"Zoom! Up it will go!" said Ron Cunningham, describing the moment at which the fuel-soaked cotton wool attached to his arms would be ignited by his assistant. Ron was in no doubt about the theatrical impact of this moment. "To see a man blazing up on fire, with his arms on fire, his hands padlocked and handcuffed... well, you won't see that very often." You won't, and unsurprisingly a small clutch of local journalists turned up in a Brighton pub for what had been advertised as the Great Omani's last stunt. Ron's son, David, applied the torch and Ron, wearing a flaming flat cap to top off the effect, went up like a Christmas pudding.
The noises emerging from the flames could initially have been interpreted as standard escapologist grandstanding, the kind of huffing and puffing that accentuates the difficulty of the stunt. But after a while, they began to get more urgently specific. "Please... put the fire out," Omani muttered. "Oww! Put it out... and this side... for fuck's sake! OWW!" It was a spectacle, simultaneously sad and funny, but, whatever you could say of Omani's jacket, by now smouldering gently in the safety bucket, he himself appeared to be inextinguishable. "All in all, I think it went pretty well," he said as he was taken back home again.
Wonderland wouldn't have made a film about the Great Omani if he was the usual retirement age for escapologists. But he wasn't. He was 92, suffering from prostate cancer and receiving regular dialysis. He was also in a wheelchair, being trundled around Brighton by David, who didn't exactly look in the pink himself and was getting increasingly exasperated by his father's reluctance to hang up the shackles and the straitjacket. Omani's career obviously hadn't offered a great deal in the way of material reward for the risk-taking. In archive film, you watched him doing headstands on the brink of Brighton's chalk cliffs or setting fire to his trousers, and there was never more than a handful of mildly bemused spectators in the background. But so dedicated was he to his particular branch of showbiz that he'd composed a poem for his own funeral: "They've put Omani in his box/ They're using nails instead of locks/ But at his funeral, don't despair/ The chances are he won't be there". He was, but if you'd fretted about the decorum of exploiting the vulnerability of his last days, he did offer a late get-out to his director: "When the camera's on me, I always feel happy," he said, shortly before he died.
The Worlds of Fantasy, BBC4's new series about fantasy fiction, got me wondering about how they choose the contributors for some of these series. Philip Pullman and Francis Spufford would obviously have been high on the wish list of anyone making a film about fantastical children's books, and I perked up considerably when Will Self appeared, a contributor who can always be relied upon to give a received opinion a sly kick in the shins. I loved Alasdair Gray, too, a real-life hobbit with a Scottish accent so ornately curlicued that the words very nearly disappeared. But I just couldn't work out what Nigel Planer and John Simpson were doing in there, other than providing the received opinions for Self to kick at. The former's contribution on Lewis Carroll could fairly be summarised as "Oh, yeah, Carroll, he took pictures of little girls, didn't he?" Perhaps they'll come into their own in later episodes, but wouldn't it have been better, in this one, to give the screen time they took up to people who had a more developed argument to make?
The process of franchising Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares for US TV has coarsened the original dish in an ugly way. It was never exactly a benchmark for unadulterated authenticity, of course, each episode fitting a predictable narrative of wariness, resistance and ultimate success. But was the British version ever as implausibly rancid as Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares USA? Gordon Ramsay isn't simply brusque and no-nonsense anymore, he's horribly aggressive and humiliating, as if the US producers want to get to the shouting as quickly as possible. In last night's episode, he took on Sebastian, the sadly delusional proprietor of an LA pizzeria, who believed that his "concept" (a menu so complicated that people lost their appetite just trying to work it out) could outweigh the fact that everything he served came out of a deep freeze.
Predictably enough, Ramsay reduced Sebastian to tears and tantrums, at which point, as in previous episodes, the victim suddenly flipped from outrage to tearful gratitude and compliance, without any explanation of how this sudden shift in mood had been achieved. The fact that his rueful acknowledgement of gratitude was filmed in the restaurant's old decor – before Ramsay's makeover – only underlined the bogus nature of the whole thing. In terms of quality and taste, it's on a level with a microwaved beefburger.Reuse content