The bigger they come, the harder they fall

Hollywood is obsessed with explosive – and expensive – stunts. And those who have to perform them are paying the price

Stunt performers are re-examining some of their more dangerous tricks following a spate of accidents both in Britain and in Hollywood.

Over the last five years there has been an increase in accidents and the industry is bracing itself for a court case this March that will examine the death of stuntman Conway Wickliffe who was killed on the set of The Dark Knight.

Questions have also been raised about the safety of the "jerk back", in which a performer is propelled backwards in a harness after an effect such as an explosion. Equity, the actors union, said it was awaiting guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as to whether the spectacular stunt was safe enough.

David Holmes, 25, who doubled for Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, was left paralysed from the waist down after such a stunt went horribly wrong on the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Leavesden studios near Watford in 2009. There was no prosecution as it was not deemed a foreseeable accident. Yesterday an HSE spokesman said: "We are working with the Joint Industry Stunt Committee to produce guidance for carrying out a jerk back stunt to reduce the risk to performers."

Martin Brown, assistant general secretary of Equity, said: "The number of insurance claims has risen in the last five years. There were three serious accidents in the last two years. Two were complicated leg breaks which probably mean the individuals won't be able to work as stunt performs again and the other involved the jerk back stunt."

Jason White, a British stuntman with 35 years' experience, called for all new directors and producers to be made to attend a seminar on safety.

Mr White now coordinates fellow technicians and advises major stars including Kim Basinger. In a career that has involved pitching through double glazing in Aliens, being punched by Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and pitching backwards off Tower Bridge, he received numerous minor injuries. But an accident in 1991 on the set of the TV series Robin Hood left him unable to work for many years.

Safety standards, said Mr White, have improved considerably and he provided a hazard assessment on every job, as all Members of Equity Stunt Register are now required to do.

However, he said financial constraints and egos often made it difficult to argue in favour of safety in front of demanding producers. He said: "There is a demand for bigger stunts. There is always an element of danger."

He said he wanted to see even greater stringency. With many stuntmen working abroad, he believes an experienced British coordinator should be on all international sets, where the same tough guidelines are not enforced locally. In Hollywood, the industry bible Variety recently questioned whether a spate of six accidents in both theatre and film late last year was "just a statistical fluke or ... whether sets these days are as safe as they could be".

Hal Needham, an Academy Award-winning technician and director, said the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration was now far stricter than in his early days.

Mr Needham, who has broken 56 bones and his back twice, said: "It is much safer today than when I was doing stunts eons ago. Stunt men today are more talented, more experienced and in better shape. The equipment they have today is much better.

"Money is always a problem but no director ever pushed me off a building. It is up to the individual to judge his own talent, safety equipment and whether he is gong to do the stunt."

The HSE, which investigates serious injuries and deaths on films sets, is prosecuting Christopher Corbould, a special effects coordinator, after stunt technician Conway Wickliffe, 41, was killed on the set of Batman: The Dark Knight. He died of head injuries after crashing into a tree during filming in September 2007.

Nevertheless, Mr Brown insisted that safety precautions among Britain's 275 stuntmen and women are stringent: "While they are operating in a highly dangerous aspect of the industry they actually have a very good safety record. They are fantastic guys, who are highly respected because they are so good at what they do."

Case Study

'I was dropped after serious accident'

*It was the kind of daredevil scene that film audiences take for granted: Robin Hood flees a castle using medieval scaffolding before leaping to safety as it collapses around him.

Jason White, a highly experienced stuntman who had just finished working with Kevin Costner on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was re-enacting the role again as Patrick Bergin's double in the television series. Three times the special effects worked perfectly. The 60-foot, three-and-a-half tonne modern scaffolding made up to look ancient, dropped in a controlled fashion and the stuntman, attached to a wire, jumped free.

But on the fourth attempt the scaffolding collapsed, explained Mr White: "I was on a wire harness which snapped when it impacted the ground. They thought I had broken bones because I couldn't move my arm. It later emerged that the shoulder bone had gone through my muscle."

For eight years, Mr White – now working again as a successful stunt coordinator with 35 years experience on major films and television series – found himself cast out of the industry.

"As soon as they knew that I was not coming back and there was going to be a case of negligence, I was just dropped. I had very little contact with anyone except the legal side. It was a very black time in my life," he continued. Mr White, who had grown used to minor injuries, suddenly found himself unable to work.

"What back-up do you have? There was no back-up. I had a number of physical problems but there was also the trauma. When you take someone who is ultimately an athlete and used to working on adrenaline and then it is suddenly taken away, what happens to you? I became suicidal," he said.

Mr White, who now makes safety his key priority when coordinating other stuntmen, said the situation had improved since his accident 20 years ago but more still needed to be done to emphasise safety on sets.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing