The Commonwealth Games have long enjoyed their reputation as “the Friendly Games”, but on the basis of tonight’s (28 July) grand opening ceremony in Birmingham, they should probably be known as “the Woke Games”. Racial harmony, LGBT+ rights, equality for people with disabilities; these seem to be what the 2022 games are about, just as much as weightlifting, running and cricket.
Nothing wrong with that, as it happens, because the Commonwealth is no longer the British Commonwealth, still less the British Empire. It’s a proudly multicultural organisation based on mutual respect. Much like Birmingham – which, outside of London, is the most culturally diverse city in Britain – and the theme of the opening show is a celebration of this great historic community. It’s the youngest city in Europe, so we keep being told, with 40 per cent of the population under the age of 25. Apart from Sir Lenny Henry – a son of Dudley but an adopted Prince of Birmingham – the actual Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, there seems to be hardly anybody in the vast Alexander Stadium born before 1990.
A steampunk-themed celebration of progressive values and inclusion, these are the first games to have the para segments seamlessly integrated into the feast of the events. Local Brummies are as shouty and proud as can be and the star of the show is undoubtedly a gigantic marionette Bull of Birmingham. Despite recalling an iffy history of bull baiting, the massive armoured creature snorts his way through the show, alternately angry at racial tension and then pacified by the spirit of tolerance.
There was Irish dancing and Indian drums, tributes to local bands Duran Duran, Black Sabbath and ELO, as well as appearances from Drag Race star Ginny Lemon, Austin Minis and Land Rovers, Malala Yousafzai, Clare Balding, Ellie Simmons, Tom Daley and the Red Arrows. Add to this a gleeful parade of athletes from every corner of the globe, with Ghana and Scotland tied for best outfits.
As a joyous portrait of a modern British city that makes the most of its kaleidoscopic traditions, it was a triumph for artistic director Iqbal Khan (the associate director of Birmingham Rep) and producer Stephen Wright, creator of Peaky Blinders – which he wisely doesn’t over-promote.
Was it as good as the Danny Boyle spectacular of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony? Not quite. How could it be without The Queen, her bloomers billowing, jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond? That said, we did get Charles driving himself and his Camilla into the stadium, fuelled by a mixture of wine and whey in his “biofuel” Aston Martin.
So let’s not focus on the vaguely confusing people in Edwardian gear dancing with umbrellas and clumsy symbolism and let’s just go with it. It’s easy, and much more satisfying, to enjoy the spectacle and those delightful yet meaningless shards of light.
It was in fact deeply lovely to see Birmingham showing off its long and distinguished history, but possibly a bit cheeky for them to try and appropriate Edward Elgar (Worcester), Josiah Wedgwood (Stoke), William Shakespeare (Stratford-upon-Avon), Dr Johnson (Lichfield) and Charlie Chaplin (London) as their own.
For some reason, the organisers also chose to omit any reference to the classic soap once synonymous with the place, Crossroads, and I yearned to hear that classic Tony Hatch theme. It was as if Meg Mortimer, Amy Turtle and Benny had never lived. Not that inclusive, then, but you can’t have everything. Now let the Woke Games begin!