LONDON, United Kingdom (UPDATED) - A stirring ceremony packed with surprises, music and comedy opened the London Olympics Friday (Saturday, July 28, Manila time) as Britain welcomed the world with a blaze of color and creativity.
James Bond, David Beckham and even Mr. Bean starred in a wide-ranging and unpredictable show that saved its biggest secret for last, when 7 unknown young athletes lit the Olympic fire -- instead of the usual superstar.
Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" creation, which also featured Muhammad Ali and 7,500 volunteers, was a sharp departure from its predecessor, Beijing 2008's tightly choreographed spectacular.
In front of about 80,000 VIPs and spectators, Queen Elizabeth II was depicted parachuting out of a helicopter with Bond actor Daniel Craig, Mr. Bean played "Chariots of Fire" and children bounced on National Health Service beds.
The Queen of Hearts battled Lord Voldemort, "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling read "Peter Pan" and football superstar Beckham motorboated up the Thames with the Olympic torch.
Thousands of smiling and dancing athletes trooped in behind their national flags before rower Steven Redgrave, a gold medallist at 5 consecutive Games, entered with the flame and passed it to the young bearers.
They lit a fire on the stadium floor which spread and rose to form a raised pyre of more than 200 torches combining as a single giant flame.
Beatles legend Paul McCartney then played out the nearly five-hour performance with a sing-along rendition of "Hey Jude".
Details of Boyle's creation had remained a closely guarded secret until Friday's 9:00 pm (2000 GMT) start, heralded by Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins ringing a giant bell as farm animals frolicked on grass below.
Large fluffy clouds circled the stadium's covered track and birdsong was played over the loudspeakers before children counted down by popping giant balloons.
A formation of Red Arrows jets flew past, trailing red, white and blue smoke at 8:12 pm, or 2012, and there was a party atmosphere in the stadium as a comic actor and folk singer warmed up the crowd in light rain.
But the rural idyll gave way to industrial revolution smoke stacks as actor Kenneth Branagh, dressed as 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, read the "Isles of Wonder" speech from William Shakespeare's "The Tempest".
Fireworks cascaded from giant Olympic rings before the comedy sketch featuring Bond and the Queen, who was shown jumping out of a helicopter before she appeared in the stadium.
A deaf children's choir evocatively sang the British national anthem in their pyjamas and 600 real-life health workers took part in dance routines celebrating the free British health service.
Comedian Rowan Atkinson raised laughs with his Mr. Bean routine and a potted love story was set to the best of British pop before the suited Beckham, riding towards the stadium from Tower Bridge, beamed from the big screens.
Flag-bearers Usain Bolt and Novak Djokovic were among the stars of the colourful athletes' march before last-up Britain entered to David Bowie's "Heroes", raising an enormous cheer and shower of tickertape.
Arctic Monkeys performed under booming fireworks and in front of a troupe of winged cyclists before Games chief Sebastian Coe addressed the hushed crowd.
"London 2012 will inspire a generation ... This is our time. And one day we will tell our children and our grandchildren that when our time came, we did it right," said Coe.
The Queen formally opened the Games before Redgrave, receiving the Olympic flame from Beckham, entered the stadium, ending a torch relay of 12,800 miles (20,600 kilometers).
Tickets were in high demand with two spectators telling AFP they paid 1,600 pounds (US$2,500) for their seats.
Boyle's "liquorice allsorts" opening ceremony, costing £27 million (US$42 million) kicks off a two-week festival of sport, 7 years and billions of pounds in the making, on a former industrial wasteland in east London.
Excitement in Britain, which has built up to the Olympics with a nationwide torch relay, had been at fever-pitch ahead of the ceremony with Union Flags visible in gardens, windows and streaming from cars.
Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie and members of British royalty were among the dignitaries, along with about 80 heads of state. - Agence France-Presse