The Great Omani

Daredevil escapologist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ronald Cunningham (The Great Omani), escapologist and stuntman: born Windsor, Berkshire 10 July 1915; married (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died Brighton, East Sussex 15 October 2007.

Although part of the skill of the veteran escapologist the Great Omani lay in trickery, he put himself at great personal risk during many of his outlandish stunts with fire and water. But maybe that was the attraction for his audiences. As he commented, "People will always flock to see anybody likely to kill themselves."

The Great Omani did not come from a show-business background. He was born Ronald Cunningham in Windsor in 1915, the son of a wine importer, and was educated at the Dorset public school Sherborne. He joined the family business and had a prosperous, pleasure-seeking lifestyle until his father died and the company was dissolved.

Cunningham was rejected for army service during the Second World War because of a damaged heart. He did not have any particular plans for his life, but one day he was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Charing Cross Road when a volume fell from a top shelf. It was The Secrets of Houdini by J.C. Cannell. This book was extremely controversial when it was published in 1931 because it explained how the magic of the great escapologist Harry Houdini was done and, it was thought, might encourage foolhardy behaviour. Soon after publication, the Magicians' Circle had the book withdrawn, as it gave away too many tricks of the trade.

Cunningham bought the book and was intrigued by its contents. He went to his local swimming baths and experimented with the underwater stunts. By the early 1950s, he had renamed himself the Great Omani and was ready for public appearances.

He often worked in Bognor, where he would be put in a straitjacket and chained and padlocked to the legs of the pier as the tide came in. On Brighton's West Pier, he would dive into a bed of flames. Houdini had been fond of removing a straitjacket while hanging upside down, and Omani added a further touch to the stunt by setting his trousers alight. He was often assisted by his wife, Eileen (stage name Marvita).

In 1977, for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, the Great Omani performed a handstand on the precipice of Beachy Head, with a Union Jack between his toes. Today, health and safety considerations for both performer and audiences have effectively brought such daredevil public stunts to an end.

Eileen died in 1983, but Omani still worked from time to time. "It's a very hard profession to leave," he once explained. "I tell you why: I'm an exhibitionist." In 2005, he made his last public appearance, at the Bedford Tavern in Brighton. By then, he was in a wheelchair, receiving kidney dialysis and treatment for cancer, but spurred on by the crowds he did several of his best-known stunts, including crushing broken glass with his bare feet. Only a week before he died, he was fire-eating from his bed for a film crew. His last request was for a trap-door in the hearse at his funeral.

Spencer Leigh