The Arts

The Great Omani

Twenty years after the original Encyclpædia of Brighton researched and written by Tim Carder, was published, the fascinating, informative and entertaining New Encyclopædia of Brighton by the acclaimed biographer Rose Collis, combines the best of the original text with hundreds of new subjects. Here’s an extract which resonates with our front page cover of the Freestyle Motorcross riders, whose power, skill, showmanship and bravery performing gravity-defying motorcycle tricks stunned thousands of spectators in Brighton this summer.

Ron Cunningham eating fire

Ron Cunningham eating fire

The Great Omani (1915 – 2007) was also known as Ronald Cunningham. He kept himself and thousands of spectators amused with parlous stunts and feats of escapology, mostly for charity. Born in Windsor, he came from a wealthy family – his father was a wine merchant – and was educated at Sherborne public school in Dorset. The family firm went bankrupt and it was while he was almost penniless and living in London that he came across a book about Harry Houdini which, he said, flew off a bookshelf and landed at his feet.

He made his name by repeating Houdini’s famous ‘death dive’ from the end of the West Pier and in chains. He also once travelled from Hastings to Brighton in a coffin filled with broken glass; did a headstand, with a Union Jack between his toes, on the cliffs at Beachy Head in 1977, to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee; and ate a glass bulb at the Royal Pavilion. When asked to explain the popularity of such stunts, he said, “People will always flock to see anybody likely to kill themselves.” The Great Omani’s last performance was in 2005 at the Bedford Tavern, where he stood bare-footed on broken bottles; set himself alight with lighter fuel and stabbed himself with a bendy knife.

However, he did perform one, final fire-eating stunt for a BBC film crew in his bed a week before he died, aged 92. His body was taken to Woodvale Crematorium in a horse-drawn hearse, in a white coffin wrapped in chains and padlocks. He was carried into the chapel to the theme from The Great Escape and had even written his own epitaph:

‘They put Omani in his box, using chains instead of locks. But at his funeral, don’t despair; the chances are, he won’t be there’.

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