Thursday, October 30, 2008

David Merlini

With a name like Merlini it was inevitable that my protégé from Budapest would be a magician. From the moment I saw his act I knew he could become a world superstar. What I never imagined was that he would one day place his life in my hands.

David Merlini held 500 celebrities, journalists and television executives spellbound at the Majestic Hotel in Cannes on the first day of MIPCOM, the $500m media fair, with a death-defying attempt to shatter the world record for surviving underwater without breathing.

David Blaine held the title, after he spent more than 17 minutes submerged in a glass globe on Oprah Winfrey’s show earlier this year. But Merlini was confident he could seize that record, after spending more than a year in training.

“I have held my breath for well over 20 minutes in my bathtub,” he assured me. “And I already hold the record for the longest underwater escape — you’ve seen the video.”

He’s right, and it’s the most terrifying 10 minutes and 17 seconds ever filmed. Merlini was chained and handcuffed in a glass cabinet like an up-ended coffin in Hollywood, for a feat that was a direct homage to his hero, Harry Houdini. Unlike Houdini, he did not slip his shackles in a few swift movements, but wrestled with them constantly.

“When you’re fighting to get out of chains,” David told me, “You use up a lot of blood oxygen. This time, I’m going to be perfectly still. The secret is not to hold your breath — it is to breathe out, at timed intervals, just a bubble or two at a time.”

Merlini has accomplished feats of escape and endurance that have never been copied. He has been chained inside a steel box that was welded shut and thrown into the Danube by the world’s strongest man, Laszlo Fekete. He has been suspended from a helicopter by a burning rope, strait-jacketed in a refrigerator at minus 38F, buried in concrete up to his neck and dumped once again into the Danube, and frozen with 300 gallons of liquid nitrogen.

But this time, I was afraid for him. As I ended my introduction and he was lowered into the tank in Cannes, I could not help remembering how I had imagined this scene before. At the climax of my novel Ella, the twisted guru who is controlling the heroine has himself submerged in a tank of water and drowned on live TV, convinced that Ella will bring him back to life in a televised miracle.

My tension must have been visible to the crowd. “You looked like a headless chicken on the stage,” my brother-in-law Shipi told me later, laughing. But my emotion was genuine and I couldn’t hide it: if anything went wrong, I might see my friend die before my eyes.


Uri beyond the panic (All photos are taken by Irene Hell)

As the clock ticked, the atmosphere in the Majestic was nerve-shredding. Merlini seemed barely to blink as he swayed inside the tank, a tiny bubble escaping his lips every twenty seconds or so.

A roar went up as the countdown passed the record mark, and still Merlini showed no sign that he was ready to emerge. I could feel the blood pumping in my head. Nothing would induce him to quit — every second he was extending his grip on the record, making it more and more impossible for anyone ever to surpass him.

After 20 minutes and 30 seconds I saw his eyes roll up in his head as he started to slump to the side. If he wasn’t already unconscious, he was slipping into a blackout, and at any moment his body’s reflexes would force him to gulp for air.

There was no time to prise off the lid. In those few precious seconds, Merlini could drown. Security guards were standing on either side of the tank with sharp tools clutched in their fists, and I gave the order: “Get him out of there! Smash the glass!”

A ton of water exploded across the stage — and it was stained an ominous pink. As Merlini stumbled out of the wreckage, I saw he was badly cut across one side, on his arm and leg.


Merlini just survived his bloody new world record

Paramedics at the scene bandaged his wounds and we rushed him to the city hospital by ambulance. There was a grim surprise for us there — the accident and emergency department was packed with people, some of them nursing serious injuries from car accidents and fights.


Uri and Merlini. “Protégé” sometimes it means – nursing.

I asked Merlini how he was feeling, and he grinned: “I feel no pain,” he said. “I never do, not until the next day. It’s part of my secret — I can endure suffering that would kill a normal man, because I can shut off the pain.”

I made certain that he wasn’t bleeding, then told Shipi to stand guard on Merlini’s place in the A&E queue. “We’re going to a party,” I said.

And we did — the star-studded affair hosted by ProSieben’s CEO Guillaume de Posch. The point of MIPCOM, after all, was to introduce Merlini to the world’s TV bosses, and they weren’t going to come and visit him in hospital.

When we returned to A&E three hours later, a very bored Shipi had almost reached the front of the queue. “You missed a great party,” I told him. That’ll teach him to call me a headless chicken...

