Colourful characters

Photo:The Great Omani

The Great Omani

The Argus:

The Great Omani

By Rosemary Turner

A Little Bit of History - 9th July 2005

A cheery looking woman with a wild thatch of blonde hair appeared in the pub doorway and waved at the guest of honour. "Sorry I can't stay to watch you lie on a bed of glass, but I've got a sick pigeon down my bra," she warbled. Everyone nodded in sympathy, after all this was nothing unusual on a Saturday morning in Brighton.

90th birthday party
But if nursing sick pigeons is an average activity in the city, the events of this Saturday were - even by Brighton standards - slightly special. An excited crowd had gathered in the Bedford Tavern to witness a little bit of history. The Great Omani - otherwise known as Ron Cunningham - had summoned friends, family and the press to witness his farewell performance. On the occasion of his 90th birthday, the world's oldest stunt man was preparing to astound his audience for the very last time.

Magic Grandad's sense of the spectacular
Like a king upon his throne, the diminuative guest of honour had been installed in a wooden armed chair on a red plush cushion. Surrounding him nestled his court of nubile young Brazilian girls, laughing and kissing everybody in a very un-English fashion, they formed an adoring inner circle. At the next table the family gathered, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren gossiped together with a subdued air of occasion. The observer was quickly aware however that while they were here to celebrate a special day, they had, over the years, become used to Magic Grandad's sense of the spectacular - they had seen it all before. More wellwishers arrived bearing birthday cards and bottles of whiskey and were duly greeted with wild enthusiasm by the great man and kissed on both cheeks by the Brazilians.

The press arrive
The pigeon lady, with her lop-sided bosom, had scuttled away, but in her place arrived the press photographer. He was instantly recognisable, not for the camera bag slung over his shoulder which was at first hidden by the thick wooden doorpost, but rather for his air of unflappable patience and his multi-pocketed jacket. Such a garment is the stock in trade of the press photographer who may need to rapidly lay hands on film, lens cap, notebook and other pocket sized tools of the trade at a moment's notice and often in a severly confined space. "Aha the press have arrived," beamed the showman hopping up to greet the photographer and thus adding an extra frisson of expectation to the crowded bar. He made no obvious move to begin the show, however, for with over 60 years of performance under his belt The Great Omani knows how to work an audience and build them to a pitch of excited anticipation before the show begins.

The scene is prepared
More friends and family arrived, including a very large brown dog belonging to Ron's son and an extremely new baby belonging somewhere on the family tree. Finally the moment arrived. "Let's do it" he declared scuttling off to prepare himself with an energy and enthusiasm which would have done credit to a man half his age. The space was prepared, onlookers squashed back around the walls allowing a cloth to be laid in the middle of the carpet, on to which was poured a suitcase full of broken glass.

The Great Omani re-appeared, minus shirt, shoes and socks. Everyone cheered.

Finally the action begins
"This time last year I was the fittest man in Sussex," he proclaimed. And though that might seem an idle boast for man completing eight decades of life, in fact nobody doubted him for one moment. Despite the ravages of recent health problems his bronzed body bore all the signs of having been extremely well looked after. Anyway by then he had been chattering non stop for over an hour and everyone had heard the highlights of his remarkable life several times over. Twinkle eyed patter created the big build up, and finally the action began.

Crushing glass with bare feet
Clinging on to his young pal Jo for support he lifted one bare foot and brought it down hard on the pile of glass, then stepping up with both feet he began grinding broken bottles beneath his soles. The audience gasped and cheered and applauded, encouraging The Great Omani to totter off his glass mountain and re-mount for yet more glass grinding. Having worn the glass down to a coarse bed, he then lowered himself on to the floor and lay back, inviting a small great grandchild to stand on his chest.

