The sequence had been practiced beforehand. The planned confrontation with the serpent Nagini was meant to send Harry Potter soaring. And indeed, it accomplished just that. David Holmes, the stunt double for Daniel Radcliffe, felt the force of the impact, which was painful. But such is the nature of stunt work. He was constantly receiving hits and proudly displaying yet another bruise.
The following day, the team returned to improve the routine. Despite their efforts, it still fell short of their expectations. So they resorted to a familiar tactic: increasing the weight on the pulley system that would propel Harry, allowing him to fly through the air at a faster pace.
14 years later, Holmes recalls that he immediately realized that he had broken his neck and was fully conscious after hitting the wall with great force. He was left flailing, like a puppet with no strings. His boss, stunt coordinator Greg Powell, asked if he could feel his legs, but he couldn’t. This fateful day not only altered Holmes’s life forever, but it also had a profound impact on the lives of those on the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Powell, who had to live with the mistake; Holmes’s best friend Marc Mailley, who had to take over as the stunt double; and actor Daniel Radcliffe, who had been trained in gymnastics by Holmes and admired him. The ripple effect continued.
Later on that same day, news emerged that an accident had taken place during the pre-production phase of filming for Harry Potter. Dan Hartley, who was a junior member of the crew at the time and worked as the video playback operator, recalls watching the news report on television. He then received a phone call from a crew member who shared that they had heard it was Dave who was involved in the accident. In the following days, they communicated through messages and discovered that Dave had become paralyzed. Hartley had been a part of the team for almost ten years and the news was devastating. Despite this, the crew continued with production, but it was a difficult adjustment without Dave’s presence.
The cast of Potter considered themselves like a family. They had been collaborating since the production of the initial film in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in 2000. They held a significant place in each other’s hearts, especially Holmes, who had been there from the very beginning. Despite his small stature of 5ft 1in, he was full of wit, charm, and remarkable skills.
According to Hartley, he was like a symbol for us. He was 17 years old during the first film and had a playful and self-assured personality. As everyone was maturing on set, with the kids starting at 11 or 12 and Dave at 17, I was only 25. Dave’s charismatic and small stature drew a lot of admiration and fondness. He was well-known and adored by everyone. He wasn’t the introspective person we know now, but rather the young man from Essex who had achieved success.
After the initial reports of the accident, there was little news about David Holmes. There were no major consequences, public blame, or high-profile legal battles. Holmes quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, attempted to rebuild his life. Now, at 40 years old, he is paralyzed from the chest down and relies on four full-time caregivers. He has gained wisdom and a sense of calm, but in other ways, he remains largely unchanged. On the other hand, Mailley has become one of the world’s most prominent stunt coordinators, and Radcliffe is one of the rare child actors who has successfully transitioned to adult roles. As for Hartley, he is now a film director and recently released a documentary about Holmes titled “The Boy Who Lived.”
I meet Holmes at his home in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. The house would make the perfect setting for a futuristic sci-fi movie. Doors open and shut, lights switch on and off, a lift rises and descends at his command. “I designed the house in my head when I was on the spinal ward,” he says. “The technology I’ve put in place gives me as much independence as possible.”
Holmes spent his childhood in Essex, where he was the second of three sons. His father holds a position as a deacon at a local Baptist church, while his mother devoted her career to working with disabled children for many years. He fondly recalls, “And then her son goes and breaks his neck!” All three boys were extremely active and full of energy, making them a handful for their parents. When Holmes was just five years old, a team from British Gymnastics came to his school to assess the potential of the students. The Holmes brothers impressed with their flexibility and abilities. “My mother brought us to Havering Gymnastics Club, which not only served as the best babysitter but also helped us expend our excess energy.”
David, a young boy with exceptional skills, had a passion for gymnastics which he considered to be the greatest sport. By the age of 13, he was already competing in national events and dreamed of representing his country at the Olympics. However, he faced bullying at school due to his small stature. He was often called names like “titch” and “pipsqueak” and even physically bullied by being stuffed into lockers. Gymnastics became his refuge as he found solace among other petite gymnasts like himself.
After one year, Powell, a renowned figure in the stunt industry, noticed him and offered him a job on Holmes’s debut film, Lost in Space. The star-studded cast included big names like Gary Oldman, William Hurt, and Heather Graham. He was hired as a stunt double for the character Will Robinson and had to navigate through exploding pyrotechnics while wearing a protective “cryogenics suit.” This experience was even more thrilling than his gymnastics training. At the age of 14, he was given free rein at Shepperton Studios for an entire summer, an opportunity he found amazing. He also noticed that once he stepped onto the film set as a child performer, he was treated like an adult. This realization solidified his desire to become a stuntman.
In 2000, three years after starting his career, he became a professional and began working as a stunt double for Radcliffe in the Harry Potter franchise. For Holmes, this job was even better than Radcliffe’s. “I get to embody a character without the stress that actors have. I can use my gymnastics skills to add to the story.” He was well-compensated for a glamorous job that he enjoyed, and he was able to maintain his privacy. It was a win-win situation.
The Potter family included Greg, who acted as a father figure to the narrator since they were 14 years old. The narrator considered themselves a part of Greg’s extended family. Holmes and Mailley were very close and the narrator also became close with Radcliffe. Initially, the narrator served as Dan’s PE coach and they would spend time together in the stunt office, engaging in activities such as jumping off Portakabins onto trampolines, judo, boxing, and sword fighting. The narrator saw Dan as a little brother during the first two films, but by the third film, they had become one of their best friends, a relationship that continues to this day. However, everything changed suddenly.
During the rehearsal the day prior, Holmes had a feeling that something was off. Mailley suggested that he take Holmes’s place the next day, but Holmes refused. He insisted on performing the stunt himself, even if it meant risking injury. Mailley reassured him that it wouldn’t be as bad as the previous day, when they had used an outdated and dangerous method involving weights and wires. However, Holmes explains that this method is now banned in the film industry due to past accidents at major studios. Despite the risks, the stunt team was always pushing the boundaries and trying to create more extreme and impressive action sequences, such as flying through the air or a lengthy fight scene.
So stunt coordinators just added weights on the pulley system to enhance the action? “Yes. I’m not going to go into any more detail. The repercussions from my accident mean nobody will be put in that situation again. And that’s enough for me. It’s much more sophisticated and controlled now.”
Was he aware of the danger at that time? “I hope it’s okay, but I don’t want to relive the worst day of my life again. Is that alright?” he says softly. “Luckily, because of this film, my on-screen legacy is not just me crashing into that wall 14 years ago. Hopefully, people will see how I handled it and take some positive lessons from it – even though my dignity was taken away.” In addition, the incident caused him to suffer from severe PTSD. “I would hear the sound of my spinal cord crunching in my head, especially when I was falling asleep.”
When Holmes becomes overwhelmed, he turns to humor for comfort. “I have many jokes in mind, but I’ll refrain from sharing them.” I encourage him to share one. “Voldemort cast a spell on me – Wingardiumquadriplegia.” He chuckles. “That’s a great joke. A part of me would love to perform at the Edinburgh festival.”
He explains that as a stuntman, he was aware of the risks involved in his job and was paid to take them. Despite being paralyzed in the hospital, he felt fortunate because he was surrounded by two boys who had been victims of hate crimes. One was a victim of the Mumbai terrorist attack and is now his close friend, Will Pike. The other, Oliver Hemsley, was attacked for being gay and had to undergo a life-saving surgery. He reflects on how he met real victims and acknowledges that while the accident was not his fault, as a stuntman he had to accept the potential dangers of his profession. He believes that no stuntman should take on the job unless they are willing to fully accept these risks.
Holmes tells me how lucky he is in other ways – to own the house, to have sufficient money through the insurance settlement, to have great friends and support. But he knows in the greater scheme he is anything but lucky. He has rarely talked publicly about what happened to him, and how it has changed his life, but today he makes it clear he doesn’t want to sanitise anything. He campaigns for those who have suffered spinal cord injuries and part of being a campaigner is showing the world what it means to live with such an injury.
“Do you want to hear a tale about my lowest point?” he inquires with a playful smirk. I feel like I don’t have much of a choice, I reply. “It’s actually quite an amusing story!” he assures me. He begins by explaining that some individuals with spinal cord injuries experience uncontrollable priapism (prolonged erections). “I had a suprapubic catheter, which is inserted into the bladder through a hole in the abdomen. My parents had learned how to use a transfer board to help me get in and out of bed. One day, my mom was helping me into bed and I asked her to change the dressing on my catheter. I was lying in bed, unable to look down, while my mom and dad took their time changing the dressing. So, I grabbed the bed remote and tilted it to get a view. And what do I see? My mom swatting away my erection while my dad fumbled with the dressing. It was at that moment I realized I had hit rock bottom! These episodes can last for hours and always seem to happen at the most inconvenient times. My longest record is eight hours.”
