Quirky UK revealed to world from Bard to Bond

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IT WAS at heart, on a vast and glittering scale, the sort of historical pageant that junior schools used to stage just before they broke up for the summer holidays.

Except instead of nervous little boys and girls dressed as Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, there was a cast of thousands running breezily through a potted history of these sceptred isles against the backdrop of a bucolic-themed set reminiscent of the Great Yorkshire Showground on a dry day.

There were sheep, a horse and carriage, peasants, cricketers, suffragettes, Tommies and even Sir Kenneth Branagh in a stove-pipe hat as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, quoting – a little confusingly – Shakespeare before the spectacle swept forward via Pearly Kings and Chelsea pensioners, the founding of the NHS and the dawning of the internet age as well as a jokily irreverent sequence in which the Queen, apparently accompanied by Daniel Craig as James Bond, skydived into the stadium from a helicopter.

There was a crazily kaleidoscopic soundtrack running through it all, from Winifred Atwell to The Sex Pistols, via Elgar and the theme from Chariots of Fire, but astonishingly it not only hung together, but lent a touch of magic.

Cultural references flew by one after another in the blinking of an eye as director Danny Boyle swept through a millennium of British history in an hour. Deft, theatrical and evocative, each touched a chord of recognition for anybody who lives in Britain. Quite what audiences in the American midwest, the outer reaches of China or the remoter corners of Africa amongst the estimated worldwide television audience of more than a billion people made of them can only be guessed at.

There was no attempt made to compete with the pyrotechnic displays of the Beijing Olympics of four years ago, or the increasingly noisy openings of successive Olympiads that preceded it – and Boyle’s opening ceremony was all the better and more affecting for it.

Britain has opened its arms to the world with these Olympic Games, and there was an embracing, big-hearted quality to the ceremony that welcomed all who have travelled to London and the vast numbers watching on television.

It was a quirkily individual way to open the Games, resolutely refusing to conform to a familiar template, and all the better for it. And in its individuality, it was quintessentially British, and so perfect for the occasion.