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With Mary Poppins and the Prodigy, a £27m pageant comes to the Boyle at last

A quintessentially British spectacular last night kicked off the London 2012 Olympic Games

"We hope the feeling of the show is a celebration of generosity. I hope there is a modesty about it, too"

From Dark Satanic Mills bursting out of the Stratford soil to the overbounding jollity of myriad Mary Poppins borne above the Olympic Stadium on umbrellas ahead of a rendition of the Sex Pistols, a quirky, quintessentially British spectacular last night lifted the curtain on London 2012.

After four years of planning and the dispersal of £27m, the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics was due to gather 15,000 volunteer performers into 15,000 square metres of stage and unfurl a three-hour progress through Britain's history and culture to an estimated global television audience of one billion.

The day of celebration which began at 08.12 with a nationwide bell ringing culminated with the showcase masterminded by Oscar-winning film director Danny Boyle. In so doing, it presented a cast which ranged from the Suffragettes and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the actor Kenneth Branagh reciting The Tempest and an unveiling of Tim Berners-Lee, the British inventor of the internet.

And, against the odds, it also kept the surprise of who would light the Olympic cauldron to burn for the full 16 days of competition a secret until the culminating fiery moment performed before the Queen, 80 heads of state, 71,000 spectators and a billion or so armchair Olympians.

Speaking before the performance, Mr Boyle, who was approached to oversee the ceremony after a chance meeting with Olympics chief Lord Coe, emphasised that it was the "warm up act" for the 10,000 athletes which would be a breathtaking exposition of Britain's place in a shifting world. Whereas China spent $100m (£64m) on its overture for the Beijing Games, Britain was seeking to pull off the new national style of economically-straitened grace.

Boyle said: "We hope the feeling of the show is a celebration of generosity... 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."

The pageant, which required 12,956 props and featured music from Elgar to The Prodigy carried to the stadium audience through a million-watt sound system, was split into three broad themes, starting with the heavily-trailed prologue of a Green and Pleasant Land.

The bow to William Blake's Jerusalem was played out with bonnet and tweed-clad villagers driving flocks of geese and sheep before the poem's Satanic Mills, harbingers of the Industrial Revolution, rose from beneath the landscaped stage in a row of flaming red-brick chimneys.

In an age of growing audience participation, the lucky 71,000 who got tickets were then enveloped in a sea of blue fabric and "pixels" buried in the floor in front of every seat lit up to draw viewers and performers into a single space.

Then came Pandemonium.

Continuing the literary signposting, John Milton's term for the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost provided the tone for a flowing sequence that glided from a memorial to those from all nations who lost their lives in war to what Boyle said would be a "Liquorice All Sorts" of British history culminating in a celebration of the NHS.

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

Next came a modern love story seen through a prism of texting and social media messaging, climaxing with a house party attended by 1,400 performers and Tim Berners-Lee.

Those who attended dress rehearsals during the week declared the show "momentous". It will now be left to the critics worldwide to see if they agree.