London Olympics 2012: Boyle unveils his spellbinding vision

With a cast starring the Queen and 007, an anarchic spectacular answers Beijing's challenge – in style

The Industrial Revolution, The Jarrow Crusade, the Beatles, the NHS. Who cares? Her Majesty is a skydiver.

Rumours of the Queen and James Bond have been doing the rounds for months. But it didn't make it any less heart-warming, even for the staunchest of republicans. A video sequence showed Daniel Craig arriving at Buckingham Palace, wowing the corgis, and charming the 86-year-old Elizabeth into a waiting helicopter. As it took off and headed east towards the Olympic Stadium, 71,000 people looked up at the big screens, up at the sky, back down at the big screens, up at the sky, wondering if the chopper would appear.

Sure enough it did, and when a parachutist – Union Flag, of course – came tumbling from the helicopter in a salmon coloured dress and hat, it stole the show.

"Just how do you compete with Beijing?" is the question everyone, Danny Boyle included, has been asking for four years. The emphatic answer is with bucketloads of imagination.

More than 15,000 volunteer performers piled into 15,000 square metres of stage and unfurled a three-hour passage through Britain's history and culture to an estimated global television audience of 1 billion.

The green and pleasant pastures, shown to the world long ago, didn't hang around for long, as giant industrial smokestack chimneys came shooting forth from the earth, to the delight of scheming bowler-hatted industrialists, looking on approvingly, backed by hundreds of edgy drummers and a spine-tingling track from Underworld, Mr Boyle's go-to musicians since Trainspotting. One of the industrialists was Kenneth Branagh, a late replacement for Mark Rylance. Atop a giant replica of Glastonbury Tor at the stadium's far-end, he read the lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest, which inspired the whole occasion: "Be not afear'd, the isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not."

In the stadium, the sheer scale of it all was hard to take in. But the big screens showed the pictures being broadcast round the world. Mr Boyle said he wanted the ceremony to "feel like a movie being filmed". It did.

Then came the much-vaunted NHS sequence, but with an unexpected Harry Potter mash-up. Real life, real world nurses attended to babies bouncing on trampolines, and frightened away the shadowy Dementors that lurked beneath.

Alongside giant hospital beds and performers who had volunteered from within the ranks of the health service, young patients from the famous Great Ormond Street hospital were ushered on stage before an expected appearance by giant puppets of Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts and Cruella de Vil.

What the world at large will make of a breakneck careen through the best bits of British history, conveniently overlooking the nasty bits, might have been a cause for concern. But then Mr Bean arrived, and courtesy of a bit of computer-generated help, won the Chariots of Fire race along the beach front at St Andrews' and all was fine.

Fine, but not cool. So, projected onto a typically British square house, came a 10-minute rollercoaster through British rock and roll, and everything that came after it. The Stones, the Beatles, Hugh Grant, David Bowie, Gregory's Girl, The Wicker Man, and with Her Majesty looking on, a lengthy chunk of The Sex Pistols. Two jubilees ago they were banned. Things are different now, as testified by the Facebook generation, with their cameraphones, who in their own sequence, snapped and shared, and liked, friended and unfriended away while break-dancing to Prodigy. Then out came Dizzee Rascal for a bit of "Bonkers", handing over to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the internet, tapping away at a keyboard. "It is for everyone," read the giant words written over the crowds, which also appeared on Twitter, as if any further confirmation were needed that this is the first truly social media games.

The ferocious pace of the entertainment was halted to allow for what, in principle, was the purpose of the evening – the parade of athletes. Greece, the founding Olympic nation, led the vast procession which progressed through all competing nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe before cyclist Sir Chris Hoy was ushered into the stadium with a roof-raising roar at the head of Team GB.

"We hope the feeling of the show is a celebration of generosity ," the ceremony's director Danny Boyle said before the show. "We are learning our new place in the world. One hundred years ago, we were everything. But there's a change. So I hope there's an innate modesty about it as well. It is not unspectacular and unambitious, quite the reverse. You have to learn your place in the world. And that's a good thing."

Our place in the sporting world at least, we are about to find out. Telling indeed then, the choice of man who rang the giant bell to begin festivities. Still in his yellow jersey, Bradley Wiggins.

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