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First Night: Paralympic Opening Ceremony, Olympic Stadium

From Sir Ian McKellen's take on The Tempest to Orbital's Spasticus Autisticus, this was an epic adventure

"Something mysterious cooking here," said Jon Snow, as the final seconds ticked away before the Paralympic Games began. It was a slightly worrying moment for those of us at home.

If he didn't know what it all meant then what chance did we stand? And even with Jeff Adams and Krishnan Guru-Murthy busily pasting verbal labels on to the scene, what followed remained quite an enigma.

Before the ceremony began, various disabled journalists had offered instructions as to how we should watch the Paralympics. Please don't use the word "brave" too much, said one. Don't be frightened to laugh, argued another. But the truth was that nobody but the disabled would have the nerve – or the entitlement – to obey either injunction just yet.

For the moment we had to watch with a different kind of respect, and one that couldn't confidently be distinguished from special treatment.

In the lead-up to the ceremony Jon Snow seemed to be taking part in a competition to see how often he could say the word "inspirational".

So it was a relief when the ceremony began – with the familiar voice of Stephen Hawking and an image of one of the most famous wheelchairs in the world – to find that it was genuinely intent on a universal theme.

"Be curious," enjoined Hawking, rolling up the human instinct to go one step further into the dark with the challenge many of these athletes had faced to find out just how far they could push themselves.

Then a blaze of light descended to the giant umbrella and ignited a representation of the Big Bang followed by a model of an expanding universe. The giant word "Flawless" rippled across the terraces at one point, spelling out the name of the dance troupe performing to Rihanna's hit "Umbrella", accompanied by 4.5m high sway poles and aerial choreography.

Flawless was not, however, an adjective you could attach to the ceremony itself, which looked a little ragged and thin at times, as if it couldn't quite fill that vast space.

And as if to underline the point that imperfections were to be celebrated rather than feared, Sir Ian McKellen appeared as Prospero, borrowing characters from The Tempest but replacing Shakespeare's poetry with something more bureaucratically serviceable for the occasion: "shine your light on the beautiful diversity of humanity" he ordered, before enjoining Miranda to go off on some adventure of her own.

Miranda, hanging above the stadium in a wheelchair, looked distinctly bemused by his instructions, as if she wasn't entirely sure in what direction to head off first. Stephen Hawking returned to issue some more orders: "Look up at the stars", he said, "and not down at your feet."

And as he did so the stars got some terrestrial competition in the shape of a giant apple and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, revolving gently around the stadium accompanied by a giant Higgs Boson – a kind of human glitterball made out of dancers with silver umbrellas.

The clarity of the message began to blur a little, so that it was almost a relief when the national anthem started up, beautifully sung by a Blake's 7 tribute choir. Later we had a very different anthem, also beautiful in its own way – Orbital's take on Ian Dury's Spasticus Autisticus, in a celebration of disability rights activism.

A large chunk of the evening was taken up with the athletes' file-past, something that is often interminable but was undeniably moving here.

Nothing had yet been won by these competitors. But it felt like a victory even so.