So the Olympic closing ceremony is set to be, we are told by its artistic director, an elegant mash-up of British music. ‘A Symphony of British Music’ is the bold title it has been given; call me a cynic, but I’m about to get cynical.
My cynicism stems not least from the celebrated opening ceremony. Yes, yes, I know everyone loved the opening ceremony – I have no desire to be the only commentator apart from the Daily Mail to take against it and even if I had I certainly wouldn’t take against it for those reasons – I thought the whole thing was very impressive and very jolly and I shared the slightly socialist, multicultural, patriotic glow very gladly without actually staying up for long enough to be disappointed by Sir Paul.
But just to be a little objective about the music (and the incoherent musical montage segment through five decades of pop was the weakest section by a long way), for all that we were promised that the ceremony would reflect Danny Boyle’s great love of music, it was surely the work of somebody with a rather limited frame of reference?
Indeed, I’m not even sure it represented the best of British pop so much as the best of what was on Danny Boyle’s iPod. It was a show which made a centrepiece of the unbelievably mediocre and unimportant Mike Oldfield (I’m sorry, but his seminal work sounds like a poor demo album and his most substantial contribution to British heritage was an arrangement of the Blue Peter theme) and which climaxed (if the word can even be contemplated) with a horribly predictable and predictably horrible performance of an embarrassing wrinkled museum piece of a former Beatle singing one of his most overrated and annoying songs for what feels like the millionth time since he stopped being good at anything else. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think of superior living British pop musicians who have contributed so much more and can still rock a stadium that big, even if we assume that Bowie isn’t coming out of retirement – how about Peter Gabriel in the Mike Oldfield slot, what could be a more British finalé than Kate Bush doing ‘Wuthering Heights’?
But that’s a niggle, a mere niggle. My main point, of course, is: what about all the other decades, centuries, genres?!! Where was a single representation of the great British contribution to the development of jazz, from the Dankworth/Scott/Shearing generation through to any number of incredible living jazz artists or fusion groups – how about a slot for Courtney Pine? What about the great British musical?! What about Noël Coward, or indeed Noel Gay? Antony Newley or Lionel Bart? And much as I loathe both the man and his music, what about Andrew Lloyd Webber, saviour of the West End that he once was?
And that’s just scratching the surface of the 20th century – the vital heritage of British music stretches back far further, and whilst Boyle’s presentation rightly acknowledged some of the richness of our hymnody there was no room for folksong. Most obvious of all, the entire canon of British classical music was represented by a couple of tracks from a Classic FM ‘greatest relaxing classics’ album and Simon Rattle conducting a comedy sketch with Rowan Atkinson. Even a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan would have been more sophisticated.
The Guardian‘s snide conclusion was that it was an eloquent enough remark on how marginal classical music really is in Britain today, so they presumably haven’t noticed that in spite of the Olympics, one substantial London arena is still playing host to the world’s largest classical music festival and crowds are flocking to hear a superb range of music new and old performed by some of the finest ensembles in the business. Marginal? Piss off, Guardian.
Just as the success of the Olympics has provoked the Prime Minister into at least pretending that he supports sport in education (ignoring the fact that his government sold off the playing fields in which it could be taught), events like the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies ought to be an opportunity to put the country’s arts in the limelight. Unfortunately, music runs the risk of looking marginal if it represented entirely by the kind of tracks you get on a DJ’s playlist for a 40th birthday party; Britain is, in fact, a hotbed of emerging musical talent in all genres, but if Thomas Tallis, Henry Purcell and Benjamin Britten are left forgotten in a lengthy, music-heavy spectacular which is meant to sum up what’s great about the country, young musicians are surely going to be wondering what hope there is of any kind of recognition.
I’m longing to be proved wrong by tomorrow night’s ceremony, but talk of a surprise appearance by the Spice Girls and the phrase ‘anything from Adele to Elgar’ suggests that the field will be as narrow as we’ve come to expect. The idea that this represents ‘the nation as a whole’ is as terrifying as it is insulting, in that it’s only a matter of time before it becomes self-fulfilling.