Jumping off a bridge attached to untested elastic, riding down a mountain on a grand piano and crossing the English Channel suspended from a helium-filled kangaroo all sound like insane pastimes, but they’re all in a day’s work for the Dangerous Sports Club, reports Adam Hay-Nicholls
The printed invitations had already been posted, so there could be no chickening out. April Fool’s Day, 1979; Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. Bungee jumping at dawn. Morning dress.
Forty years ago, a group of Oxford University post-graduates were about to make history. Calling themselves the Dangerous Sports Club, they had prepared with a night of partying and assembled atop the bridge well past the prescribed hour. They were about to invent bungee jumping. It had never been done before.
The first student to take the plunge had a scarf over his bearded face and was clutching a bottle of champagne. He swung his legs over the railing and dove head-first towards the River Avon, 80 metres below. This man was David Kirke. One might say he was mad, as were the three other ex-public schoolboys who jumped down after him, home-made cords connecting them to the bridge by untested elastic. As Kirke, now 75 and the eldest of the group, notes: “We were called the Dangerous Sports Club. Testing it first wouldn’t have been particularly dangerous.”
Thus began the legend of the DSC, and a thorn in the side of constabularies around the globe. The Falstaffian Kirke and his merry young men spent that afternoon in a police cell dreaming up more audacious stunts, and things escalated quickly; over 80 white-knuckle capers in more than 40 countries that broke limbs as well as laws. The abiding principal on all these outings, Kirke says, was “one-third recklessness of innocence, tempered with two-thirds recklessness of contempt.”
“David would have done well in a war. He was a mixture of Biggles and Jean-Paul Sartre,” says Lord Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, ex-DSC and now a top lawyer in Beverly Hills. “He came out to see me during the L.A. riots [in 1992] and he had a whale of a time”. Membership, which included Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, swelled throughout the 1980s as the Dangerous Sports Club attempted BASE jumping in top hats and tailcoats, hang-gliding off mounts Olympus and Kilimanjaro, taking the Cresta Run in shopping trollies, and skateboarding during the running of the bulls. This was twenty years before Jackass and energy drinks companies licensed such tomfoolery.
Photographer Dafydd Jones recorded their jaw-dropping activities. “I first met David Kirke at a Piers Gaveston party at Oxford, and then went to see the gang in action at the Gloucestershire home of the Dutch ambassador. David buzzed overhead in a microlight. A young Nigella Lawson played croquet from a sedan chair supported by four members of the club. There was never much notice given, when it came to David. He’d ring me at 11pm and say to meet him at Beachy Head at dawn.”
One of the highlights of the ‘season of danger’ was their regular assault on the Alps. Fellini-inspired surrealist gatherings included ironing boards, coffins and sculptures on skis, on which these blue-blooded renegades would ride with parachutes to help with the really steep bits. As long as there was an unusual object between yourself and the piste not normally to be found in a ski resort, you could enter. One member rode down the mountain at St Moritz on a grand piano, another group at a Louis XIV dining set, two astride a full-size replica of a Tomahawk cruise missile, and a rowing squad in an eight-man boat, complete with cox and oars.
Television and film art director Steve Smithwick was roped in. “I’d had a couple of extremely convivial DSC spag’ bol’ dinners at Dave’s place in Fulham. One day he and Cosmo Hulton turned up at my studio and asked if I would make a desert island for an event in St Moritz. It was to be mounted on skis, but no mention was given to steering or brakes. Their enthusiasm for surrealism caught my imagination. I built it upon a wooden base with a polystyrene mound on top, a palm tree sprouting from the middle and a shark on the back. Not only was I not paid for this, they had me pilot it myself at high speed into the side of a snowcat that was recovering another crashed racer. Cosmo and Dave, meanwhile, went down on a prop horse borrowed from the National Theatre.”
On another run down the mountain, Kirke managed to knock himself out piloting a Sinclair C5. The shenanigans reached their limit in 1985 when Rufus-Isaacs arrived in a red double-decker bus and got it halfway up the slope before the pesky Swiss authorities shut him down. Up until then, the Swiss had been supplying luxurious hospitality, which was royally abused, and marketing the DSC as tourist trade: Come and see the crazy English. “Skiing had, we felt, got too serious,” says Jones, who swapped this craziness for another sort, as the Manhattan social scene snapper for Vanity Fair in the late 80s and early 90s. “We kept skiing in the summer too, going down grassy hills with big blocks of ice on the bottom of our skis.”
Alan Weston, who met Kirke in karate class, was one of the four to brave the first bungee jump. An engineering graduate, Weston became a senior rocket scientist with the US Air Force and NASA, worked on the Star Wars missile defence system, and is currently in charge of Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s hush-hush airship project. But perhaps his most audacious feat has been to fly around the Houses of Parliament in a microlight. He wore a gorilla outfit and played the saxophone as he did so. “Kirke dared me to do it. I’d flown hang gliders before, but never a microlight, and I nearly crashed on take-off”. Above the Palace of Westminster, a police helicopter intercepted. “I saw it and flew straight into a cloud to hide.”
