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An ODNB guide to the people of the London 2012 opening ceremony

By Philip Carter

Where do you stand on Friday’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games? Delighted, inspired, a little bit baffled?

There’s a possibility, we realize, that not all of the show’s 1 billion-strong audience will have caught every reference. So here’s the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography guide to some of those who made it possible.

Top hat & Tor

After Isambard Kingdom Brunel (replete with top hat & cigar), you’ll find Hubert Parry, composer of Jerusalem which evoked the ‘green and pleasant land’ from William Blake’s poem “Milton”. Brunel’s speech (on Glastonbury Tor) was accompanied by Edward Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ suite, dedicated to the music critic August Jaeger.

Golly G.O.S.H.

In the aftermath of ‘Pandemonium’ came the suffragettes, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and with reference to the suffrage ‘martyr’ Emily Wilding Davison. The evening’s celebration of the NHS would no doubt have been appreciated by Nye Bevan — so too J.M. Barrie who gave the rights of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Bond & Beckham

Then things got stranger still. A march past of Pearly Kings and Queens, a starring role for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, a shower of Mary Poppinses, and a chance to pogo with “Pretty Vacant”.

Things were very different in the past as the story of the Edwardian pageant master, Frank Lascelles, reminds us. And though we don’t do power boats at the ODNB, we can give you a foretaste of David Beckham glamour: step forward Cornelius Drebbel, the first man to ‘speed’ down the Thames (in a submarine), in 1620.

Philip Carter is Publication Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Read more about the people and personalities of the London 2012 Opening Ceremony on the Oxford DNB website. The Oxford DNB online is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,000 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 130 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @ODNB on Twitter for people in the news.

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All images © National Portrait Gallery, London. Used with permission.

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