Expert Comment: The Olympics and Public HistoryMonday 6 August 2012
Bringing History to Life
Dr Bryce Evans, Lecturer in Modern History, discusses how Danny Boyle's Olympic Opening Ceremony brought modern history to life and how Boyle was influenced by a Christmas gift from Hope's Professor of Reading and Communication, Frank Cottrell Boyce.
Over the last couple of weeks, breathlessly hyperbolic sports commentators have talked a lot about ‘historic’ moments. The athletic achievements of London 2012 aside, for many people the most memorable event was the Opening Ceremony itself. A rustic Britain of milkmaids and meadows became angry forgeries spewing flames, later becalmed by the collective healing of the NHS: a truly great slice of public history.
Here, for all, was a singular representation of historical change over hundreds of years. The historical vision, as Liverpool Hope’s own Frank Cottrell Boyce explained, came from one source in particular. “I bought Danny [Boyle] a copy of Humphrey Jennings's astonishing book Pandaemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it.”
Cottrell Boyce has done much to secure the posthumous popularity of Jennings (1907-1950), whose montage history of the industrial revolution was published in 1985. Pandaemonium was a labour of love; an eclectic account of social and economic change painstakingly compiled over more than a decade. In it, the voice of momentous change belongs to those who forged it: politicians and poets, capitalists and cranks, scientists and social commentators.
In writing it, Jennings performed the methodical labour of the historian. Mimicking his work on Mass Observation during the war, Jennings the historian was Jennings the great collector: searching, compiling, selecting, editing and ordering thousands of sources and then presenting them as a narrative whole.
But read about Jennings and you’ll find him hailed as a filmmaker first and foremost and rarely acknowledged as a brilliant historian. This speaks volumes about our staid appreciation of history as a dusty, didactic and dour affair which centres around remembering the names of Henry VIII’s wives.
Hence, critics appreciated the Opening Ceremony as a literary triumph - ‘from Shakespeare through Blake and Milton to Voldemort, Bond and Mary Poppins’ (Independent) – and an artistic/musical one – ‘a triumph of Punk over Pomp’ (Guardian) – but not as History in its own right. But if we are to celebrate the Olympics as contemporary history then it is high time for us to celebrate Jennings, and indeed Cottrell Boyce and Boyle, as historians.