The Queen declared the London Olympics open after playing a cameo role in a dizzying ceremony designed to highlight the grandeur and eccentricities of the nation that invented modern sport.
Children's voices intertwining from the four corners of her United Kingdom ushered in an exuberant historical pageant of meadows, steel mills and megapixels before an audience of 60,000 in the Olympic Stadium and a probable billion television viewers around the globe.
Many of them gasped at the sight of the 86-year-old queen, marking her Diamond Jubilee this year, putting aside royal reserve in a video where she stepped onto a helicopter with James Bond actor Daniel Craig to be carried aloft from Buckingham Palace.
A film clip showed doubles of her and Bond skydiving towards the stadium and, moments later, she made her entrance in person.
The highlight of the Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle's $42 million show was pure movie magic, using trickery to make it seem that Britain's beloved 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth II had parachuted into the stadium with the nation's most famous spy.
A short film showed 007 driving up to Buckingham Palace in a black London cab and, pursued by her majesty's royal dogs - Monty, Willow and Holly, playing themselves - meeting the queen, who played herself.
"Good evening, Mr. Bond," she said.
They were shown flying in a helicopter over London landmarks and a waving statue of Winston Churchill - the queen in a salmon-colored gown, Bond dashing as ever in a black tuxedo - to the stadium and then leaping out into the inky night.
Click here to see the Opening Ceremony in Pictures
At the same moment, real skydivers appeared in the skies over the stadium throbbing to the James Bond soundtrack. And moments after that, the monarch appeared in person, accompanied by her husband Prince Philip.
Organisers said it was thought to be the first time the monarch has acted on film.
"The queen made herself more accessible than ever before," Boyle said.
In the stadium, Elizabeth stood solemnly while a children's choir serenaded her with "God Save the Queen," and members of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force raised the Union Jack.
Boyle sprang a giant surprise and picked seven teenage athletes for the supreme honour of igniting the Olympic cauldron. Together, they touched flaming torches to trumpet-like tubes that spread into a ring of fire.
The flames rose skyward and joined elegantly together to form the cauldron. Fireworks erupted over the stadium to music from Pink Floyd. With a singalong of 'Hey Jude', Beatle Paul McCartney closed a show that ran 45 minutes beyond its scheduled three hours.
Much of the opening ceremony was an encyclopaedic review of British music history, from a 1918 Broadway standard adopted by the West Ham soccer team to the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" to "Bohemian Rhapsody," by still another Queen.
The evening started with fighter jets streaming red, white and blue smoke and roaring over the stadium, packed with a buzzing crowd of 60,000 people, at 8:12 p.m. - or 20:12 in the 24-hour time observed by Britons.
Boyle, one of Britain's most successful filmmakers and director of 'Slumdog Millionaire' and 'Trainspotting', had a ball with his favoured medium, mixing filmed passages with live action in the stadium to hypnotic effect, with 15,000 volunteers taking part in the show.
Actor Rowan Atkinson as 'Mr. Bean' provided laughs, shown dreaming that he was appearing in 'Chariots of Fire', the inspiring story of a Scotsman and an Englishman at the 1924 Paris Games.
There was a high-speed flyover of the Thames, the river that winds like a vein through London and was the gateway for the city's rise over the centuries as a great global hub of trade and industry.
Headlong rushes of movie images took spectators on wondrous, heart-racing voyages through everything British: a cricket match, the London Tube and the roaring, abundant seas that buffet and protect this island nation.
Boyle turned the stadium into a throbbing juke box, with a nonstop rock and pop homage to cool Britannia that ensured the show never caught its breath.
The throbbing soundtrack included the Sex Pistols' 'Pretty Vacant' and a snippet of its version of 'God Save the Queen' - an anti-establishment punk anthem once banned by the BBC. There were The Who's 'My Generation' and other tracks too numerous to mention, but not to dance to.
Opening the ceremony, children popped balloons with each number from 10 to 1, leading a countdown that climaxed with Bradley Wiggins, the newly crowned Tour de France champion.
Wearing his race-winner's yellow jersey, Wiggins rang a 23-ton Olympic Bell from the same London foundry that made Big Ben and Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. Its thunderous chime was a nod to the British tradition of pealing bells to celebrate the end of war and the crowning of kings and queens, and now for the opening of a 17-day festival of sports.
The show then shifted to a portrayal of idyllic rural Britain - a place of meadows, farms, sport on village greens, picnics and Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne's bear who has delighted generations of British children tucked warmly in bed.
But the British ideal - to quote poet William Blake, of "England's green and pleasant land" - then took a darker, grittier turn.
The set was literally torn asunder, the hedgerows and farm fences carried away, as Boyle shifted to the industrial transformation that revolutionized Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, the foundation for an empire that reshaped world history. Belching chimneys rose where only moments earlier sheep had trod.
The Industrial Revolution also produced terrifying weapons, and Boyle built a moment of hush into his show to honor those killed in war.