According to him, it causes discomfort in every way. He explains that if you wear them for too long, you may end up in the hospital due to the risk of developing a deep vein thrombosis. To alleviate this, they administer an injection at the base of your groin to lower it down.
I feel that it is significant for him to share this anecdote with me – not to amuse me, but to reveal the challenges of living with his injury. Some time ago, he encountered Margot Robbie on the filming location of Barbie. And he recounts this particular experience with great enjoyment. “It was not the best day to wear coordinated cashmere bottoms. I was incredibly anxious! I kept thinking, please don’t, please don’t… I used my injured arm to cover my lap just in case.”
After the accident, he was able to use both arms to a certain degree. However, currently, his left arm is the only one functioning and there is a risk that he may also lose the use of it. Holmes suffered a neck fracture which was further complicated by the development of a cyst in his spinal cord, leading to ongoing deterioration.
Holmes showed remarkable resilience in adjusting to his disability. He was able to plan and design his new living space while still in the hospital and provided comfort to his loved ones. Despite facing challenges, he maintained a positive attitude and even reassured his mother that there was no use in being angry or resentful. He also commended Warner Bros, the studio behind the Harry Potter movies, for their handling of his situation. The head of physical production, Roy Button, who had previously reprimanded him, visited Holmes in the hospital and assured him that there would be a plan in place for his recovery. Holmes greatly appreciated this support and guidance from a figure of authority.
Was he preoccupied with his financial future? “I had just signed the mortgage and was becoming a homeowner. Life was moving forward.” He had moved in with his girlfriend at the time, but their relationship ended. “Everything shifted. A spinal injury affects every aspect of your life. Nothing is unchanged.” He takes a moment. “Except for one thing – watching movies. That remains the same, so I spend my time watching films.”
What was the most difficult part to come to terms with? “Everything was difficult. It was devastating that I couldn’t continue working on Harry Potter. I had envisioned seeing Harry’s journey through to the end. I had read all of the books, imagining the action sequences. It was heart-wrenching. The book behind you even has my Post-it notes from when I read it and thought, ‘That’s a stunt I might be doing.’ I could visualize the character and imagine the stunts I would be performing. No one else in the world had that experience, only me. All I truly wanted was to return to work.”
Despite his awareness that he could not resume his job, he refused to acknowledge the need for a lifestyle adjustment following the accident. He refers to a “lost decade,” but ultimately concludes that this term does not accurately capture the essence of his experiences. He describes this time as one of indulgence and enjoyment, admitting that he was not mature enough to handle it. He sought out thrills by engaging in dangerous activities such as setting himself on fire and jumping off buildings. He also spent excessive amounts of money and traveled extensively, driving fast cars that he could control with his hands. This lifestyle included partying, drinking, and drug use. While he acknowledges that he was fortunate to have these experiences, he admits that he was avoiding facing his disability and its impact on his life. He was not accepting his disability for what it truly was – a life-altering event.
“The Boy Who Lived” is a poignant portrayal of the destruction that occurred in Holmes’s life after the accident, as well as the profound impact it had on those around him. Greg Powell, a tough and confident man from a family of boxers and stuntmen, was at the height of his success when the accident took place. In one particularly moving scene, he reveals his guilt and regret, stating “I was the last one to touch him when he could walk, and the first one to touch him when he couldn’t. It’s a terrible feeling. I feel choked up just thinking about it. I caused him so much pain and ruined his life. He could have been doing anything he wanted now,” as he speaks to Hartley in the film.
Did Holmes know about the impact of the accident on Powell? “Yes, he carries the physical reminder of it every day.” He speaks of his mentor with fondness. “Greg’s legacy should not be defined solely by the stunt accident that I was involved in. His legacy should be recognized for all the opportunities he created for working-class stuntmen, and all the thrilling action sequences he brought to the industry, such as Tom Cruise’s famous suspended sweat scene in the first Mission: Impossible film, or our groundbreaking broomstick flight.” Is he now known for the accident? “Unfortunately, yes. It’s guilt by association. But despite that, he continues to work and takes extensive safety precautions – checking and rechecking multiple times, reducing the number of takes for risky stunts, and not allowing the director to push too far.”
Is he still in contact with Powell? “Yes, we still talk frequently. However, our relationship is not as close as it used to be.” As he speaks, the water bottle he is holding slips out of his hand and drops to the floor. “I know that my struggle with this bottle of water could be triggering for him.” Is this something Powell has mentioned or something you’ve observed? “I’ve observed it. I can see it in his eyes when he sees me.”