Update: Merlini needed 15 stitches, and had lost about a litre of blood. He shrugged it off: “It’s all part of the game... the game of life!”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Uri Geller : KGB, Lev

As a teenager, I dreamed of being a spy. My imagination fed on cinema portrayals of the glamour and excitement of espionage, and my ego thrilled at the thought of sharp clothes, gorgeous girls and fast cars. My gift for mind-reading, I knew, would make me an exceptional special agent.

My mother was running a guest-house in Nicosia, Cyprus, with my step-father in those days. When one of our lodgers, an athletically built Israeli called Yoav, offered to teach me the rudiments of judo, I seized the chance to learn the skills of unarmed combat.

Yoav claimed to be a grain merchant, but I sensed there was a secret undercurrent to his meetings with shady, soft-spoken characters who muttered in Syrian and Egyptian accents. I sensed, too, that he was an expert with guns and explosives as well as martial arts.

Convinced that Yoav was a spy, I slipped into the attic of our house one afternoon to spy through a crack in the ceiling at our lodger as he studied maps with a contact. My ear picked out words in the whispered conversation that left me in no doubt they were discussing military matters. Some grain merchant...

It never occurred to me that what I had seen could put my life in danger, and perhaps my parents' lives as well. I confronted Yoav, told him what I knew, and demanded to be recruited as a junior agent. When he told me there was no place for boys in the secret service, I gave him a demonstration of telepathy and psychokinesis, moving the hands on his watch with my mind.

Shocked that I had seen through his cover, and doubly amazed that I could reproduce the pictures in his mind, Yoav swore me to secrecy. He would train me as an agent, in return for my silence. For a few weeks, I acted as his go-between, collecting and delivering documents... and then he was gone, assigned to a fresh mission, and my life as a spy was over. I never got to drive an Aston Martin — in fact, the only high-speed chases I had involved Joker, my dog, who loved to belt after my bicycle.

A decade later, after my mindpower abilities were extensively tested at Stanford Research Institute in California, I was approached by the CIA. At first, they seemed to expect little more from me than Yoav had: I was booked onto an airliner and instructed to focus on wiping the electronic files in an attaché case which belonged, I suspected, to a KGB man.

But there was a darker side to the US secret service in the Seventies. It seems incredible now and grimly funny — George Clooney is to star in a black comedy about their activities, with Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges and my friend Kevin Spacey. It's called The Men Who Stare At Goats.

I found nothing funny about the CIA operatives who asked me to stare, not at goats but at pigs. They wanted me to stop the animals' hearts with a psychic attack.

I'm a committed vegetarian, but that wasn't why I walked out of the program. The bosses at Langley weren't just interested in killing pigs: they wanted to learn how mindpower could kill human beings.

I'd love to see my CIA dossier. Chances are there's a drawerful of data on me in Russia's former KGB security archives too. This week I was introduced to a retired Soviet spy, Michael Evlashin, now a published poet, and asked him whether there was any chance I could take a look at my file.


"Sure, no problem," he said with a wicked grin. “Ask nicely and it comes in a presentation package, you know... with ribbons!”

I think that's just the Russian sense of humour...

The nights are drawing in, here in Moscow. That's great news for my TV series, because viewers want to get home early and enjoy a cosy night in front of the television. And we've got fantastic entertainment for them — one on our contestants lay down on a bed of broken glass this week and allowed a road-roller to run over him. Incredibly, he was able to get up without suffering a scratch.

The combination of dark nights and brilliant television is delivering record-breaking ratings for us, above 20 per cent. We're already in talks about a second series. But winter is on the way, and in Moscow that means there's a bitingly cold wind. To keep the hibernation blues away, I'm flexing my most powerful muscle, my mind. It can supply all the sunshine a body needs.

My top tip for instant warmth is to tell my wife and children that I love them. Hanna and I have been together since the start of my career, and I have told her what she means to me a million times... but it always makes me feel great to say it again. Too many of my male friends are tongue-tied with the people who mean most to them: their emotions are bottled up, and that weakens their mental focus and energy. If you love somebody, don't be shy — say so!

Professor Jane Plant, the government's chief scientific adviser, says we should all smile more to combat Seasonally Affective Depression, or SAD. "Smiling is a way of tricking your brain into thinking everything's OK," she explains. "People who are mildly depressed should do their best to show the world a happy face as that will improve people's reaction to you and lift your mood."

Here's another tip: live generously. I shared a stage with one of the world's richest men, the diamond dealer Lev Leviev, at the weekend. He pledged millions of roubles to help Moscow's Habad orphanage, and with a flick of his pen poured an ocean of sunshine into the lives of a lot of needy children.


