|Britain's David Beckham drives a powerboat with the Olympic torch as fireworks are launched over Tower Bridge during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
LONDON - James Bond, David Beckham and even Mr Bean starred Friday as Britain welcomed the world to the Olympics in an eccentric opening ceremony showcasing the country's rich history and sense of fun.
Four years after Beijing's tightly choreographed spectacular wowed the world, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" show eschewed grandeur for a creative and chaotic approach packed with music and comedy.
In front of about 80,000 VIPs and spectators, the Queen was depicted parachuting out of a helicopter with Bond actor Daniel Craig, Mr. Bean played "Chariots of Fire" and children bounced on National Health Service beds.
Soccer superstar Beckham was shown motorboating up the Thames holding the Olympic torch.
Thousands of athletes then began trooping in behind their national flags, led by Greece, before the show culminates with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron -- by someone whose identity remains a secret.
Details of Boyle's creation had remained a closely guarded secret until Friday's 9:00 pm start, heralded by the ringing of a giant bell by Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins as farm animals frolicked below.
Actors portraying the Queen and James Bond arrive via parachute after jumping from a helicopter during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Large fluffy clouds circled the stadium's covered track and birdsong was played over the loudspeakers before children counted down to the bell, sounded at exactly 9:00 pm (2000 GMT), by popping giant balloons.
A formation of Red Arrows jets flew past, trailing red, white and blue smoke at 8:12 pm, or 2012 (1912 GMT) and there was a party atmosphere in the stadium as a comic actor and folk singer warmed up the crowd in light rain.
"It's a real privilege to be able to present this show to you," director Boyle told the crowd as he appeared briefly.
Tickets were in high demand with two spectators telling AFP they paid 1,600 pounds (US$2,500) for their seats.
Boyle's "liquorice allsorts" opening ceremony, costing £27 million (US$42 million) kicks off a two-week festival of sport, seven years and billions of pounds in the making, on a former industrial wasteland in east London.
Excitement in Britain, which has built up to the Olympics with a nationwide torch relay, was at fever-pitch ahead of the ceremony with Union Flags visible in gardens, windows and streaming from cars.
Millions of Britons packed pubs with friends and relatives for the grand opening of the greatest sporting show on earth, while fans gathered at big screens at London's Hyde Park and other outdoor locations.
"I think this is the biggest day of my life. I think this is just extraordinary," Games chief Sebastian Coe said earlier.
Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie and members of British royalty were among the dignitaries, along with about 80 heads of state.
The athletes' will last about 90 minutes with the show scheduled to wrap up, after a performance by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, after midnight local time.