In front of a packed Olympic Stadium, British Tour de France winner – and triple Olympic champion – Bradley Wiggins rang the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world to signal the start of the ceremony, which dazzled hundreds of millions of viewers around the world.
And in the spectacular finale, seven young Torchbearers – each nominated by one of Britain’s past Olympic greats – ignited the Olympic Cauldron, which was formed by 204 copper petals, representing the competing nations coming together at the Games.
The ceremony had begun with an idyllic countryside setting – representing Britain’s “green and pleasant land”, complete with farm animals and maypole dancers – but the stadium was soon transformed into a gritty industrial landscape as thousands of performers re-enacted the country’s industrial revolution to a soundtrack of beating drums. As the scene reached its climax, a giant, glowing ring was ‘forged’ before being lifted into the air, where it joined with four others to create the Olympic rings, suspended high above the stadium.
Queen Elizabeth II then made a dramatic entrance – “parachuting” into the stadium with fictional secret agent James Bond after apparently flying to the stadium in a helicopter from Buckingham Palace.
The ceremony then paid tribute to Britain’s National Health Service and its amazing body of children’s literature, as Harry Potter author JK Rowling read the opening to JM Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. To the strains of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, a scene of children in hospital beds was overrun by literary villains including Captain Hook, Cruella De Vil, the Queen of Hearts and Voldemort, before a group of flying nannies – reminiscent of Mary Poppins – arrived from the skies to banish the nightmarish characters.
Britain’s tradition of slapstick humour took centre stage in the next segment as ‘Mr Bean’ – played by actor Rowan Atkinson – joined the London Symphony Orchestra to perform the theme from ‘Chariots of Fire’, while the country’s musical heritage was celebrated in the following sequence, which featured over 1,400 dancers, with songs from the 1960s through to the present day.
Following the parade of nations, which saw athletes from 204 National Olympic Committees march into the stadium, Queen Elizabeth II officially declared the Games open before all attention moved outside the stadium, where five-time Olympic champion Steve Redgrave received the Olympic Torch from David Beckham and young footballer Jade Bailey, who arrived by speedboat after travelling along the Thames.
Redgrave, who won rowing gold in five successive Games, then entered the stadium before passing the Flame to 19-year-old rower Cameron MacRitchie, who was joined by Callum Airlie, 17, Jordan Duckitt, 18, Desirée Henry, 16, Katie Kirk, 18, Aidan Reynolds, 18, and Adelle Tracey, 19, on a lap of the stadium
The group of aspiring sportsmen and women then headed to the centre of the arena, where they each lit one of the 204 copper petals, which are inscribed with the name of one of the competing nations.
As the Cauldron’s long stems rose elegantly from the ground, the petals merged to form one unified flame, which will burn for the duration of the Games.
During his speech, IOC President Jacques Rogge said: "I congratulate all of the athletes who have earned a place at these Games. And to the athletes, I offer this thought: Your talent, your dedication and commitment brought you here. Now you have a chance to become true Olympians. That honour is determined not by whether you win, but by how you compete. Character counts far more than medals.”
Seb Coe, London 2012 Chairman, said afterwards: “The athletes competing at the Olympic Games have arrived in London to give the performances of their lives. We wanted to provide a very British welcome for them and the rest of the world. Danny Boyle has created a show of memories and moments that will last a lifetime for people across the UK and the world.”