CWG opening ceremony reflects on real-world issues while alluding to the chequered history of the host city
It emerged five years after the 2012 London Olympics and five before the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games that Charlie Chaplin might have been born in the Romany Gypsy community of Smethwick, instead of London, and be a proper firecracker of a Brummie, a maverick from the Midlands.
On Thursday evening, the UK once again put up a grand spectacle to relay across global television networks, drawing from the best local showmen across theatre, movies, live concerts and OTT talent. The Commonwealth Games’ warm-up runway was glamourised, preened and impressed on with cultural motifs, leaving the sport’s spontaneity to kick off the day after the opening ceremony. Alexander Stadium that will host the track and field competitions next week hogged selfie-level attention for its dance-and-song-and Chaplin’s all-in-ones.
Chaplin, adopted gleefully by Birmingham, with a wink to London, though was given full leeway to set the iconic Birmingham library on fire in the put-up comedy sketch. At least one of the many Chaplins paying tribute to the original, did. Not quite the Queen flung from a plane like in London’s haww moment, with James Bond coming to her rescue, but Chaplin’s bit-part equalled Mr Bean from 2012.
The opening ceremony placed a young character Stella and fellow athletes, dubbed Dreamers, through the different skins worn by Birmingham through the years of rise and decline, and redemptions. This wasn’t sport in a bubble, that hitherto has kept athletes in a neatly separated universe that is dreamily elevated from non-athletic mortals. Stella lived in the real world – a reckoning that athletes across the world are waking up to, as sport searches for meaning beyond twitching of fast fibres.
In the movie-like narration, Stella encountered underpaid overworked female chain-makers – women of the Industrial Revolution, whose emancipation took a century before the 1910 minimum wages strike. It resonated with today’s Birmingham, bang in the middle of railway workers’ strikes during the Games, and how labour and self-assertion movements rage on, amplified by sport’s sprinkled gold dust in the vicinity.
The city’s iconic ‘Bullring markets’, where the favourite sport was bull-baiting, was re-imagined to liberate the chained giant bull, and along with it the women chain-makers. This wasn’t a host city shying away from calling out the disturbing flip side of sport or entertainment or the racist world it once operated in.
Comedian Joe Lycett, wearing outrageous pink feathers and satin, cut through some fluff with the most outstanding gag of the day, saying, “I’m going to do something now that the British government doesn’t always do and welcome some foreigners.” He then invited Asian nations into the stadium for the athletes parade.
The dance collective ‘Critical Mass’ featured in the opening ceremony, and lent distinct guitar riffs by His Royal Under-tone, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, had 45 percent of those that self-identify as deaf, disabled, neurodivergent or living with a long-term health condition, performing side by side with non-disabled performers.
While searchlights and flashbulbs highlight all that is uplifting and illuminating about sport, Birmingham owned up its dire past of the Black Country landscape, characterised by smoke emitted by its factories in the day, while at night the furnaces glowed red during the industrialisation excesses. Stella wasn’t in a parallel world, working her muscle groups and monitoring thoughtless and worry-less sleep. This was an athlete confronted with the realities of the outside world, that go beyond medals and podiums.
Birmingham also placed a mirror to racial tensions through the show, exploring cultural migration and differences as obstacles to integration and coexisting. While journeys of Western cities towards multiculturalism overcoming inherent misunderstandings and tensions are often celebrated, the show put into stark sobering relief how racial tensions are one tinder-flicker away from flaring up, a reminder that this is not easy smelting. Nothing in metal city is easy.
Sport makes for the most photogenic frames of human endeavour – montages of past Games can be hypnotic. And the Birmingham opening gathered the best in showbiz from the British Isles to hint to the athletes that they ought not to hide behind the smokescreen of sport. In a difficult summer for the hosting country with politics and economy teetering, with a show planned in Britain’s second city for sport, never shying away from the smoke and grime of its foundries, a spectacle celebrated sobering realities surrounded sport.
Chaplin was around to make the hard life, a tad easy. As was Lenny Henry, a black comedian who keeps offending many in England by speaking the truth about racism steadfastly and consistently. After he said”Big up snobs.” His presence invited another round of insults declaring him ‘unfunny.’ He’s bonafide funny though and in his funniest on the day was a wicked one about different skin palletes of Birmingham: “black, white, brown, pink and sunburnt-from-two-weeks-ago.”
Then Duran Duran took over and crooned about life and coming undone.
Much has changed about Games, and athletes have mercifully shed the image of this being some stern military marchpast lite by actually enjoying their welcome parade.