LONDON — They rolled out dancing nurses and smokestacks, poked fun at their weather and gave us Mr. Bean. Amid green and pleasant pastures, they read from the storybook that is Britain, not just Shakespeare but Peter Pan and Harry Potter. And if the Opening Ceremonies of the London Games sometimes seemed like the world’s biggest inside joke, the message from Britain resonated loud and clear: We may not always be your cup of tea, but you know — and so often love — our culture nonetheless.
The themes showcased Britain, past, present and future, capturing the mind-set of a nation seeking to redefine itself through these Games after nearly a century of managed decline. A great empire, gone. Military might, ebbing. Sense of humor, very much intact. The message here seemed to honor the quite serious Olympics — which London is hosting for a record third time — while simultaneously reminding the world that the next two weeks should also be about having a bit of fun.
For an audience across the Atlantic, it seemed like the rock-and-roll Olympics, an event celebrating the shared culture of the English-speaking world — so much of it thanks to these relatively tiny isles. It was glam Britain (David Bowie). It was scary Britain (Voldemort). It was funny Britain (Monty Python). It was punk Britain (yes, they had mosh pits).
At age 86, Queen Elizabeth II made her acting debut, immortalizing the words “Good evening, Mr. Bond,” in a recorded spot that simulated the monarch jumping out of a helicopter with the latest 007, Daniel Craig. Where Beijing 2008 hailed a millennial culture in an Olympic Games that were heavily monitored by censors and covered by state-controlled media, London embraced irreverence and celebrated democracy while nodding to universal health care and the World Wide Web.
“We’re learning our new place in the world; 100 years ago we were everything . . . but there’s a change,” said Danny Boyle, the Academy Award-winning British director of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trainspotting” who staged Friday night’s show. He said he was shielded from any political interference in its content and interpreted his own work by adding: “I hope there is an innate modesty about it as well. It’s not unspectacular or unambitious, quite the reverse. But there is a sense of modesty about it. You have to learn your place in the world, you know.”
At times quixotic, the Opening Ceremonies were immediately accused by some of being simply too British, laced as they were with obscure references to the National Health Service and English club music.
“I love this already — mainly because it's so British it will be confusing the hell out of the rest of the world,” CNN’s British talk-show host Piers Morgan tweeted Friday night.
The whimsical nature of the theatrical segments permeated the parade of athletes, perhaps setting a new lighthearted tone to these Games. To the rhythmic beats of the Pet Shop Boys and Adele, 10,490 athletes from 205 countries marched into the stadium before a crowd including more than 100 heads of state and 79,900 others who paid retail prices as much as $3,200 a pop. The stadium crowd erupted in guffaws as the bare-chested, grass-skirted flag-bearer from Fiji entered the stadium to the tune of the Bee Gees’ hit “Stayin’ Alive.” The U.S. team, led by flag-bearer and fencer Mariel Zagunis, paraded in with a contingent that counted more women than men, something that has never happened before. Saudi Arabia, for the first time sending women to the Olympic Games, dispatched three female athletes wearing head scarves, known as hijabs, as they walked behind the team’s men.
“This is a major boost for gender equality,” said Jacques Rogge, International Olympic Committee president.
The surprisingly funky sounds emanating from the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies gave the event a nightclub-like feel. That appeared to be just what Britain intended. Referencing the alternative-rock band Blur, Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters: “Somebody asked me yesterday what face of Britain I wanted to put forward, Blur or the Beefeaters, and frankly it’s both. We have got a great past, a very exciting future and this is a great moment for our country, so we must seize it.”
Polls have shown relatively muted Olympic spirit in Britain, but as of Friday, the excitement of the moment appeared to be breaking through the thick armor of British reserve. Britons awoke to tabloid headlines — one window into the national soul — cheerleading the nation on. The Daily Mirror gushed: “Forget the 9.2 billion pounds, the security staff shambles, the traffic jams, the ticket fiascos, the crowded trains, the sponsorship rows, the rain, the heat, the dodgy banners, the wrong flag and even leaving out Becks [soccer star David Beckham] . . . the greatest show on Earth starts in Britain today and it’s going to be truly AMAZING.”
Before entering the stadium in the hands of British rowing great Sir Steve Redgrave, the Olympic Torch traveled in style down the River Thames on the gilded royal barge Gloriana after a 70-day relay from the Shetland Islands to Dover.
On the banks of the Thames, thousands of smiling and cheering spectators watched the torch’s last run of 2012 with a surging sense of British pride — a sentiment that often seems the exclusive purview of royal weddings and the soccer field.
Decked out in Team GB apparel, with Union Jack flags in hand, Kitty and Zachary Arnold, ages 11 and 8, looked out over the scene from London’s stately Tower Bridge, now festooned with the five Olympic rings. The children of British expatriates living in Bangkok, their parents brought them to London to expose them to their native land at a historic time.
Their mother, Philippa Arnold, 42, said: “I brought my children because they’ve never grown up in England, and they need to know what it means to be proud of their country."
Across London, from the gay district of Soho to children’s parties in the suburbs, millions of Britons gravitated to pubs and parties to share the Olympic moment. More than a few city-dwellers professing themselves fed up with the traffic, security and hype of the Games seemed to get caught up in an event few expect to be repeated here in their lifetimes.
“This is an amazing spectacle I have to say — I'm very proud,” said Alex Edds, 33, a sustainability consultant drinking Pimm’s and lemonade at a North London party where attendants donned sports gear and dressed as London Mayor Boris Johnson. “This is capturing our history; it’s a reminder of how much we’ve done and our success. It’s much different to Beijing, which was stale in comparison. We’re not normally so overtly confident, but this is really showing what we’ve achieved in sort of a cautious way.”
Karla Adam and Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.