LONDON // Danny Boyle promised a quirky extravaganza to open the London Olympics, and that was exactly what he delivered last night.
There was fire and there was farce; smoking chimneys and dancing nurses; a bemused Mr Bean playing the theme to Chariots of Fire, and a host of flying Mary Poppinses. There was even a sky-diving Queen Elizabeth. It was spectacular but humorous too.
Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum carried the flag for the UAE delegation in a night where every nation was united in the Olympic spirit.
All of Saudi Arabia’s delegation, under threat of withdrawal over whether or not Wojdan Shaherkani could wear the hijab as the Kingdom’s representative in women’s judo, were there.
And significantly Qatar and Brunei - both fielding women for the first time - chose female competitors to carry their flag on this momentous night.
Four hundred meter runner Maziah Mahusin carried the flag for Brunei, shooter Bahya Mansour Al Hamad took that honour for Qatar.
Bradley Wiggins sounded the Great Olympic Bell, a worldwide television audience estimated at 1 billion watched, and London 2012 officially began.
The first Briton to win the Tour de France was given the honour of opening the spectacular ceremony.
Then came the haunting strain of Jerusalem, from a boy soloist who sang out into the hushed crowd.
Choirs in Northern Ireland, on the Giant's Causeway, in Scotland from Edinburgh Castle, and on the Welsh coast sang Danny Boy, Flower of Scotland and Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer.
Kenneth Branagh took to the Olympic Stadium centre dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel quoting from The Tempest, the inspiration of Boyle's extraordinary pageant. "Be not afeared the isle is full of noises sounds and sweet noises that give delight and hurt not."
Crowds began arriving at the Olympic Park as early as 10 in the morning, though the gates did not open until 5pm, four hours before the show began.
Thousands watched on screens erected on the beach at Weymouth.
From the venue for the sailing competition to Hyde Park, where 50,000 watched on screens after a concert featuring Duran Duran, Snow Patrol, Stereophonics and Paolo Nutini - representing England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland respectively - it was a spectacular event.
The day before, a few details of Boyle's £27 million (Dh156.3m) creation had emerged as a 30-second clip to whet the appetite. There were fast-paced dancers dressed in David Bowie wigs, lycra and 1980s metallic clothing and a tribute to the National Health Service with "patients" dressed in striped pyjamas jumping on over-sized hospital beds while "nurses" danced round in circles.
In other footage hundreds of "angels" cycled around the stadium and dancers seemed to perform among flames.
But nothing could have truly prepared the world for the dizzying reality of the Slumdog Millionaire director's vision, which proved the success for the most part of his #savethesurprise Twitter campaign.
The ceremony that set the tone for the 30th Olympiad was expected to be watched by an audience of more than one billion around the world and a host of celebrities and dignitaries in the Olympic Park in east London cheering on the performers and athletes alike.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were joined by international royalty and 120 leaders from around the world.
Throughout the day speculation mounted as to the identity of the person who would light the cauldron. Would it be the rower Sir Steve Redgrave, the decathlete Daley Thompson, David Beckham, Dame Kelly Holmes, Mohammed Ali, Sir Roger Bannister, or even, some wondered, the Queen herself?
The Olympic Torch that would bring the flame to light the cauldron had earlier in the day boarded the Royal Barge, Gloriana, on the Thames to begin the last leg of it's epic journey spanning 70 days and 8,000 miles. First, though, it successfully negotiated the infamous Maze at Hampton Court palace. (What would have happened if the runner carrying it had got lost?)
But before the climactic lighting of the cauldron, or the proud parading of the Olympians from 206 nations, it was the 70 sheep, 12 horses, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, three cows, three sheepdogs and two goats (all part of a depiction of "mythic" rural England), who were the stars of the opening ceremony. There were maypoles and cricket games, a meadow with real grass laid over the infield, a Glastonbury-style moshpit in a nod to the music festival and a replica Glastonbury Tor - the ancient site linked to Arthurian legend - in a nod to a far more ancient chapter of the British tale.
There was always an anxiety that whatever was in store could never live up to the Beijing ceremony of four years before. But then the budget for the Beijing ceremony was £200m and the tone that they were aiming to set was a very different one from Mr Boyle's "celebration of the exuberant creativity of the British genius".
Speaking before the show he said: "We hope that our Isles of Wonder will be as unpredictable and inventive as the British people."
It was that all right.