For openers, London puts on a smashing show

LONDON -- Was that an opening ceremony or a night at the pub? Were the 2012 Olympics being honored or noogied?

Was that really James Bond tumbling out of a helicopter into the stadium with Queen Elizabeth II? Were those really a passel of flying Mary Poppins conquering one giant Voldemort?

And that compelling British national anthem sung by an inspirational choir of deaf and hearing children.… Were those kids really wearing their pajamas?

Whatever it was Friday night, it was bloody well wonderful.

After seven years of worrying how it would impress the world, London decided to be its dizzy, disjointed self, welcoming the Olympics to its cluttered backyard with a wink and nudge and belly laugh that should resound through these Games’ history.

It might not have contained the tradition of Athens or the majesty of Beijing, but London’s third opening ceremony was an absolute charm.

It was part Charles Dickens, part Benny Hill. It was Florence Nightingales dancing and JK Rowling reading and 80,000 folks swaying in chilled wind and occasional rain.

It was David Beckham dressed in a snazzy suit steering a speedboat down the Thames River, bringing the Olympic torch to the stadium, this country’s most famous athlete in one of its most famous moments. Yet it was also that torch ending up in the hands of seven anonymous young British athletes who lit more than 200 torches that curled up into a giant blazing caldron.

Just when you thought the ending was anticlimactic, Paul McCartney showed up on a corner stage to serenade the crowd in “Hey Jude,” everyone singing through the fireworks smoke amid shimmer of a giant flame.

“Welcome to London” McCartney shouted as the nearly four-hour spectacle ended, and it was indeed one na-na-na-na of a hello.

There were athletes bouncing into the stadium accompanied the royal strains of Adele and Pet Shop Boys, with the parade of nations looking more like a dance of nations. There was Pau Gasol carrying the Spanish flag with a glow that I’ve never seen even after his two NBA titles. There was Kobe Bryant marching as if floating, his eyes wide, staring in wonder as if he was a kid again.

Then there were the British athletes, entering the stadium last, given a special greeting rarely offered even the home country. Not only did the music suddenly change, to David Bowie’s “Heroes,” but heaps of glittery confetti fell from the sky, covering the giddy, dancing British team in a giant silvery embrace.

“I have never been so proud to be British,” said Sebastian Coe, the former track star who is the chairman of the London organizing committee. “One day we will tell our children and grandchildren that when our time came, we did it right,”

There were silly flying submarines and serious marching redcoats and the thump of Arctic Monkeys. There was the music of Queen and the movies of Charlie Chaplin. It was a Danny Boyle-directed ceremony that felt very much like the frazzled and funky city outside the Olympic gates.

You want to hear the London Symphony play “Chariots of Fire?” You got it, but only with famed British comedian Rowan Atkinson appearing in the orchestra and hilariously mocking the entire number. You want to see the Queen? Then you had to endure a funny film clip of Daniel Craig picking her up at Buckingham Palace and flying with her in a helicopter that literally dropped them off above the stadium. The Queen might be the only statesmen in Olympic opening ceremonies history to enter the stadium to the theme from James Bond.

The ceremony was even deft enough to embarrass the mighty International Olympic Committee. Early in the evening, the London folks requested a moment of silence for the deceased relatives and friends of, well, everyone. Later in the evening, the IOC President Jacques Rogge again refused to request a similar moment of silence for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Even on this 40th anniversary of the tragedy, even with the widows of two of the fallen Israelis traveling to London to beg for this briefest of memorials, the IOC refused the humane gesture for fear of upsetting the several dozen Arab and largely Muslim countries entered in the Games.

“Character counts far more than medals” Rogge said in his address, while showing zero character.

The show began with an infield resembling a pastoral English meadow, which morphed into gritty smokestacks representing the industrial age, which then produced perhaps the night’s highlight.

With drums pounding, five glowing-hot rings rose into the sky and connected in midair, filling the stadium with shooting sparks and rich sentiment.

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

The show is on.