The London 2012 Olympics got off to the best possible start on the banks of the Thames last night, as artistic director Danny Boyle's breathtaking 100-minute Opening Ceremony captivated an 80,000 crowd packed with celebrities and VIPs.

From the moment yellow-jerseyed Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins opened proceedings at 9pm GMT with a single chime of the 23-tonne Olympic bell, the audience was subjected to a joyous assault on the senses that catapulted them through 200 years of British history from the industrial to the digital revolution, the latter embodied by the presence of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web.

The answer to the night's great secret, the identity of the lighter of the Olympic cauldron in the centre of the stadium, was not revealed until well after midnight – and virtually none of the speculation that had accompanied the build-up to the Games was right.

The honour was bestowed on seven young athletes said to represent the host nation's hopes for the next Olympics and beyond, in keeping with the emphasis on youth maintained by the London project since it won the right to host the 2012 Games in Singapore seven years ago.

The most daring of many spectacular coups de theatres that preceded this came when the Queen appeared – repeat, appeared – to parachute into the stadium from a helicopter, accompanied by James Bond actor Daniel Craig.

But, from Ken Loach to Harry Potter, there was scarcely a cultural reference-point that wasn't touched upon in a show that also included a snatch of the Sex Pistols' version of God Save the Queen, a song once famously banned by Olympic broadcaster the BBC, and a Mini or two, much to the delight, no doubt, of London 2012 sponsor BMW.

Other highpoints included the climax of the industrial revolution segment, with the Olympic rings, in red hot steel suspended over the stadium bathed in blue light; a cameo by Rowan Atkinson, the comedian behind Mr Bean, as the white-mopped Sir Simon Rattle conducted music from the Olympics film Chariots of Fire; and an extended passage celebrating the National Health Service (NHS), featuring hundreds of children and NHS beds and employees.

If it could not quite match the sheer jaw-dropping awe of Beijing's Opening Ceremony of four years ago, Boyle's £27 million ($42 million/€34 million) creation was infused with a warmth and humanity notably lacking from that no-expense-spared paean to China's emergence as a global power.

If that 2008 show was, at heart, a celebration of uniformity, this was a crowded, phantasmagorical hymn to diversity.

After a long interlude while the 205 athlete delegations filed colourfully in, culminating with Britain, led by Flagbearer Sir Chris Hoy, the Arctic Monkeys heralded the most formal part of proceedings.

First, from an artificial green hill, now bedecked with flags, to one end of the stadium, we were all welcomed by London 2012 chairman Sebastian Coe.

"In the next two weeks, we will show all that has made London one of the greatest cities in the world," Coe promised.

"This is our time"

In a short address, dwelling on London's unique role in Olympic history as the host of three Summer Games spanning more than a century, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge proclaimed: "The Olympic Games are coming home tonight."

Rogge also emphasised that for the first time in Olympic history all participating teams would have female members, in a development he described as "a major boost for gender equality".

Fittingly it was left to a woman, Her Majesty the Queen, seemingly none the worse for her parachute glide, to declare the Games open.

And then it was on to the raising of the Olympic flag in the presence of a frail Muhammad Ali and the night's concluding moment: the symbolic lighting of the Olympic cauldron by the seven young Torchbearers.

The day had started with the Queen's rowbarge Gloriana carrying the Olympic Flame down the Thames, trailed by a flotilla, as it neared the end of its 70-day, 8,000-mile journey around Britain.

At 8.12am, bells rang out across Britain for three minutes.

British Prime Minister David Cameron declared the country "ready to welcome the greatest show on earth".

And what do you know? He was right.

If I may end with one mildly discordant note, it was that we nearly ended up relating these great events under a length of plastic sheeting – the organisers' disconcertingly primitive means of combating the threat of possible rain.

As it turned out, we stayed dry, by the skin of our teeth.

But in an isle which, as we all know, is full of weather as well as noises, this was just not good enough.

By David Owen at the Olympic Stadium in London