(LONDON) — London’s Olympic Stadium became a vast meadow in an opening ceremony that evoked the history of the United Kingdom to kick off the 2012 Olympics.
In the ceremony, choreographed by director Danny Boyle, London took the drama in the opposite direction from that taken by Beijing’s Olympic organizers in 2008. In the shadow of Beijing’s $40 million ceremony, the most expensive in history, Boyle decided not to try to use his $15 million budget to outdo the Chinese in a time of British fiscal restraint.
More than 80,000 people filled the stands at Olympic Stadium and watched the ceremony begin with 1,000 drummers marching through a field reminiscent of pastoral scenes of farm children and cottages. The famed British actor Kenneth Branagh read excerpts of Shakespeare in the center of the meadow below a towering artificial tree.
As the music picked up, the Industrial Revolution replaced the tree with half a dozen smokestacks that dramatically rose out of the grass, towering over toiling laborers and gilded men in suits and top hats smoking cigars.
After historic scenes such as the celebration of female suffrage, the scene paused as a subtle melody floated in the air. The drums then picked up, and soon men wearing costumes inspired by the album cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” joined in to represent the counterculture of the 1960s.
Men in uniform were there too, commemorating the United Kingdom’s many military efforts in the 20th century.
Characters from British history pounded drums, chanting to haunting rhythms. Five circular waterfalls elevated high above the ground lit up to form the Olympic symbol. As the water stopped, the circles turned bright reddish orange.
The theatrics did not end there. As a prelude to Queen Elizabeth’s introduction, actor Daniel Craig dropped from a helicopter with a parachute emblazoned with the British flag in the character of James Bond.
Members of the British armed services saluted the queen, who dressed in pink for the occasion, and the national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” began. Hundreds of employees of the National Health Service rolled hospital beds with patients in them into the arena.
British literature and film were featured as J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, read aloud from Peter Pan and dozens of women dressed as Mary Poppins descended from the sky with umbrellas.
Actor Rowan Atkinson was in character as Mr. Bean as he played the synthesizer accompanying the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis.
The music of Eric Clapton, the Who, the Clash, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles blared on the speakers as dancers clad in ’60s- and ’70s-themed outfits formed a human peace sign in the middle of the arena. The scene turned raucous as Freddie Mercury’s voice was heard over the distorted guitars of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and mosh pits formed to accompany the music of the Sex Pistols.
The attire of the performers quickly turned neon as the soundtrack fast-forwarded into the 1980s, with songs including “Sweet Dreams,” by the British duo Eurhythmics.
The performance quieted as Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, appeared in the arena. There was thunderous applause as Berners-Lee did nothing but stand still and wave to the crowd. The words “This is for everyone” appeared in lights across the stadium.
The cheers were interrupted with a somber moment that came as video screens showed photos of “friends and family who could not be here tonight” sent by audience members. With the atmosphere calmed, singer Emili Sande took the spotlight with the hymn “Abide With Me.”
Some of the loudest applause of the night was for soccer star David Beckham, seen delivering the Olympic torch by motorboat from Tower Bridge. Beckham’s decision to cross the Atlantic to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, a Major League Soccer team, had apparently been forgiven.
The ceremony culminated in the traditional procession of athletes from all participating countries.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Sheena McKenzie, CNN
Rafael Romo and Patrick Gillespie, CNN