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Olympics Have Temporarily Transformed England


Before the Olympics began, the British were in a funk. The Times of London predicted the games would be a disaster, and many Britons agreed. Now, nearly two weeks later, they've forgotten all that and pretty much everything else that's gone wrong. As we hear from NPR's Philip Reeves, the Olympics have temporarily transformed a nation.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: What on Earth is happening to the British?


REEVES: I mean, just listen.


REEVES: Listen to them chant their athletes' names.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Gemma, Gemma, Gemma.

REEVES: These days, the British actually sing when their national anthem is played.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen.

MATTHEW PARRIS: The change in mood is really quite astonishing, and everybody is noticing it, and everybody is commenting on it.

REEVES: Writer and political commentator Matthew Parris says he can't remember anything like this. Britain's red, white and blue Union Flag fell out of fashion a few years back. The royal family carried on doggedly flourishing it, but many of the inhabitants of these islands preferred the colors of the nations within the United Kingdom - England, but also the increasingly autonomous Scotland and Wales. For a while, the only people brandishing the Union Jack seemed to be skinheads and soccer thugs from Britain's racist far right. Now, says Parris, the flag is flying all over the country again.

PARRIS: I have just half an hour ago...


PARRIS: ...been sticking some Union Jacks onto my balcony so that the boats going past in the Thames can see them, and I notice everyone else is doing the same. I'm actually astonished at myself for doing this because it really isn't me.

REEVES: A couple of weeks ago, it was all very different. The Brits were griping so much about the games that the international media accused them of turning grumbling into an Olympic sport. The change of mood is no surprise to Steve Punt, one of Britain's top comedy writers and performers.

STEVE PUNT: Ah, but that is the absolutely classic British response to everything, a massive wave of cynicism and pessimism, and everyone convinced that it's going to be a disaster from start to finish. And then when it starts, everybody really enjoys it. And so I think people would like to cover themselves in advance.


DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) We can be heroes.

REEVES: The opening ceremony at the Olympics with its affectionate portrait of the Brits and that extraordinary cameo by the queen certainly did much to lift Britain's national mood. Here's Punt again with his comedy partner and his fellow star Hugh Dennis.

PUNT: When everybody saw the opening ceremony, there was a massive sigh of relief. People were going, you know, this is actually quite good, and it's all right. We haven't embarrassed ourselves.

HUGH DENNIS: I know, but that's it, isn't it? I think we've been training incredibly hard for four years because we were very worried about being embarrassed.


DENNIS: That's how it works.

PUNT: Yeah. On the world stage.

DENNIS: We've taken one of our basic British emotions and turned it to good use.

PUNT: Turned it to gold.

REEVES: To more gold, in fact, than British athletes have won in more than a century. Punt and Dennis are trying to squeeze comedy out of all of this.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: "The Now Show."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: 2012 live.

REEVES: They're the stars of the weekly "Now Show" on the BBC's domestic Radio 4 network. They specialize in satire, but in this atmosphere, that's not easy, a point made on "The Now Show" by musician and stand-up star Mitch Benn.


MITCH BENN: (Singing) Where is my gray unpleasant land of yesterday? People who once said harrumph now proudly shout hurray. And those without a racist thought or racist word to say are waving Union Jacks in a completely non-ironic way. We need to...

REEVES: It's new act night at the Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch, East London. India MacLeod is getting some good laughs.

INDIA MACLEOD: We got Olympic fans in the room?


REEVES: Then she tries a gag knocking the Olympics.

MACLEOD: Oh, real Olympic fans, I think you should be.

REEVES: It bombs. Back stage, MacLeod says she thinks the Olympics are having a strange effect on the Brits, making them...

MACLEOD: Just impossibly cheerful.

REEVES: Patriotic fervor in Britain was this year kindled into life by the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations and turned into a roaring blaze by the Olympics. While that's going on, it's hard to get people to have a laugh at the games, says MacLeod.

MACLEOD: They're not having it. They're not having a word said against it.

REEVES: Don't panic. The Brits may have a trophy cupboard full of Olympic medals celebrating their endurance. Yet, Hugh Dennis of "The Now Show" doubts this nation of grumblers can't keep up the smiley face for long.

DENNIS: I don't think it will last.


DENNIS: I think we'll sort of slip back into a sort of embarrassment and being happy coming second.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.