution? I get it, it’s a part of our vast history, but I’m not exactly bringing it up when international friends ask about where I’m from. No matter how well choreographed the Victorian men and their mutton chops are–they feel out of place. To most individuals in our generation, I’d argue this particular part of our identity is one we want to learn from and move past; not celebrate. The overfed rich white man of industrial Britain and all of the privileges they held (still hold) is not a good look to be heralding as a highlight – yikes.

One thing I remember vividly enjoying at the time was the skit involving the Queen and James Bond. Because come on, who doesn’t want to see her royal Highness strapped in a parachute and vaulting herself from a plane? … In hindsight though? It’s a little cringe. The same can be said for the nod to Winston Churchill and the pedestal they place JK Rowling on. Both choices have aged badly, in my opinion. 

It’s not all bad though. Parts of this celebration are well deserved, if not bizarrely executed. The dedication to Great Ormand’s street and the NHS is without a doubt needed, though I perhaps would have not buried it under sequences relating to Peter Pan and other childhood stories, had I been in charge of programming. 

An opening ceremony should be fun, yes, but surely it should also be a way to celebrate the culture and identity of the hosting country. For me, the 2012 ceremony didn’t quite do that. Instead, it feels like a stage upon which to brag about our biggest hits and tourism triggers. Royalty. Harry Potter. Mary Poppins, apparently. There’s not a whole lot in the ceremony that celebrates what I perceive to be ‘British’. Things I consider parts of my identity as a citizen of this country.

Many people would consider the UK the birthplace of theatre for god’s sake, and we get a three-second reference to Romeo and Juliet in the form of two performers locking eyes across their fabricated street party and a snapshot of Baz Lurman’s 1996 film. That’s it? For Shakespeare. But JK Rowling was celebrated in several different and ever more extravagant ways for over ten minutes.

I wish there had been more celebration of the people of the UK. The working class. The Queer identities. Global majority peoples, and women. I want to see the multiculturalism that makes our country unique! I want to see the celebration of the simple, quintessential British things that have become memes of our own identity–Yorkshire Tea! A Sunday Roast! Show me a joke about our incessant need to say sorry or stand in a queue!

Overall I think, for what it was, the opening ceremony was a bit of fun. It was entertaining for sure, and at the age I was when it aired, I almost certainly enjoyed it for the entertainment value. But looking back on it now with a critical eye, I think this isn’t the representation of our country the organisers thought it would be. Instead, it’s a smorgasbord of showing off what celebrities and famous things we can take credit for. It’s bragging, not celebrating. Had this aired today, I would expect a lot more than this. 

A photograph of a green hill with a tree at the top, in the middle of the Olympic stadium. The hill is covered in flags from countries participating. On a larger pole, the Union Jack flag. Behind, you can see packed stadium seating and royal blue lighting.

It’s a small world meets London 2012


The opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics lived up to it’s name. Directed by Danny Boyle and titled Isles of Wonder, the performance definitely had its share of wonderous twists and turns. The enthusiasm across the country was palpable. I had never been very interested in sports, but 2012 was the year I actually got caught up in it! The Olympic flame even came to Norwich and it felt like a grand, once-in-a-lifetime event that brought everyone in the community together.

Not being the sporty type, I’d never watched an opening ceremony before; it was all so new and exciting. Even as I was told that ‘this is the boring bit’, I still felt excited when all the representatives of the countries roamed round the stadium with their flags. It felt like the whole world was coming together in celebration of sport. It was very heart-warming.

I didn’t know what to expect from the performance, but it was a lot more enjoyable than I had expected. The mish-mash of arts and music from the U.K made me feel proud to be British; a feeling I don’t experience often. It was an uplifting and inspiring kick-off to the events. To be honest, I hadn’t realised a sporting event could be such a good platform for the creative arts.

I like to re-watch parts of it from time to time. From the top of my head, I remember the awe when the Queen appeared alongside James Bond and jumped from a helicopter. Not something you see every day. Rowan Atkinson’s Chariots of Fire skit still makes me laugh. I can’t forget to mention the giant Voldemort! Mary Poppins (all 32 of them)! All the amazing music from artists such as Muse, Queen, David Bowie, Blur, Amy Winehouse…I’d say there was something for everyone. Amazing choreography too (I guess dance is both a sport and an art?). This opening ceremony is a perfect example of how sport and art go hand in hand.


One of my favourite aspects of the event as a whole was the way we go on a journey through the ages. The stage was set so beautifully so that we begin in rural Britain, and are transported through to modern times. There are so many references to British achievements and icons that I missed so much on my first viewing. I have now seen the ceremony three times. It is so satisfying re-watching the performances and spotting the references you may have missed the first-time round. There’s often so much happening on screen, it’s hard to know where to look. As I was watching, I felt slightly jealous of the people in the crowds and thought how amazing it would be to actually be there, even ten years on.

I would definitely recommend watching it again if you haven’t watched it since 2012. Take yourself back to an exciting moment in our history and enjoy the spectacle.


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