Cracking gags and flashing fire
Still cracking jokes, he produced some metal rods with cotton wool ends soaked in lighter fuel. These he set light to and passed, in true showman's style, across his bare chest. Everyone knew he had been doing this trick for years and wouldn't actually damage his skin, but some were a little concerned for the sticking plasters on his arms which seemed in real danger of bursting into flames. The nurse who had applied them after his hospital blood tests obviously didn't realise the severe trauma these NHS bandages were destined to undergo.

Impressive fire eating
After some impressive fire eating, next came the bendy bladed knife which, with an appropriate build up for the audience and a final flourish, he plunged first into his chest and then into his chin. The Brazilians gasped and clutched each other, torn between amusement and wide eyed horror. Even the English people roared and cheered and applauded in enthusiastic abandonment.

The final stunt
And then the final stunt - the last performance ever - the farewell to a life's work. Hammer in hand The Great Omani placed a beer glass under his chin and, still reclining on his bed of broken glass, smashed it to pieces. The crowd went wild.  Finally all that was left was one last telling of the infamous chicken joke. And that was it. Ron returned to his seat at the bar, the Brazilians crowded around laughing and kissing everyone again, the family began to think about lunch.

Still a trick or two to come?
Time takes its toll on everyone, even a man bursting with life and energy must one day inevitably succumb to the greatest stunt of all. But despite his weakened limbs and his ninety years, and even despite this high profile final performance, somehow one is left thinking the old showman might still have a trick or two up his shirtsleeves before they finally ring down the curtain.

My Brighton and Hove contributor Joanna Cunningham is currently working on a book about The Great Omani.
Added to the site on 01-09-05 
This page was added on 22/03/2006.
Comments about this page

Can you tell me if the Great Omani is still alive and if he still frequents the Bedford Tavern?

By Louise Roddon (14/02/2007)

I remember the Great Omani (Ron), we saw quite a lot of him around Brighton. I think he used to do stunts on one of the piers too! Did he have a son or grandson called Dave Cunningham?

By Sandie Waller (27/05/2007)

I'm Vanessa Cunningham, recently married to the Great Omani's grandson. He is OK thank you. If I can answer any questions, please don't hesitate in contacting me at tony_0301@hotmail.co.uk.

By Vanessa Cunningham (15/07/2007)

Hiya, I'm Tammy, the Great Omani's grandaughter. He is so brave. I don't know how he does all of his stunts. But one thing I do know is that he amazes me!

By Tammy Cunningam (13/09/2007)

Rest in peace 15/10/2007 from Stu. We will miss you.

By Stu (16/10/2007)

Dear grandad I'm gonna miss you so much but now I know that you are in a better place now. No pain just happieness. I just want you to know that you will always be in my mind and heart. Tammy x

By Tammy Cunningham (17/10/2007)

A great man indeed by all accounts! And good to see a fellow Sherburnian achieve such a good innings. But what was the chicken joke?

By Ed Robertson (18/10/2007)

He was and always will be remembered as a great entertainer, a true pro. but most of all he was a great person. and is now sadly missed. rest in peace. Anthony x.

By Anthony (21/10/2007)

Rest in piece Ron. I will always remember you, Great Omani.

By Charlie (28/02/2008)

My wife and I watched the BBC documentary on The Great Omani (aka Ron ) last night. What a truly amazing man. We just don't have colourful characters like this in our lives anymore. Instead we're force fed pseudo-celebs who do nothing more than win a telly talent content or marry a footballer

Joanna - if you read this, pease let me know the name of the book (mentioned above). I'd so love to read more about this fascinating fella.

RIP Ron, along with the other great entertainers that are no longer with us. I so look forward to meeting you one day x

By Max Harris (28/02/2008)

Great entertainment. Condolences to your family. Rest in peace.

By Richard Smith (02/03/2008)

There was a lovely review of the programme by Nancy Banks Smith in the Guardian. She wrote

It would be the ultimate death-defying feat to vanish from your coffin. The last person to pull that one off was Jesus Christ, but the Great Omani was working on it. He wrote this little poem to be read at his funeral:

They put Omani in his box,
They're using nails instead of locks.
But at his funeral don't despair,
The chances are he won't be there.

