Showtime: London stages vibrant Olympic opening ceremony

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Story highlights

NEW: Young athletes light the Olympic cauldron after the queen opens the games

Performances pay tribute to British history, literature and music

The Greek delegation leads the parade of athletes into the stadium

Organizers had sought beforehand to keep the event's details secret

London CNN  — 

Few shows can claim such an audience. As the dramatic spectacle of the Olympic Games opening ceremony in London unfolded Friday night, organizers estimated a billion people around the world would be glued to their television sets to see it, either live or delayed by a few hours.

Tens of thousands more were lucky enough to have a seat inside the Olympic Stadium, the centerpiece of Olympic Park in east London.

Dubbed “Isles of Wonder,” it was quite a show – fast-paced and diverse, with everything from people dancing in period costumes to a pseudo house party. It featured tributes to the British countryside and the Industrial Revolution (complete with smokestacks emerging from the ground), showcased the “Chariots of Fire” soundtrack as well as pop music staples from the Beatles to Amy Winehouse, and even comedy bits featuring Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson), actor Daniel Craig and even Queen Elizabeth II herself.

The queen was among the more than 80 heads of state attending the event, which sets the scene for the Games to come.

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The organizers of the London Games were well aware they had a tough act to follow after the Beijing extravaganza four years ago, which featured thousands of drummers, acrobats, martial artists and dancers performing under a light display at the soaring “Bird’s Nest” Stadium.

Some details of the £27 million show were released in advance, but many more remained closely guarded secrets.

A Twitter hashtag, #savethesurprise, started by Olympic organizers to appeal to those in the know not to spoil the show for others, had been embraced by many, although not all.

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Giant screens also displayed the message within the stadium during the two rehearsals. Those who opted not to play along incurred the social-media wrath of many who did want to “save the surprise.”

The show, masterminded by artistic director Danny Boyle, best known for the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” drew part of its inspiration from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

It began at 9 p.m. (4 p.m. ET) with the tolling of the largest harmonically tuned bell in Europe, cast by the nearby Whitechapel Foundry, which also produced Big Ben and the Liberty Bell. The sound echoed the peals of bells that rang out across the country for three minutes Friday morning, Big Ben among them, to set the nation’s Olympic spirit racing.

The show’s opening scene – dubbed “Green and Pleasant,” after a line from a poem by William Blake – then unfurled, presenting an idyllic view of the British countryside.

The elaborate set comprised rolling hills, fields and rivers, complete with picnicking families, sport being played on a village green and real farmyard animals: ducks, geese, 12 horses, three cows and 70 sheep, plus three sheepdogs to keep them in line.

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The flower of each of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom also were represented – the rose of England, the Scottish thistle, Welsh daffodil and flax from Northern Ireland.

Boyle also lined up fake clouds to shade his pastoral scene.

Other set pieces paid tribute to Britain’s National Health Service, children’s literature (showcasing characters from the evil Lord Voldemort of Harry Pottery infamy to magical nanny Mary Poppins) and popular music.

It was all a mammoth production involving not just Boyle and his technical crew, but also a cast of 10,000 adult volunteers and 900 local schoolchildren. Then there was a heavy-duty flying system, nearly 13,000 props and an array of technological wizardry.

After these performances, the athletes – who, after all, are the real stars of the Olympic show – entered the stadium, team by team in alphabetical order, apart from Greece, which enters first in recognition of its status as the birthplace of the Games, and Great Britain, entering last, the position reserved for the host nation.

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After speeches from Olympic officials – including Sebastian Coe, head of the London organizing committee and himself a former gold medalist – the queen officially declared the Games open and the Olympic flag was later hoisted above the stadium, where it will fly throughout the competition.

The grand finale saw five-time gold medalist rower Steve Redgrave carry the torch into the stadium, where he handed the flame off to seven promising young athletes. They then lit parts of the large cauldron, triggering a chain of events that culminated in small flames converging in the sky above the stadium.

This capped the torch’s 70-day, 8,000-mile relay around the United Kingdom – weeks that had been marked with anticipation.

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CNN’s Chris Murphy contributed to this report.