‘The Great Omani’

Ron Cunningham, who died on Monday aged 92, was an escapologist and end-of the-pier artiste specialising in feats such as eating light bulbs and removing a straitjacket while hanging upside down with his trousers on fire.

The Great Omani, as he was known to his public, began in the 1950s as a regular draw at music halls and piers around the south coast. His career reached a high point in 1977 when, to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, he performed a handstand on the cliff edge at Beachy Head with a Union flag between his toes; it made the front page of The People, and film and television appearances followed.

Other highlights included a ride in a coffin from Hastings to Brighton while he lay on broken glass; reading a book in a bath of fire; and a journey on the back of a lorry while entombed in a concrete block. The local newspaper report of this last feat featured a photograph of a youthful-looking Cunningham’s head poking from a concrete block as a woman bends over him with what appears to be a funnel.

It was a slow journey, Cunningham recalled, and his stage partner, Professor Cullen — “a human reservoir for alcoholic beverage” — had stopped the lorry at several pubs along the way. The Great Omani could not hold a glass because he was flat on his back with his hands set in concrete, so the barmaid poured neat rum down his throat. He nearly choked.

His high jinks as an end-of-the-pier artiste could hardly have been predicted from Cunningham’s roots. Ronald Cunningham was born on July 10 1915, the son of a wealthy wine shipper in Buckinghamshire. He was educated at Sherborne and led the life of a playboy until the wine business went bankrupt just before the war, his father died and the family broke apart.

After being rejected by the Army, apparently because he had a weak heart, he was almost penniless when one day he wandered into a bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London. A book flew off a high shelf and landed on his foot; it was The Secrets of Houdini. It was, he recalled, a “paranormal happening”. “From that moment my life altered completely. I felt a chemical change, and I never looked back.”

He began to read obsessively about Houdini’s career and practised his first underwater escapes in the shallow end of the public baths. As Houdini left no instructions, it was a matter of trial and error. He also experimented with beds of nails, broken bottles and fire and invented a foreign-sounding stage name to give himself an air of mystery. One of his most celebrated acts was the “death dive”, based on an original Houdini trick, which involved jumping into the sea from a pier, hooded, bound and padlocked.

In the early days it was difficult to make a living. His long-suffering wife, Eileen (or Marvita, as she was known when she was thrusting swords through him on stage) supported him until her death in 1983. They toured the music halls and expanded his act until he was able to perform daily on Bognor pier, tied to the pilings in a straitjacket as the tide came in.

He also became a regular on Brighton’s West Pier, diving into a sea of flames. “People will always flock to see anyone likely to kill themselves,” he observed. One of the Great Omani’s predecessors was Professor Cyril, aka Albert Huggins Heppell, who specialised in pedalling a bicycle out to sea from a high platform until he was killed when he slipped and fractured his skull.

As the years rolled on, however, the south coast piers closed one by one and the tone of the press coverage about Cunningham changed from respect to wonder that a man of his age should still be doing such dangerous stunts. He announced his retirement several times before finally bowing out in 2005 with a bravura performance at the Bedford Tavern in Brighton.

There, surrounded by a bevy of Brazilian beauties, he crushed broken bottles with his bare feet, set himself alight with lighter fuel, stabbed himself several times in the chest with a bendy knife, smashed a beer glass into his neck with a hammer and rounded things off by telling his infamous chicken joke. “It has been a happy and colourful life, and an interesting life,” he reflected. “Otherwise, things could have been quite dull.”

Perhaps determined that the suspense should last to the very end, Cunningham even wrote his own epitaph:

They have put the Great Omani in a box
They’re using nails instead of locks
But at the funeral, do not despair
There’s still a chance Omani won’t be there.

Ron Cunningham is survived by two sons. A daughter predeceased him.