LONDON (Reuters) - James Bond actor Daniel Craig and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth stole the show at a spectacular 2012 Olympic opening on Friday, appearing together in a comic film beamed to 60,000 people in the main stadium and a billion viewers around the world.
After a an eccentric and exuberant trip through British history and culture, athletes took centre stage in London as the Greek team kept Olympic tradition and led out thousands of competitors dressed in national costumes.
They marched around the stadium in double quick time, urged on by the up-tempo beats of the Bee Gees band and others, and the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt strod confidently with the Jamaican flag while playing up to cameras and cheering fans.
Libya and Egypt represented a new chapter in their history after the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, while the first female Olympic athletes from Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar made history by making an appearance.
Earlier, footage featuring the 86-year-old monarch complemented a show that “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle turned into an unabashed celebration of the host nation stamped with an unmistakeably cinematic style.
While it struck the wrong note with some media commentators covering the ceremony around the world, the packed live audience was swept along in the drama.
In the tongue-in-cheek film Craig wears his trademark tuxedo and enters Buckingham Palace. The queen, with two corgis at her feet and in her cinematic debut, turns from a writing desk and says simply: “Good evening, Mr. Bond.”
The moment drew a huge cheer from the crowd, not used to seeing Her Majesty play such an informal part in proceedings, and coincides with a resurgence in the royal family’s popularity following the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Doubles of Bond and the queen then parachuted from a helicopter above the stadium, built on the Olympic Park in a once derelict area of London’s East End, and the national anthem sang by schoolchildren and Union flag raising followed.
The surreal footage and stunt had been kept a closely guarded secret in the buildup to the ceremony, which ends with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.
Over the following 17 days, the drama of sporting contest takes hold the length and breadth of Britain as more than 16,000 athletes from 204 countries will strive to achieve their ultimate dream - Olympic gold.
The ceremony, inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and backed by rousing music from across the centuries, began with a playful recreation of an English rural idyll with grassy meadows, fences, hedges, a water mill, maypoles and a cottage.
A cast including shepherdesses, sheep, geese, dogs and a village cricket team filled the stage during the one-hour prologue to the show that included a dramatic, low-level fly-past by the jets of the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows stunt team.
After “England’s green and pleasant land” came the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake’s famous poem.
Titled “Pandemonium”, the next phase saw the grass uprooted and fences torn down to be replaced by a blackened landscape of looms and foundries that conjured the Industrial Revolution.
To the deafening beat of hundreds of drummers, giant chimneys rose from the ground and began to belch smoke as a small army of volunteers, dressed as 19th century factory workers, forged one of the five Olympic rings.
The giant orb was raised to the sky to join the four others, letting off a fountain of sparks and drawing gasps from many in the audience.
All around, especially designed “pixel” light boxes installed next to every seat accompanied each scene and created giant images of waves, flags and words.
In the second of three “acts”, Boyle paid homage to the National Health Service, an emotive subject in Britain where people hold the right to free health care close to their hearts.
Hundreds of dancing and roller-skating nurses and doctors pushed beds on to the now empty stage, and when the beds were illuminated, they spelled “GOSH” for the cherished Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in London.
“The atmosphere was electric coming out into the stadium - like we could take over the world with our beds!” said Rachel Dobbin, a speech and language therapist from London who performed as a nurse in the ceremony.
“I want to do it again, even in spite of all the rainy rehearsals!”
Giant representations of famous villains from English literature, including J.M. Barrie’s Captain Hook, J.K. Rowling’s Voldemort and Ian Fleming’s Childcatcher, rose from their beds.
They were quickly vanquished by dozens of Mary Poppins characters descending from cables criss-crossing the stadium roof, carrying brightly illuminated umbrellas.
Comedian Rowan Atkinson, adopting the globally recognised character of mischievous Mr. Bean, brought the house down as he joined the London Symphony Orchestra playing a single note throughout the score to Olympic film “Chariots of Fire”.
The final act, starring hundreds of young nightclubbing dancers, was a breathless journey through popular British culture over the last five decades, featuring music from everyone from the Sex Pistols to Queen and the Jam to the Who.
Sitting at a computer outside a small house on stage was Tim Berners-Lee, the Londoner who invented the world wide web and enabled the explosion of social networking that is playing a major part at the London Games.
Mid-ceremony he tweeted to his almost 83,000 followers “This is for everyone”.
Soccer player and A-list celebrity David Beckham played a brief part, filmed steering a boat that sped along the River Thames with the Olympic torch on board.
At one end of the stadium stands a grassy knoll topped by a tree and at the other end the 23-tonne bell, which Bradley Wiggins, Britain’s winner of this year’s Tour de France, rang to kick off proceedings.
Among the crowd were celebrities, ordinary Londoners, visitors from abroad and dignitaries including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama as well as presidents, prime ministers and European royalty.
Boyle paid tribute to the 10,000 volunteers, cast and crew taking part in the ceremony which had as its theme “Inspire a Generation”.
“We hope the feeling of the show is a celebration of generosity,” he said. “There’s no better expression of that than these volunteers.”
Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney will be among the many performers on the night, but the biggest secret of all - who has the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the end of the show - remains a mystery. (Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Will James, Paul Casciato, Stephen Addison and Matt Falloon, editing by Peter Millership)