The 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony already occupies a powerful place in the mythology of recent British history – in Jonathan Coe’s 2018 novel Middle England it represents a mid-point, a rare moment of celebration in the middle of a narrative that starts with Gordon Brown’s ‘bigotgate’ and ends with the 2016 referendum. One moment that elicited especial surprise and delight was the filmed sequence featuring James Bond and the Queen (‘the actual QUEEN!’ as one tweet put it) leading to the monarch’s entrance apparently jumping from a helicopter.
The sequence can be viewed in many ways – as an extended trailer for the appropriately named Skyfall, or as a modern version of a Jacobean/Caroline Court Masque, a symbolic, spectacular, one-off entertainment with the monarch in a starring role. The ceremony itself invited this reading, opening with a quotation from The Tempest, Shakespeare’s most masque-influenced play. (The Tempest also acts as a symbol of the BBC, the broadcaster through which most of us were watching the ceremony – an Eric Gill statue of Prospero and Ariel stands outside Broadcasting House, while the latter character provides the name of the Corporation’s staff magazine.)
Although the sequence’s power came from the juxtaposition of two apparently dissimilar cultural icons, the two have a lot in common – James Bond and Elizabeth II both emerged in the post-war world, both veterans of that war, looking forward to a more prosperous time ahead. Both manage to be symbols simultaneously of privilege and populism – the Queen’s April speech on Covid 19 captured the national mood far better than any elected politician has yet managed, while Bond (a career civil servant, lest we forget) has gained some of his cinematic effectiveness from the disjunction between the character’s class background and those of the actors who have played him. In this respect, the dark, self-aware quality of the Daniel Craig era worked to the sequence’s advantage – Connery or Moore would have undercut with a wink to the audience.
In the end, both are fictional characters; Elizabeth Windsor and Daniel Craig play roles that long predate their own involvement with them, and that have both embodied a large number of different, often contradictory, qualities. (The television series The Crown embodies this, recasting the principle characters every two series, like a constitutional Dr. Who.) On reflection, it seems less surprising that the two should meet, more that it should have taken them so long.