As no doubt most Britons remember, September to October 2003 saw, to the bewilderment and awe of many, a random Yank sitting in a perspex box for 44 days in the centre of the City of London, adjacent to Tower Bridge and the River Thames.
For those of you who have never heard of him, David Blaine is an American illusionist who has performed televised stunts that have brought critical acclaim and renunciation. Born in 1973, he grew from humble roots in Brooklyn, New York City, where his first experience of magic came watching a street performer at a subway station. He was just four years of age at the time; but the experience had a profound impact, and he soon began learning tricks (his first being the 'Pencil through Card', which he purchased at a Disney shop). Making money from card tricks became an obvious choice for Blaine, given the limited financial means of his family, especially with his natural aptitude for card manipulation. After moving to New Jersey, Blaine returned to the Big Apple in 1990 at the age of 17, where he refined his skills on the streets, and his new, different approach - more hip, more contemporary - brought in crowds. The fact that he did not look like a magician - just another person - impressed onlookers even more.
The death of his mother to cancer renewed Blaine's sense of self-purpose, and he worked tirelessly to succeed, even in the face of adversity. His performances soon attracted the attention of top celebrities around New York, and this led to him performing his 'in-your-face' miracles at fast, inner circle parties for the rich and famous (such as Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro), whilst becoming good friends with Leonardo DiCaprio. Friends in the entertainment business convinced him to send a video tape of his magic to the ABC network, and in 1997 his first special - 'David Blaine - Street Magic' aired in America. Audiences were so impressed that ABC syndicated the special worldwide, and Blaine's magic transcended all cultural barriers.
We now jump to 2003 and Blaine's fourth major stunt, which saw him leave his native New York and for the first time perform a stunt on foreign soil - in London, England. 'Above the Below' saw him trying to survive in a 7' x 7' x 2' box, suspended 30' off the ground, without food, for 44 days and 44 nights. All he had in the box was a tube feeding him plain water from the ground, a blanket, some lip salve, his diary and a pen.
Above the Below was probably the most daring of all his stunts, which have included being buried alive in a coffin for seven days and seven nights; standing encased in ice for three days with only shoes and underpants ('Frozen in Time'), and standing unsupported on top of an 80ft post in New York's central park for 36 hours, before jumping off into some cardboard boxes ('Vertigo').
'Above the Below' sparked unprecedented controversy, dividing the British public in two. London mayor Ken Livingstone criticised the stunt, saying it was disrespectful to IRA members who died in prison in the early 1980s whilst on hunger strike. 'Those people who remember the situation of the ten hunger strikers who starved to death and have ever met their relatives who visited them in the final days will know it is an absolutely horrifying risk. It has painful memories for a lot of people in society', he said. These remarks were themselves criticised as disrespectful to the families of IRA bomb victims.
Before it even began, the Guinness Book of Records announced that Blaine's stunt would not be included in a future edition of its annual. It said it did not wish to encourage fasting records and that in any case the IRA hunger strikers Bobby Sands (who died after 66 days without food) and Laurence McKeown (who went into a coma after 70 days and was then force-fed) had already lasted longer unfed than Blaine intended.
Long Term Consequences of Starvation
Through its duration, many people commented on how the kind of long term effects that length of time without food or proper movement could have on Blaine's body - suggestions were made of him losing his sight, suffering permanent brain damage, being paralysed, or maybe even dying if he tried to eat too quickly. However, almost one year later, he is now back to full health, without, it seems, any adverse effects whatsoever; to the extent that he should now be well on the way to attempting his next stunt (thought up while enclosed in the box) - jumping from 'as high as possible' from a helicopter into shallow water ('Dive of Death'). However, this was meant to happen on his birthday in April 2004, which has come and gone without any mention of 'Dive of Death'...
In any case, Above the Below was the subject of much press and media attention. However, the focus, and thus the controversy, was not so much on Blaine's level of endurance, or on whether the stunt was indeed what it appeared to be, but the antics of the British public that went to Tower Bridge to observe him.
Being British, and thus feeling honour-bound to generally cause trouble, a significant minority of people threw all kinds of junk at him, newspapers reporting a list that included eggs, lemons, sausages, bacon, water bottles, beer cans, paint-filled balloons, golf balls (driven from across the Thames) and even lingerie. An Internet message board was set up, dedicated to keeping Blaine awake for the whole 44 days. And to top it all off, a certain drunken lunatic decided it would be amusing to attempt to cut the tube supplying water to his box, and came too close to achieving this goal for comfort.
An explanation for the actions of people like these came in the form of a reporter working for The Mirror Group. The suggestion was that in America, where David had performed all his previous stunts, people believe everything that is on television. In this way, they want nothing more than to see Blaine succeed, as they cannot possibly accept that what he is doing may not be true. However, the British are often the opposite, refusing to believe anything, and wanting nothing more than to see Blaine fail. The reporter went on to say that we feel it is our duty as Britons to make Blaine's life hell, simply to prove that what he is doing is not that amazing, and most importantly, it is not magic, but a con. As a result, Blaine was treated to numerous displays of bare bottoms and breasts, and a hamburger was flown round the box by radio-controlled model helicopter to remind him of what he was missing out on. The idea of the whole thing being a con is fiercely rejected by the numerous Blaine supporters in the country, who insist this is a true feat of human endurance which should be honoured and praised. Of course, there is a third, significant group who really don't care, except to conclude that David Blaine, because of this stunt, was the biggest loser of 2003.
The question is, who is right? Conspiracy theorists have been working overtime thinking up wacky ways in which Blaine could have cheated, but with people having watched him in London pretty much 24 hours a day, as well as there being an almost 24-hour/day feed on Sky One, none have held enough weight to really cause a real stir...
So, what do you make of his 'magic' - is it real endurance? A con? Or something in the middle? What do you make of his previous stunts, 'Above the Below', and his planned future stunt? Any conspiracy theories? You'll have to make your own mind up!