But soon enough, the meadow was rolled up, the Industrial Revolution steamed by, the "queen" parachuted in with James Bond, the amps fired up and the ceremony coordinated by "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle started to rock and blaze.
First, the rock: Amid an elaborate performance highlighting Britain's cultural contributions to the world, performers danced through a retrospective of British pop music that included the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, New Order and, later, live performances by current acts including Dizzee Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys.
Next, the blaze: The Olympic torch was carried into the stadium by a team of runners in black and gold. Together, they lit a great round cauldron in the center of the stadium. Fireworks filled the sky around the Olympic park. Paul McCartney sang the Beatles' classic "Hey Jude." And the games began.
More than 80,000 people filled the stands at Olympic Stadium to watch the ceremony -- an eclectic pageant that mixed high culture and low comedy. It begin with 1,000 drummers marching through a field full of pastoral scenes of farm children and cottages. British actor Kenneth Branagh read from Shakespeare beneath an artificial tree that towered above its oddly bustling rural environs.
As the music swelled, the ceremony traced the history and traditions of British society.
The Industrial Revolution replaced the tree -- half a dozen smokestacks dramatically rising out of the grass and standing ominously amid toiling laborers and men in gilded suits and top hats smoking cigars. After a celebration of female suffrage, performers wearing costumes inspired by the album cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" joined in to represent the counterculture of the 1960s.
Men in uniform commemorated the United Kingdom's many military efforts in the 20th century.
As characters from centuries British history pounded drums in unison, five circular waterfalls, high above the ground, lit up to form the Olympic symbol. When the water stopped, rays of bright reddish orange light burst from the circles.
The theatrics kept coming. As a prelude to Queen Elizabeth's introduction, actor Daniel Craig dropped from a helicopter in the character of James Bond, hanging from a parachute emblazoned with the British flag.
Members of the British armed services saluted the queen, who dressed in pink for the occasion, and the national anthem, "God Save the Queen," began. In what might have been the most bizarre display of the ceremony, hundreds of employees of the National Health Service rolled hospital beds into the arena, with actors playing patients.
Modern British literature and film were featured as J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, read aloud from Peter Pan and dozens of women dressed as Mary Poppins descended from the sky with umbrellas.
Actor Rowan Atkinson was in character as Mr. Bean, a popular English comical figure, as he played the synthesizer accompanying the London Symphony Orchestra's performance of "Chariots of Fire" by Vangelis.
The music of Eric Clapton, the Who, the Clash, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles blared on the speakers as dancers clad in '60s- and '70s-themed outfits formed a human peace sign in the middle of the arena. The scene turned raucous as Freddie Mercury's voice was heard over the distorted guitars of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and mosh pits formed to accompany the music of the Sex Pistols.
The attire of the performers quickly turned neon as the soundtrack fast-forwarded into the 1980s, with songs including "Sweet Dreams," by the British duo Eurhythmics.
2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony
The performance quieted as Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, appeared in the arena. There was thunderous applause as Berners-Lee stood and waved to the crowd. The words "This is for everyone" appeared in lights across the stadium.
The cheers were interrupted with a somber moment that came as video screens showed photos of "friends and family who could not be here tonight" sent by audience members. With the atmosphere calmed, singer Emili Sande took the spotlight with the hymn "Abide With Me."
Some of the loudest applause of the night was for soccer star David Beckham, seen delivering the Olympic torch by motorboat from Tower Bridge. Beckham's decision to cross the Atlantic to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, a Major League Soccer team, had apparently been forgiven.
The ceremony culminated in the traditional procession of athletes from all participating countries.
Marco Balich, who directed the opening and closing ceremonies at Turin's 2006 Winter Olympics, told the AP that Olympic ceremonies aim to express a nation's soul. In China's case, organizers wanted to put on display a "rich, modern and contemporary empire," while Britain, he said, hoped to express its "beautiful heritage and cultural history."
ABC News' Michael S. James contributed to this report.