Thinking about David Blaine – and who doesn’t these days – I took the opportunity to leaf through a favourite book of mine, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women.
In it, I note that Gilderoy the Fire King ignited himself with 500 cartridges in a Temple of Fire suspended 10 feet off the ground; an artiste called Cherdet cooked himself in an oven; Nordini, the white fakir, boiled himself alive in a witch’s cauldron; and the Great Peter used to wrap a hangman’s noose around his neck and drop 75 feet to the ground. Then there was the tasteful Rithlow, who re-created lynchings by having himself dragged through the streets in a sack on a rope attached to a horse.
There are many published pictures of these oddities from the 1800s, and one of the things that fascinates me is the performers are always smiling. They never look serious or sombre. In fact, it seems as if impending danger delights them, and they want the viewer to share in the joie de vivre (potentially joie de mort) that they clearly possess.
The smile primes us to expect excitement, it makes us open and receptive, and we can’t help but like and empathise with a person so patently cheerful. This is something we’re all going to enjoy together.
Not to get overly analytical about it, but the smile creates a relationship between audience and performer: we want the act to work, and even if it were to turn out a magnificent con, who cares? We’re mates, and we certainly had a good laugh.
Notably absent from the images of illusionists and magicians in Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women is anyone with a condescending, priggish smirk, or anyone looking faintly mournful and mystified at his strange situation. No one, in short, who has adopted the humourless look of David Blaine.
David Blaine is a pupil of Tony Blair’s. He has learned, somehow, to irritate and antagonise the British public simply by showing his face. As with Blair, some (though I’m not sure who) would argue he is good at the actual business he does, but (as with Blair) not many people seem to like him for it.
The problem for Blaine is that his stunt is passive. We all know he’s going to make it: he’ll crank up the media and succeed with some theatrics towards the end, and that’ll be it. In between, the stunt is just dull. Man Sits In Box And It’s Amazing! – well, definitely on day one, but when the media gets tired of reporting the initial hiatus, and there’s nothing much happening, it then starts writing articles about how Man Who Sits In Box Is Really Arrogant and Boring and No One Likes Him.
You could argue that, since no publicity is bad publicity, that’s not a problem. And if David Blaine can make loads of money by being boring and disliked, he gets the last laugh. Although if he does, he certainly doesn’t show it.
From my point of view, this is an expensive and unengaging kind of stunt. I’d far prefer the recent Ebay scam which the Mirror ran on Tuesday, which involved a woman who purportedly wanted to sell all her kitchen utensils.
But whoops, reflected in the photograph of the saucepans, is the image of the woman naked, and (of course) smiling. Well, she would, wouldn’t she, and we do too. It’s likeable, it’s funny, and it’s fun. It appeals to our sense of the silly. And who cares that five years ago we had virtually the same story (“fat naked man reflected in chrome toaster”)?
Next year, there may well be a new variant. It’ll become a running gag: each new route to the same punchline will capture our attention, and give us the pleasure of recognition. Capturing attention is what PR is all about. Well, not quite all, because if it’s to be successful PR, rather than just PR, it has to appeal to our imagination and it has to beguile us as well.
That’s what the real, smiling showmen of the 1800s did. That’s what David Blaine seems to be constitutionally incapable of doing, and we dislike him, and all his overblown hullabaloo as a result.