By Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Casciato
LONDON (Reuters) - Queen Elizabeth's virtuoso performance as the "Bond girl" star of the Olympic opening ceremony crowns a majestic 15-year special operation that has recast the monarch as the people's champion of a cool Britannia.
Escorted by James Bond, played by actor Daniel Craig, in a helicopter gliding over a cheering London, the 86-year-old queen was shown apparently leaping out with a Union Jack parachute for an Olympic arrival to trump all others.
The debut film role for the second-longest-serving monarch in British history marks the pinnacle of years of subtle change that has opened up the once painfully solemn royal family since the 1997 death of Princess Diana.
"There was a lightness of touch about what the queen did at the Olympics - it was absolutely right," said Simon Lewis, who as the queen's Communications Secretary from 1998 to 2000 helped to polish the monarch's reputation after the death of Diana.
"It was perfectly judged and completely fitting for the occasion," Lewis told Reuters. "The monarchy in 2012 is the product of a great deal of careful thinking over a long time and some quite sensible, small steps along the way."
Polls show the sovereign remains enormously popular among English, Scots, Welsh and Irish who turned out in their millions in June for a Diamond Jubilee party that celebrated 60 years of service spanning a dozen premiers from Winston Churchill to David Cameron.
Dignified and serene, and now with just a glint of mischievous humor, it is the queen herself who has directed the makeover for a Britain grappling with long-term decline and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
"The queen was the star of the show - she was bloody wonderful," said a Scottish soldier serving at the Olympics who only gave his name as Jimi because he was not authorized by his superiors to speak to the media.
"She was the best bit," he said. "I think it shows the people another side to her. I think the people love her but since the Jubilee and after this a lot of people see just what a wonderful queen she is."
The queen's playful Olympic opening shows just how far the rebranding of Britain's royal family has progressed.
For a great-grandmother born in 1926 -- when Calvin Coolidge was U.S. president and Josef Stalin leader of the Soviet Union -- to star alongside Ian Fleming's gambling, fast-life fictional spy with a 'license to kill' would have been unthinkable when her father, George VI, opened the last London Games in 1948.
Then, George VI wore formal military uniform to open the Games, in contrast to Elizabeth's peach cocktail dress alongside the very modern London cut of Craig's tuxedo as Bond.
"I can't imagine any previous king or queen taking part in anything like that, nor could I imagine the queen doing it when she first came to the throne," Lady Antonia Fraser told BBC radio.
"One saw a new aspect of the queen," she said.
Greeted with cheers and standing applause from 60,000 people, and then a sign-language rendition of God Save the Queen by children, the queen showed little emotion after what has surely been one of her most successful years.
"The routine, in which 'Her Maj' parachuted into the stadium from a chopper, was a tribute to the great British sense of humor. And that of our monarch," the Sun newspaper said in an editorial. "Good on you, Ma'am,"
The jump was performed by a stunt double.
Marred only by the recent illness of her 91-year-old husband, Prince Philip, it has not always been this good for Elizabeth II.
She described the 40th anniversary of her accession as an "annus horribilis" after three of her four children's marriages failed and there was a fire at Windsor Castle.
Following the death in a car crash of Princess Diana, the ex-wife of Elizabeth's son and heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, the monarchy was cast as a hopelessly out of touch and far too old-fashioned for what was supposed to be a meritocratic Western democracy.
But if 1992 was her horrible year, 2012 could surely be her annus mirabilis, or year of wonders: Olympics, jubilee and the happy marriage of Charles's eldest son Prince William to Kate Middleton, whose wedding was in 2011.
The carefully choreographed royal blockbusters have cemented senior royals as some of the hardest hitters in Britain's A-team of global superstars, alongside footballer David Beckham and former Beatle Paul McCartney.
While Elizabeth's rebranding spiced up the once stodgy image of the royal family, her work accords with a longer tradition of reinventing the monarchy spanning thousands of years.
From Alfred the Great, who saw off a Viking attempt at conquest in the 9th Century, to Victoria, the only British monarch to reign longer than Elizabeth, monarchs in the British Isles have sought to adapt their image to the mood of the times.
In her 63-year reign, Victoria helped to redefine the monarchy, popularizing walkabouts and jubilees, though her husband's death in 1861 ushered in years of seclusion.
Victoria even took the title of 'Empress of India', a nod to the vast possessions of one of the world's largest ever empires. If Victoria could play on imperial pride, Elizabeth has had to cope with a much more complicated decline in British power.
TEAM QE II
The central theme of the strategy has been to undermine the criticism that the monarchy are a stuffy relic of the past by linking them with popular British culture and casting stunts that accentuate the playful side of the royal character.
The queen's "Bond-girl" acting role, for example, can be traced to Elizabeth's little-known teenage penchant for amateur theatricals at Windsor Castle, when she apparently used to play the principal boy.
"If you think about what has happened since the death of the Princess of Wales, there has been a continual process of doing things differently but always in small steps as the institution evolves," said Lewis.
"What has probably changed is that there is more a lightness of touch: people can see the sense of humor and that other side of the family, which was maybe hidden for quite a long time, is more prevalent now."
The queen makes the final call on major decisions but on presentation she is aided by a fluid inner circle of senior royals, courtiers and public relations advisers.
The senior royals include Philip, Charles, William and his brother Harry, and her granddaughter Zara Phillips. Key advisers include the likes of her personal private secretary, Christopher Geidt, an influential former diplomat.
Other key people are Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, a former member of the elite Special Air Service regiment who advises Charles. Paddy Harverson was the public relations man behind the royal wedding.
The inclusion of a younger generation of royals has helped. But the queen is flexible enough to take outside advice on stunts such as the Olympic opening.
The Bond film was the brainchild of the ceremony's director Danny Boyle, who hails a working-class Irish Catholic family in northern England, but it was London organizing committee chairman Lord Seb Coe who first approached the palace in 2011.
Even Charles, who some subjects say is less popular than his mother or sons, made headlines reading a TV weather report, and Camilla has gained public acceptance as Charles' second wife.
It will fall to Charles, 63, who is mocked by critics for his outspoken views on everything from genetically engineered crops to modern architecture, to guide the next rebranding of the House of Windsor.
(Additional reporting by Sara Ledwith and Mike Holden; Editing by Peter Millership and Sonya Hepinstall)