I mustn't forget to mention one of my favourite techniques to keep stay sunny on the inside: get your hair done. I enjoy a brush-up from a stylist every week, as part of my preparation for the show. It's the fastest way to feel pampered and refreshed, and to send a message to your subconscious that you're a special person.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Amber room, Lisa Stansfield, Tzipi, orphanage, padlocks

Think of Russian treasures, and you might picture a Faberge egg or the bejewelled Tsarist antiques in St Petersburg’s Hermitage museum. But a Moscow newspaper has challenged me to track down a treasure much bigger than that... it’s an entire room.

The Amber Room was one of the wonders of the world, two centuries ago. Built in Germany and given by the Prussian royal family to Peter the Great, emperor of Russia, it was lined with carved amber across every surface — floor, walls and ceiling.

Six tons of amber, worth an estimated L1bn today...

The room was stolen by the Nazis, who boxed it up and shipped it back to Germany in 1941. By the time the war was over, the room had disappeared. Many suspected Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, had commandeered it — one rumour claimed it was packed into 27 crates and hidden on board a ship that was sunk by a Soviet submarine.

I believe the amber is underwater now but, as I told the editor of Moscowski Komsomolets, it is not lost at sea. My instincts tell me the Nazis deliberately sank the treasure in an inland lake or lagoon, and that other treasures were buried with it.

I will use my dowsing gifts to try and track it down, though I am concerned that after 65 years underwater, the amber will have rotted. It will be an artistic disaster if nothing remains but an oozing mess.

Back in June 2006 I predicted that my old friend Tzipi Livni, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, would soon be Prime Minister. That took no psychic power — it was clear she stood head-and-shoulders above the other politicians of her generation for sheer drive, talent and intellect.

Last month, with the resignation of PM Ehud Olmert, she was elected leader of the Kadima party and given six weeks to form a government coalition. I know she will succeed, and become Israel’s second woman Prime Minister, after Golda Meir.

Why am I so certain? Because Tzipi and I used to play basketball together, back on the courts of Tel Aviv in the Sixties. Even though she was a dozen years younger than me, she was usually the tallest girl on the team, and she had an unerring aim.

When Tzipi went for a slam-dunk, she hit the hoop as if she already knew the point was scored. That’s the kind of confidence and self-belief that has carried her all the way to the top in politics.

Back then, I was obsessed with basketball. Most of the city’s schools in Tel Aviv had a court, and I would zip around on my Vespa until I found a deserted playground. If the gates were open, I’d start bouncing a ball around, and within minutes there would be a crowd of kids eager to join in.

My favourite trick was to slam the ball through the hoop blindfolded. When I relied on my mind power senses, I was more accurate than when I used my eyes. To prove it I would sometimes ride my Vespa blindfold too. To Hanna’s relief, that’s something I grew out of.... but I’m still crazy about basketball.

Flying back from Moscow to London for an appearance on QVC, the television shopping channel, I got chatting to Rochdale’s soul diva, Lisa Stansfield. She was astonished when I bent a spon for her, and revealed that she has a deeply spiritual side to her personality.


It’s almost 20 years since Lisa’s massive international hit, All Around The World, but she assured me she still loves soul music. These days she is branching out into acting — last year she starred in an episode of Marple with Geraldine McEwan, Alison Steadman and Juliet Stevenson.

If you want a celebrity challenge, try naming a more impressive trio of theatrical talent than that.

One of Moscow's Habad rabbis, Yacov Fridman, left me speechless when he explained how the Jewish Habad movement which he helps to run in Moscow has distributed over L130m to the needy, much of it donated by Russia’s new breed of billionaires.

The rabbi invited me to see the charity at work with a visit to one of the city’s orphanages. We had a wonderful time — the children were full of life and energy, and that always inspires me to entertain... there wasn’t a spoon, a fork or a hairpin left unbent by the time they waved us off.


Maybe I should take up a collection on the show, and ask viewers to each send one piece of unwanted cutlery to the charity. Or perhaps that’s not such a great idea — with six million knives and forks, the orphanage would have no room for the children.

As we were strolling over a bridge towards the Kremlin, Hanna and I were fascinated to see six or seven trees festooned with padlocks. My first thought was that they were artworks created with leftovers from KGB dungeons during the Cold War, but when we looked more closely we saw there were notes and ribbons attached to every lock.


Hanna worked it out: these were good-luck charms, hung there by newly-weds. It’s an old Moscow custom for a couple to celebrate being locked together for life.

Hanna and I have been together nearly four decades, but it’s never too late to celebrate. I’m going to find the biggest, shiniest padlock in all the city’s luggage shops and add it to the top of a tree.


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