1 August 2012

Postmodernising the monarchy

The London Olympics Opening Ceremony on 27 July, masterminded by Danny Boyle, is generally judged to have been a great success, at least in the UK. How much of it people in the other 200-odd Olympics participating countries could understand, one has to wonder. Come to that, how much of the content did people here fail to appreciate, whether they were in the minority at the ceremony or in the millions watching on TV? Only when looking at the BBC website afterwards did I see the two yellow submarines.

Apparently French viewers were told that the image of a baby in the children’s hospital sequence was a tribute to the Scottish pioneer of obstetric ultrasound – I don’t think the BBC commentators said that. And apparently viewers in the US were left wondering whether Kenneth Branagh’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel was Abe Lincoln without the beard!

Last November I posted about the V&A Postmodernism exhibition, noting  US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous admission in 1964 that while he couldn’t define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it”, and that something similar could be said about postmodernism. Actually the V&A offered the following definition:
The word is notoriously difficult to define, though students may have some sense of its meaning: ironic self-awareness; style that includes historical reference; a turn to decoration and ornament. For the purposes of the show at the V&A, we have interpreted the term quite literally. Postmodernism is simply what happened right after the ‘death of modernism’ – that is, when modernism lost its position as the dominant style in European and American visual culture. The exhibition therefore looks at the moment when certain ideals about architecture and design – represented by Bauhaus objects, International Style buildings, simple and functional clothing, and the clarity of modern graphics and typography – were overthrown in favour of newly permissive, liberated, and expressive tendencies . Because postmodernism comes from this moment of rupture, it feels explosive even thirty years later. It opened up a broad but uncertain terrain, and designers and artists associated with the term tended to be interested in ambiguity and mediation (the reproduction and even the selling of things, not just the making of them).
To me the Opening Ceremony was certainly postmodern. It was full of “historical reference” but not too rigorous about it. For example, Brunel is best known as a mid-19th century railway constructor. But that was at the end of the industrial revolution which had begun about 1750 and had relied on the canal system initially – I didn’t see any bargees. There were plenty of “newly permissive, liberated, and expressive tendencies” – too much Britpop for some tastes possibly, along with the lesbian kisses. And the whole modern Olympiad is up to its armpits in the “selling of things” for sure.

But as a piece of “ambiguity”, the Opening Ceremony’s short film sequence Happy and Glorious (words from the UK and others’ national anthem) directed by Boyle is surely worth some consideration. Bond, played by Daniel Craig, is summoned to Buckingham Palace by Her Majesty (playing herself, HM) to escort her by helicopter to the Olympic Stadium. The helicopter passes over various London landmarks and then Bond and the Queen (played by stuntmen) appear to jump into the stadium with parachutes. As the film ended, HM appeared in the Stadium and formally opened the Games.

On Her Majesty's Service
Most people, once they had got over their amazement that the Queen was HM and not Helen Mirren, seemed to think that it was a wonderful example of the British laughing at themselves, not taking things too seriously and so on. Coincidentally, it was in the year of her Coronation (1953) that the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, Casino Royale, was published. The first Bond film, Dr No, appeared in 1962 followed by the sequence which has continued to generate billions ($ or £) in box office receipts. When Bond first appeared as a fictional character, his parent organisation, MI6 (or more properly the Secret Intelligence Service), was not officially acknowledged. So when in 1963 Fleming gave his tenth Bond novel the title On Her Majesty's Secret Service (filmed in 1969), the reference to the sovereign was firmly in the realm of fiction. In 1994 SIS ‘came in from the cold’ and now even has a website. Its Chief (reputedly known as ‘C’, eg in Sarah Helm’s Loyalty) has become a semi-public figure who occasionally gives discreet speeches to select gatherings and briefs notables as varied as Mitt Romney and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on aspects of SIS’s work. Bond and the Queen’s helicopter flight didn’t seem to go near Terry Farrell’s postmodernist Thames-side building at Vauxhall Cross which is now occupied by SIS. A popular subject for holiday snaps by London tourists, it is left somewhat worse for wear during the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall (UK release in October).

In recent Bond films the Chief’s role (called ‘M’) has been played by Judi Dench (above). Fortunately, the only queens Dench has played in her other films are Victoria and Elizabeth I, or it might all have become just a bit too confusingly postmodern for such a pre-modern arrangement as a constitutional monarchy.

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