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Illusionist faces tough London crowd

When “performance artist” David Blaine decided to spend 44 days suspended over the Thames surviving only on water, he never counted on the threat posed by rowdy Londoners. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Before climbing into his 3-by-7 foot Plexiglas box, where he intends to survive for 44 days on water alone, American magician and “performance artist” David Blaine knew two things: He always wanted to attempt a stunt on or near London’s stunning Tower Bridge; and was determined that the stunt itself — suspended some 30 feet in the air over the Thames River — was going to be “insanely” difficult. But what the illusionist hadn’t foreseen was that perhaps the most unpredictable and dangerous part of the stunt would turn out to be the reaction of the British public.

ONE QUARTER of the way into his self-inflicted ordeal, Blaine has won some hearts and minds among the several hundred who gather next to the river bank at any given time to take photos, or gawk or relay messages.

They are separated from the magician by two security fences and a dozen burly guards.

Hand-painted signs, big enough for Blaine to read from his perch, proclaim support: “44 days?” reads one. “Even I can’t do it. I believe in you!’ Another borrows this nugget from Muhammad Ali: “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”

One American journalist in the crowd was heard explaining to a group of bemused French tourists who Blaine was and just why he was hanging from a glass box and waving at them.

On this day, crowd is mostly calm and civilized, even if many find Blaine’s stunt either crazy, self-centered or in typically American bad taste.


But the night crowd is a different story.

“Unlike the polite society, these guys are over the top. We really didn’t expect all of the hostility,” said Tom Bramlett, Blaine’s American partner and the designer of all of Blaine’s stunts. Previous works have have included “Frozen in Time” for which Blaine spent 60 hours encased in a huge ice cube on New York’s Times Square and “Vertigo” — 35 hours atop a 100-foot-high pole above Fifth Avenue in New York.

In the past week, Blaine has had to endure red laser beams locked onto his eyes, and constant drumming that has interrupted his sleep.

As he continues to fast, his “home” has been pelted by eggs, raw sausage and even a hamburger dangled from a remote-controlled helicopter.

Defenders of the Blaine-baiting claim it’s been in good fun.

“If you put a famous bloke up in a box and hang him over a place like this, I’m sorry, the British have a sense of humor, they’re gonna react,” said British journalist and Blaine-watcher Graham Culliford. “You put Mother Theresa up there and she’ll get tossed eggs as well!”


But at least one prank was not funny. Early Tuesday morning, a 38-year-old Briton, encouraged by his rather inebriated mates, managed to scale a scaffold tower that held Blaine’s water supply and tried to cut the magician’s water tube, damaging the supply in the process.

He also wrenched Blaine’s support cables, startling the slumbering escape artist, who shouted for the police.

The prankster was arrested and booked on charges of criminal damage and threatening behavior.

Now, Blaine’s security guards are determined not to allow any further lapses. On Wednesday, when another male protestor tried to throw a lemon at the magician’s plastic box, Blaine’s protectors pounced. They dragged the man, bleeding from the head, out of the area.


After 12 nights of standing vigil, some security guards are reported to be exhausted and frustrated.

But Bramlett said a key part of his partner’s “piece of art” is the crowd’s reaction. All things considered, he thinks Blaine is over a big hump.

“The first three days were awkward. The crowds were weird. It wasn’t safe in general, David was feeling vulnerable, and very hungry. Now we’re past those growing pains. And despite a couple of incidents, and the fact that water was cut off, David said he had his best day yet. He’s on a roll.”

There are, however, 32 more days to go. Worry is beginning to plague some loyal supporters who have watched Blaine since day one.

“The crowd is taking too much energy out of him,” said a Blaine fan, Nosheen Saeed, on Wednesday. “They always expect him to stand up and wave and do things like that. But he’s very drained now and it’s quite a worry because it’s only been 11 days.”

Blaine spends most of his time reading, writing a diary, and passively acknowledging the crowds. He has a water bottle, a tube to urinate, bedding, 2 rolls of toilet paper, and a curtain for occasional privacy.

He communicates via microphone and direct video link with his team of monitors, below the box and throughout the city.

He is also one pawn up and in a good defensive position, playing black pieces on a large chess board located below him.


But nutritionists say the difficult part is yet to come. Around the thirtieth day, they say, when the body has devoured its own fat and nutrients, Blaine is likely to become increasingly weak, dizzy, anxious and even depressed.

Bramlett has no doubt that the 30-year-old illusionist will work his patented magic and — once again — escape from death.

“David is healthy. And he’s the gutsiest guy I’ve ever met. So, do I have an ‘escape plan?’ No, I don’t.”

A growing number of Britons seems to think he should. According to bookmakers William Hill, Blaine’s chances of success are decreasing with most of the betting, of late, on Blaine not making it to Day 44.

And, unless the British public has a sudden change of heart, it might well be the audience that brings down David Blaine, well before the hunger.

NBC’s Jim Maceda is based in London.