"This is not specific to a country. This is across all countries, and the fallen from all countries are celebrated and remembered," he explained to reporters ahead of the ceremony.
"Because, obviously, one of the penalties of this incredible force of change that happened in a hundred years was the industrialisation of war, and the fallen," he said. "You know, millions fell.
The parade of nations featured most of the roughly 10,500 athletes - some planned to stay away to save their strength for competition - marching behind the flags of the 204 nations taking part.
Greece had the lead, as the spiritual home of the games, and Team Great Britain was last, as host. Prince William and his wife, Kate, joined in the thunderous applause that greeted the British team, which marched to the David Bowie track 'Heroes'. A helicopter showered the athletes and stadium with 7 billion tiny pieces of paper - one for each person on Earth.
Both Bahrain and Brunei featured female flagbearers in what has been called the Olympics' Year of the Woman. For the first time at the games, each national delegation includes women, and a record 45 percent of the athletes are women. Three Saudi women marching behind the men in their delegation flashed victory signs with their fingers.
"This is a major boost for gender equality," said the International Olympic Committee president, Jacques Rogge. These are his last games as head of the IOC. He steps down in 2013 after completing the maximum two terms.
Rogge honoured the "great, sports-loving country" of Britain as "the birthplace of modern sport," and he appealed to the thousands of athletes assembled before him for fair play.
"Character counts far more than medals. Reject doping. Respect your opponents. Remember that you are all role models. If you do that, you will inspire a generation," Rogge said.
The queen declared the games open. Last month, the nation put on a festive Diamond Jubilee - a small test run for the games - to mark her 60 years on the throne, a reign that began shortly after London's last Olympics, in 1948.
Former world heavyweight champion and 1960 Rome Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali was cheered when he appeared briefly with his wife, Lonnie, before the Olympic flag was unfurled.
David Beckham, the English football icon who helped to convince the IOC to grant London the Games, sped down the Thames in a speedboat bearing the Olympic flame on the penultimate leg of a torch relay that inspired many ordinary people around Britain.
And in one moment of simple drama, the stadium fell silent as five giant, incandescent Olympic rings, symbolically forged from British steel mills, were lifted slowly out of the stadium by weather balloons, destined for the stratosphere.
Some 8,000 torchbearers, mostly unheralded Britons, had carried the flame on a 70-day, 8,000-mile journey from toe to tip of the British Isles, whipping up enthusiasm for a $14 billion Olympics taking place during a severe recession.
The final torchbearers were kept secret - remarkable given the scrunity on these, the first Summer Games of the Twitter era.
Solving the last remaining riddle of the opening ceremony, seven teenagers were given the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron in the symbolic start to the 2012 London Games.
The young athletes, each nominated by a renowned British Olympian, lit a single tiny flame each within a copper petal on the ground, which triggered the ignition of more than 200 petals. The petals then rose towards each other to form one flame, described as a flame of unity.
The lighting of the cauldron holds huge symbolism within the opening ceremony as the flame burns above the stadium for the duration of the Games.
The arrival of the flickering torch into the darkened stadium carried by five-times Olympic champion Steve Redgrave was greeted by a huge roar, bringing to an end a 70-day, 8,000-mile journey around some of the most famous landmarks in Britain where it was cheered on by millions of people.
The seven chosen youngsters were Callum Airlie, Jordan Duckitt, Desiree Henry, Katie Kirk, Cameron MacRitchie, Aidan Reynolds and Adelle Tracey, aged between 16 and 19.
The choice of teenagers for the final stage marks a change from recent Games where some of the world's most famous athletes have carried out the lighting.
Chinese gymnast Li Ning lit the cauldron in Beijing in 2008. Raised into the air by wires, he ran around the rim of the stadium roof before lighting a wick which carried the flame to the cauldron.
Windsurfer Nikolaos Kaklamanakis lit the cauldron in Athens in 2004, 400-metre runner Cathy Freeman walked through a circular pool of water to light it in Sydney in 2000 and boxer Muhammad Ali did the honours in Atlanta in 1996.
The show's lighter moments included puppets drawn from British children's literature - Captain Hook from "Peter Pan," Cruella de Vil from "101 Dalmations" and Lord Voldemort from J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, as well as Mary Poppins.
Their appearance had a serious message, too - the importance of literacy.
"If you can read and write, you're free, or you can fight for your freedom," Boyle said.
Boyle's challenge was daunting: To be as memorable as Beijing's incredible, money-no-object opening ceremony of 2008, the costliest in Olympic history.
"Beijing is something that, in a way, was great to follow," Boyle said. "You can't get bigger than Beijing, you know? So that, in a way, kind of liberated us. We thought, 'Great, OK, good, we'll try and do something different."'
For the last time as president of the IOC, Rogge was to watch the Olympic flag being raised. He will step down in 2013 after completing the maximum two terms.
Other political leaders from around the world, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and her daughters, and a sprinkling of European and celebrity royalty were also attending.