The Great Omani, born Ron Cunningham, was an escapologist and stuntman, whose career peaked when he did a handstand at the edge of a cliff with flags wedged in his boots, to celebrate the Queen's silver jubilee. A sort of upside-down version of Sir Edmund Hillary. He died aged 92, after several positively last appearances. Brighton affectionately indulged him. The landlord of his local, who tended to call him the Great Armani, let him set fire to himself in the public bar. Judging from the cartwheeling camera, Daniel Vernon, the director of Wonderland: The 92-Year-Old Danger Junkie (BBC2), had to help put the fire out. The Great Omani, slightly singed, conceded that he was, slowing down a bit. The Mayor of Brighton himself set fire to Omani's hat. This was, perhaps, your happiest memory of him. Sitting in a wheelchair in the street, surrounded by smiles, with his hat on fire.

He was a big, boney, sunny man, who blossomed in front of an audience. "When the cameras are on me," he said, "I am always happy." Towards the end there was only his son, David, who hated showbusiness, and a jack russell puppy, which, David said, smelled death. Lying in bed, the Great Omani flexed the long double-jointed fingers that had unpicked so many locks. "Old age came so suddenly," he said. "You miss the feeling of confidence and power. It's just not there. Why has it been taken away?" He touched his stiffening fingers to his forehead and said, "The Great Omani - what's left of him - salutes you."

He still had a sure finger on the pulse of publicity. We met him being filmed for South Korean TV and left him drumming up interest in his funeral from his deathbed. "This is Omani. There could be a story here, a very unusual story. You have heard of me, haven't you? Of course you have! No, Jack!" The puppy, which had been industriously chewing through his phone flex, had now dragged the whole caboodle on to the floor.

His white coffin was drawn along the prom by four white horses with pink feathers on their heads. Past the pier he used to jump off, wreathed in chains. He was never the best escapologist in the world but he was, finally, the oldest. "Isn't it nice," he said, "to be someone." Laurence Olivier, who lived there, too, once said fame smelled like Brighton. His industrious publicity paid dividends in obituaries. The Times, somewhat characteristically, reported the passing of "Sherbourne Old Boy who became an escapologist and end of the pier act".

Let Health and Safety go boil their heads. They should live as long as The Great Omani.

By Peter Chrisp (02/03/2008)

Hi. I watched the documentary on The Great Omani and thought it was very interesting to see a little about Ron's life. I thought it was a bit sad in places, I remembered as a small boy The Great Omani being chained up and jumping into the sea at the end of the West Pier it seemed ages that he was beneath the water before he popped up to the surface, great life Ron (rip)

By John Rich (02/03/2008)

I watched the BBC documentary tonight and just wanted to add that Ron brought a tear to my eye with his zest for life, even as his body started to fail him. RIP Ron and enjoy performing all of your stunts again up above. I wish we had more people like you today aiming to brighten up the lives of others.

By Iain (02/03/2008)

My mum had seen this wonderful documentary and we watched it together just now. The great Omani was the most incredible man - so spirited and full of life. A very wise man indeed and very good to see a man so able and willing to talk openly about his feelings when he was so close to death, and the way he planned his funeral and organising all those articles. It must have been so hard for his son who was his full time carer - all credit to him for dealing so well with such a private matter in front of the cameras. We would love to read the book, please forward details.
We hope the great Omani and Houdini are planning lots of stunts together. Thank you the great Omani for sharing so much with us on your film.

By dawn and Mum Carole (02/03/2008)

Now I am a man of 23, I'm happy and sad and chained and free, it made me smile and laugh to see the best old tricks of great Omani. Without a doubt a star and sea, by pier and torch and flags for queen, for time to take escapists beat, THE GREAT OMANI RESTS IN PEACE!