One stunt was deemed just too dangerous. Cosmo Hulton’s older brother Edward, one of the original bungee jumpers and now a children’s author, was all set to jump Tower Bridge, Live & Let Die style, across the open drawbridge in a fast car. “We aborted that one,” says Hulton, who didn’t let fear stop him climbing to the top of the volcano on Saint Vincent days after it had erupted. “I was always terrified, but one always felt that if Uncle Dave could do it, with his bravery and self-confidence, everything would be alright.”
David was sponsored by Foster’s Lager to cross the English Channel suspended from a helium-filled kangaroo, which led to his prosecution for flying without a pilot’s licence. He’d got up to about 10,000 feet and, so the story goes, a Jumbo Jet was forced to take avoiding action.
“Sponsors,” Jones mentions, “were very nervous”. One year at St Moritz, Graham Chapman skied down at an operating table, wearing full surgical gear, sawing away at what looked like a body but was in fact a side of beef. He left industrial amounts of blood all the way down the piste. At another event, says Smithwick, “we catapulted Chapman from an oversized box of condoms. Our events did not always have the PR effect our sponsors hoped for.”
Smithwick rented Kirke a warehouse office in Blackfriars in the late 1980s, and the DSC’s infamy resulted in valuable parcels and unexpected fans turning up. “He was inundated with brands. Cars, motorcycles, cameras, they all arrived at the office for David to either crash or lose”. They had a cult following in Japan, where the DSC were known as ‘Extraordinary Freaks of the West’. The Club invited some Japanese TV daredevils over for curry at Smithwick’s workshop, which they laced with five-alarm chilli and laxative. “We told them it was an ordinary English breakfast,” says Kirke. “Seeing them destroyed by a plate of vindaloo was a pleasure.”
These cavaliers shared an insouciant disregard for such bourgeois concerns as health and safety. Or, in many cases, having jobs. It proved an expensive lifestyle to maintain, and efforts to fill the club’s coffers were half-hearted. “There was an early attempt to capitalise on the club’s fame by introducing Dangerous Sports Club wine,” says Jones. “Much effort went into selecting a decent vintage and designing the label. But no-one knew how to market the wine. I think we were drinking it at a party David gave in Fulham; someone there, after drinking, proceeded to eat his wine glass. I could hear the crunching sound.”
Kirke, having never held down anything as mundane as employment (unless you include a stint as the drinks columnist for a top shelf publication – Men Only), went to prison in 1990 for four-and-a-half-months for fraud. “I didn’t know it was an offence to bounce cheques,” he told the Telegraph. He had a habit of helping himself to other people’s credit cards, too. “I was too proud to borrow money, and I wasn’t aware that what I had done was a crime.”
Despite this, Kirke has led a relatively charmed life, given he’s still alive at 75 and broken just a few bones. In 1988, he seriously injured his back after being shot off an Irish cliff into the sea by a device used to launch drones off aircraft carriers. “I’d do it all again, though,” he sighs. “Life is very long without those brief moments.”
Nevertheless, disaster was the destiny of a club the DSC inspired. In 2002, the Oxford Stunt Factory set up a giant medieval catapult that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old Bulgarian biochemistry student. The trajectory was that of being flung over a house, and Dino Yankov missed the net and made a dull, heavy thud. The organisers, who were both DSC members, were acquitted of manslaughter.
It was a tragic coda to a uniquely British brand of eccentric competition; at its core a distaste for anything in sport that smacks of professionalism. Kirke tried the trebuchet catapult himself on his 55th birthday and described it as “extraordinary. I’d do it again, without a doubt.”
For now, the club ties have been hung up: They depict a silver wheelchair with a blood-red seat, set on funereal black. “The true story of the DSC cannot be told until after I am dead,” says David. “Right now, it would be too dangerous.”
“We were gentleman adventurers,” he adds, “we never, ever harmed anybody apart from ourselves.”
The first bungee jump was inspired the ancient ‘land divers’ of Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, where men ritually tied vines to their ankles and jumped from heights to prove their bravery and ward off evil spirits.
The uniform of tail coats and top hats that constituted DSC dress code was in part designed to push the buttons of English eccentricity but also, club members joked, to prepare them for the undertaker.
Jane Wilmot became the first female to bungee jump, joining the DSC in launching off San Francisco’s 227m Golden Gate Bridge. The club’s highest bungee jump was 291m, above the Royal George Canyon in Colorado.
Slightly less epic, though no less dangerous, the club once opened a three-storey travel agency on Oxford High Street by bungeeing off its roof. Double-decker buses passing underneath added additional hazard.
In 1978, the DSC invited 200 people to attend the world’s most remote party, on Rockall island – a fleck of stormy granite 300 miles off the Scottish coast. Astonishingly, only nine RSVP’d to the black tie event. It took five days to get there in horrendous weather. The boat sprang a leak, which a quick-thinking guest bunged with a champagne cork. When they got to Rockall, the DSC swapped the plaque that proclaimed it British territory with a sign for a disabled lavatory.