The front page of this morning’s Daily Mirror has the harrowing headline “Girl, 6, Killed In Fire-Eater Horror”. A six year old girl died from burns when she was showered with flames while watching a fire eater in Turkey. Apparently the little girl was the victim of a stunt spectacle going horribly wrong, when a fire-eater’s petrol bottle exploded and the subsequent blast set fire to the auditorium in which they were seated.
It’s a tragic accident that has appalling consequences; a bizarre fluke that has created carnage and destroyed a family on holiday. I suspect that the security protocol that concerns audience safety will be re-examined after this tragedy. A host of Health and Safety executives will hold this incident up and use it to lobby for more Draconian powers to shield an audience from this type of act. But we feed on fear, we yearn for things that aren’t good for us; we don’t want to be told we can’t see something because it’s too dangerous. It’s gripping and gorgeous and we love to be in the presence of peril.
The rawness of street and carnival performers, if good, is totally enthralling; for generations this species of performance has mesmerised a crowd. If it is a fire-eater, escapologist, human block head or tattooed strong man, their skill at doing something that no sane person would contemplate has drawn eager crowds. If it’s edgy and wild, the more hypnotising it becomes!
I have had the mind-bending pleasure of meeting some of the craziest performers ever to work an audience. The travelling circus is a magnet for misfits; contemporary shows have soaked up the nomadic souls looking for a quick and exciting exit from the ordinary and the mundane existence. Many have run away from family or romantic turmoil, some see the welcoming embrace of a circus as a canopy to shelter under. This transitory habitat allows those with addicted excesses to join the caravan in exchange for a high rent. They create an extreme act which they use as a currency for their feral lifestyle. The act is peppered with performers who have been connected to this life through family roots and training.
The act should be “a spectacle”. Sanitised performances are transparent and viewed as cheap counterfeits; but to smell the fumes of the fire-eater and taste the cordite after explosives have been used in an act that truly endangers the performer’s life, is unforgettable. Publicists have fed on the ability to hype such performers. Stuntsters, through the generations, have been lifted from weather-beaten canvas sideshows, taken away from a muddy field in a hick town backwater and then promoted in a capital city. Ricky Jay, the famous magician, authored a brilliant book on the subject.
Some years ago now, I worked with Dashing Dave Danzig on a series of national stunts involving flames and fire. I had seen his escapes before, and one in particular I loved. He would tie himself to a toy train track and would have to escape before the toy train with a fork fastened to it, impaled his testicles. Some time later, I came across a book in a junk shop which detailed how you could actually lower a car onto your head. Dashing Dave Danzig decided to do it. We staged the event in a car park with a mini and I seriously believed that Dave’s head would be squashed like an overripe melon. Later, I found out that the stunt was aimed at an American market, and more importantly an American car, with independent suspension which meant three of the wheels took most of the weight. Dashing Dave took the full weight of the mini on his head.
Dave’s next stunt for the cameras was to stage a fire escape. Dave built a pyre, and like witches who were burned at the stake, so Dave would be tied to a wooden stake at the top of the pyre. Just as the pyre was lit, the flames would flare up and Dave would have 5 seconds to escape in the free air space below the flames. On this particular escape, Dave hadn’t checked the weather, which was crucial. The wind didn’t blow the fire up, but blew it into him. Dave couldn’t escape and sustained 75% burns all over his body. He never performed again.
We wouldn’t have been able to stage that kind of event nowadays even though there’s a far greater craving for it from the Jackass age. True publicists and stuntsters crave clients that juggle danger and seek to generate ink from the daring of their performances. Alas, the circuses and sideshows that once harboured these maniacs have long since gone and the TV companies who plundered this reality market are no longer interested.
The forthcoming Edinburgh Festival will float on helium and I will be trudging the streets to find one of these performers who might just become a star. But the hard facts are that the tragic events in Turkey will create more red tape and handcuffs for the escapologists to worm their way out of.