Stephen Hawking sparks a celebration of victories against all odds during the Paralympics opening ceremony

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A ceremony like no other lives up to the promise that this will be the greatest Paralympic Games ever

London's Paralympic Games kicked off last night with a triumphant celebration of humankind's ability to overcome seemingly impossible odds, in a ceremony aiming to alter the world's perception of disability.

The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking – a man who has never let his immobility hold him back – took centre stage to lead spectators on a "voyage through time" highlighting major scientific discoveries as well as the long and often arduous fight for equality by disabled activists and athletes.

His arrival was a remarkable entrance for a man more used to the hallways of academia. But there was little doubt he was the star of the show. Using a pre-recorded voice he told the world: "Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see. Be curious."

And in a stunning finale to the three-hour spectacle, the Paralympic flame was finally lit when Joe Townsend, a Royal Marine Commando who lost both his legs after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan, hurtled into the stadium on a zip wire from the 376-foot-tall Orbit tower overlooking the Paralympic venue. He handed the torch to the veteran Paralympian footballer David Clarke, who in turn gave the final honour of lighting the cauldron to Margaret Maughan, winner of Britain's first ever Paralympics gold medal at Rome in 1960.

Dubbed "Enlightenment", last night's spectacle was more structured and the music more classical than in Danny Boyle's Olympics opening. But it was still infused with simmering political radicalism and social commentary – a fitting tribute given that this was the moment the Paralympics returned home to the country where its foundations were first conceived 64 years ago.

The evening kicked off with a grand scale opening as hundreds of neon-lit volunteers danced around a giant umbrella – a motif that appeared throughout the ceremony as something both quintessentially British and protective. A giant ball of light descended on top of the giant dome causing a massive explosion symbolising the Big Bang and the start of the Universe. Against a thumping, fast paced version of Rihanna's Umbrella, acrobats on high wires floated around the stadium while others pulled a dizzying array of tricks from a series of 9ft-high swaying poles.

Like Boyle's opening ceremony, much of the performance revolved around an interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with the central character Miranda – played by 34-year-old disabled Gloucester born actress Nicola Miles-Wilden – taken on a voyage of discovery by Professor Hawking.

The pair travelled back in time to the Enlightenment and walked through a recreation of the garden where Isaac Newton came up with the concept of gravity. In one of the more surreal moments of the night, the 60,000-strong audience, who had all been given an apple on entering the stadium, were encouraged to take part in a mass "apple bite" to mark the moment Newton worked out why we come down again after we leap into the air.

A cameo from Sir Ian McKellen playing a Prospero-like character, helped Miranda, backed by a Soprano solo from Elin Manahan Thomas, navigate her way back to the modern world on a giant up-turned umbrella boat reminiscent of the vessel used by Winnie the Pooh in AA Milne's children's novels. By the time Miranda returned to the 21st-century, another great scientific discovery was there to greet her – a recreation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Hundreds of red tents mimicked the sub-atomic particles that are smashed together at that enormous laboratory in the Alps where particle physicists are trying to uncover the origins of our Universe.

The scene then segued into a riotous rendition of Ian Drury's disability anthem Spasticus Autisticus for a tribute to Britain's disability rights movement. Angry protesters took to the stage, chanting slogans for an equal share in the world. As the scene climaxed, an enormous recreation of Marc Quinn's celebrated sculpture of a naked disabled mother unfolded at the centre of the stadium before eyes turned skywards as Joe Townsend, the former Royal Marine, made his dramatic entrance flying the Paralympic flame into the stadium on a zip wire.

The 4,000 athletes from 164 nations were deliberately given a central role in the performance. They made their way around the stadium, some hobbling on prosthetics, others used walking canes and wheelchairs. One Belgian sprinter arrived with her guide dog Zenn riding on her lap.

Sir Philip Craven, a former wheelchair basketball player and the president of the International Paralympic Committee, hailed the games as "a celebration of the development of the human spirit, a celebration of the Paralympic Movement coming home, and of dreams becoming reality".

He told the thousands of amassed Paralympians: "You are all catalysts for change and role models for an inclusive society."

Once the flame was lit, the grand finale was left to Beverly Knight, Lizzie Emeh and Caroline Parker to perform I Am What I Am, a celebration of individuality from the riotously camp musical La Cage Aux Folles, with the audience encouraged to sing the words using sign language.

 

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