By Richard Hamzi (04/03/2008)

RIP the Great Omani. I saw the documentary on TV and was touched to see the audacity and bravery displayed by the aged Great Omani and his zest to continue on with something which his body would no more allow him to continue to do. What a character and personality!

By Umar Qureshi (11/03/2008)

After I finished my A-Levels in 1972, I worked on a building site for Rice and Sons as a labourer for six months whilst making my mind up what to do with my life. On my first day the foreman told me that I was to go "Chasing with the Great Omani" - as you can guess, I had no idea what he was talking about, but it transpired that Ron's job was to cut and break out chases for the electrical conduits and boxes. He would cut the brickwork with an angle grinder and I would break it out with a hammer and bolster, as I was too young to use a Kango. He was a lovely, entertaining man and a true eccentric - he would have a nap and ask me to keep an eye out of the window, and if I saw the foreman come out of his office to make as much noise as I could with the kango rattling away on the concrete floor - he slept through it all. By coincidence for the previous couple of years I worked part time at the Academy Cinema in West Street, selling ice creams in the evenings. Ron's wife Eileen worked there as an usherette - she used to tell me stories about her husband, Ron, that had me in tears. A real golden couple. RIP

By Andrew Dawson (12/05/2008)

I once saw the Great Omani in Hove Park in the 1970s - it was a Hove Lions day.

By Wayne Wareham (24/07/2008)

I remember the Great Omani when he was entombed in a glass coffin on the Palace Pier. It was half a crown to go and see him, and I was with my boyfriend, probably around 1952. As we walked past the coffin, he looked straight at me with those amazing blue eyes, and I was really embarrassed, but found it hard to look away! I was about 17 years old at the time.

By Brenda Street (02/01/2009)

Grandad, I miss you so much. I know you're in a better place but it's hard not having you around.  You're amazing and I love you very much. Sleep tight angel.

By Lydia (17/01/2009)

I remember the Great Omani, doing stunts around Brighton. In fact I was a Brighton lifegaurd for a number of years and I was asked by Ron to make out that there may be need of help but only for effect so I had to stand by and wait after being told to count to five by Ron, then make a big fuss of getting the audience excited by shouting 'he's trapped under the pier, shall I dive down and release him from the sack that he's chained into?' But then all of a sudden he would appear when he had a huge rope tied around his neck and challenged people to pull it really hard to try and strangle him. They never could, happy memories of Brighton town.

By Duffy (17/05/2009)

Well what can I say? I remember we weren't really close but when it got to the summer hoildays when you weren't well, I stayed with you all weekend, it was fun! We become very close, I'm very proud to be a Cunningham. It was hard the next summer hoildays after you sadly passed away knowing I wouldn't see you. I was at a friend's house and Ben (Ron's grandson) and dad (Ron's son) just got home from Brighton. I was very upset I wasn't allowed to go and my mum was on the train going to Brighton. We had a call off David (Ron's Son) saying grandad had passed away. I just sobbed- it was one off the saddest moments off my life, then we had to call mum and say don't bother going to Brighton, grandad's gone. Grandad, basically I love you and miss you with all my heart, you had a great long life, and if I could give you ten years off my life, I would without fail. You will always be in my heart grandad. I know you're in a better place now but it just doesnt seem right?. R.I.P I miss you (Princess Omani)

By Lydia Cunningham (08/09/2009)

I also knew The Great Omani. I was a friend of his son David (David get in touch if you read this) at the age of 15. A gifted man with a wry sense of humor and his tricks on the West Pier were a thing to see (not for the faint hearted) and was always followed by a silver collection as a thank you for the entertainment. Sad to read you are no longer with us. David touch base if you feel so inclined.

By Peter Miller (11/09/2009)

What a true Legend he was and is. I would love to make a web site about his life, email me shammon976@hotmail.com. regards Andy

By Andy Robertson (29/12/2012)

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