x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Use your illusion

A British illusionist has become the latest to attempt a headline-grabbing stunt, but with the world more difficult to shock these days, we wonder whether the age of the mega-illusion show is drawing to a close.

US magician David Blaine is surrounded by a block of ice in Times Square in New York, 27 November 2000. Blaine is attempting to freeze himself in the six-ton block of ice for 58 hours.  AFP PHOTO/Doug KANTER
US magician David Blaine is surrounded by a block of ice in Times Square in New York, 27 November 2000. Blaine is attempting to freeze himself in the six-ton block of ice for 58 hours. AFP PHOTO/Doug KANTER

There have been a number of bizarre animal sightings in the River Thames over the past few years. Bottlenose dolphins, seals and even a 28ft humpback whale have been spotted splashing about in what was one of the UK's most polluted stretches of water just a few decades ago.

But on Saturday, crowds gathered to witness an altogether more unlikely spectacle, that of a man in a red jacket strolling across the water, apparently unaided, with his arms outstretched, towards the Houses of Parliament. Rather than being a disgruntled tourist looking to avoid the crowds or a disgraced MP avoiding the cameras, the man in question was the UK magician Dynamo (real name Steve Frayne) and the stunt was pulled to promote his new TV show Dynamo: Magician Impossible.

Although a spokesman has said the photographs that were released of this achievement weren't faked (well, they would say that), it's important to note that Dynamo isn't the first to beat science in such a manner. Criss Angel, the US "death metal" illusionist (he performs tricks while sporting Slipknot T-shirts and tattoos), performed a similar feat in 2006, albeit using the slightly more glamorous surroundings of a hotel swimming pool full of bikini-clad women. The method behind Angel's stunt has since been speculated about online, with various sources claiming that he was simply walking on a series of Plexiglas platforms, with girls swimming through the gaps to create the illusion.

Whether Dynamo used the same method in London is yet to be exposed (it's unlikely he could find anyone to swim in the Thames), but while it did help earn him a few newspaper inches, it seems the age of the big stunt magic shows is perhaps drawing to a close. The world simply isn't an easy place to (legally) shock or amaze any more. What might have had masses shrieking with astonishment just a few years back, these days seems barely worthy of a tweet. David Copperfield famously made the Statue of Liberty disappear in 1983 (a trick he achieved by putting the cameras and audience on a large rotating stage that moved to a new position once the curtain came down), appeared to levitate cross-legged over the Grand Canyon in 1984 (suspended by a helicopter with super-strength wires) and walked through the Great Wall of China in 1986 (hidden in portable stairs moved to the other side), but it's likely if he attempted such feats now, very few people would be bat an eyelid, and then only to laugh at his tan. This could be why he's recently been eschewing TV audiences and concentrating on earning mega-millions from his live shows (of which he apparently does 500 across the world each year) and enjoying his 11 (11!) Bahaman islands.

Then there's David Blaine, whose periodical "look at me, I'm weird" performances might have made him magical sums of money, but only really served to numb the public's levels of interest. Following 1999's Buried Alive (Blaine in an underground plastic box for seven days), there was 2000's Frozen Alive (Blaine encased in a massive block of ice for 63 hours), 2002's Vertigo (Blaine standing on a 30 metre high pillar for 35 hours) and 2003's Above the Below (Blaine living in a Plexiglas case without food for 44 days), each testing the audience value of such endurance challenges.

Choosing to take his Above the Below performance to the UK, coincidentally by the side of the Thames, Blaine found that the British public wasn't quite so forgiving of his oversized ego. Rather than shout words of encouragement as he struggled to survive in his transparent box on just 4.5 litres of water per day, the crowds threw eggs at the magician and taunted him with a burger dangled from a remote-controlled helicopter.

Like Copperfield, Blaine has cooled off his big stunt shows of recent years (his last was Dive of Death in 2008, in which he hung upside down for 60 hours, this time safely back in the US and away from the English cynics). After a four-year hiatus, his next show, announced earlier this month, will be broadcast next year and will reportedly be "100 per cent street magic", which hopefully means he'll be returning to the sleight of hand tricks that made him famous (and were much more impressive than standing still for a long time in a small space).

Whether we ever find out how Dynamo walked across the Thames remains to be seen. Maybe there were Plexiglas boxes, perhaps he hitched a ride on the back of a humpback whale. The biggest test for Dynamo will be if anyone goes on to watch his TV show.