According to Dan Hartley, when he spoke with individuals like Powell and Mailley, he noticed that they were still very vulnerable. It was evident that they had not fully come to terms with their experiences. What impressed me the most was their openness and sensitivity. It was a far cry from the typical stereotype of male bravado.
Upon arriving at his residence in Essex, Holmes informs me that Marc Mailley has also arrived and he will let him in. I am starting to suspect that Holmes may have special abilities. “How do you know?” I inquire, noting that there was no audible knock or ring of the doorbell. He chuckles and replies, “Because I can see him through the window.” Holmes expresses his admiration for Mailley, stating that he is one of the top action coordinators in the world and is currently collaborating with Tony Gilroy on the upcoming Star Wars TV series, Andor.
Mailley is a compact and incredibly fit individual with a black eye caused by a recent rugby incident that required stitches. He and his friend, Dave, first crossed paths at the age of 17 while out dancing at a club. “It was a Sliding Doors moment in my life,” Mailley recalls, “when I had made poor choices and left home.” Dave played a crucial role in helping Mailley turn his life around during this difficult time. They eventually moved in together and Dave trained Mailley to become a stuntman, leading to work on the film series Harry Potter. For seven years, they were inseparable, commuting to work, working together, going out, and returning home as a duo. In the movie, Mailley’s tears are heart-wrenching as he reflects on the accident.
Today, he informs me that he has been attending therapy since then. When he shared all of his struggles with the therapist, she became emotional and apologized for her unprofessional behavior. He had just opened up about Dave’s accident and how it had greatly impacted their lives. At the same time, his father was battling cancer and his best friend suffered a serious injury. Mailley’s voice trails off as he recalls the difficult time. He also reveals that he almost walked out on the Potter film, but Holmes asked him to take over. Despite having another job lined up, he agreed to help out because Dave had asked him to. Unfortunately, this meant turning down a role in the film Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe.
Did the individual find it difficult to move forward after the accident? “Yes. I harbored resentment towards my job, the film industry, and everything in general.” How long did this last for? “For a very, very long time. And even now, it still lingers. I don’t think I will ever fully come to terms with it.” Why did they attribute blame to the film industry? “I was searching for something to hold responsible.” Did going to work bring up negative emotions for them? “There were too many reminders of what had happened. We went from seven years of happiness and having one of the best jobs in the world to being miserable at work after Dave’s accident.”
Holmes is aware of the challenges that Mailley faced. “He had to change his hair color, put on the costume, and perform the stunt that I injured myself while practicing. My close friend had to take over as the stunt double. That’s the harsh truth.”
After Holmes suffered a neck injury, Mailley remained a stuntman for approximately three more years. However, his priorities shifted. He became more invested in coordinating stunts and preventing another similar accident from occurring. He played a role in developing a new technique that did not solely rely on weights to achieve the illusion of characters flying through the air. Mailley explained, “In order to stay in this industry after Dave’s accident, there had to be some sort of payoff. For me, that reward was making stunts safer, particularly for that type of stunt.”
Has there been any other incident of a similar magnitude since then? According to reports, probably not. However, Holmes shared with me a disturbing event that occurred in 2015 involving his friend Olivia Jackson. While filming Resident Evil: The Final Chapter in South Africa, Jackson was riding a motorbike when a crane-mounted camera on a vehicle approached her at a high speed. Due to miscommunication, she collided with the camera head-on at a combined speed of 60mph, resulting in her face being “degloved” or having all her skin removed. The incident was classified as a road traffic accident and was not covered by the film company’s insurance policy. Holmes emphasized his own luck in such situations, noting that in the UK, liability insurance is provided for by organizations such as the British Stunt Register, Equity, and major production companies like Warner.
Did the accident bring him any benefits? “Definitely. I will always claim that breaking my neck helped me become a better person. Without a doubt, 100%.” However, he thinks it took him several years to fully embrace his disability.
There have been difficult times throughout his journey. In 2019, he underwent four surgeries on his spine and experienced a brain drain, causing his mother to fear for his life. He recalls being in excruciating pain and feeling apathetic towards his own well-being. He expressed his desire to not be revived if complications arose during surgery. The combination of medication, pain, and irritability left him feeling hopeless. Did he actively seek death? He denies it, but admits he would have been content if it had happened. He remarks that he had a good life and is at peace with the possibility of death. How long did the hopelessness last? He smiles. “Not for very long.”
He returned with even greater determination. He shares that he is currently juggling multiple projects and has many more in mind. He has completed 41 episodes of his podcast series, Cunning Stunts, where he interviewed stunt performers with the assistance of his longtime friend Radcliffe. Holmes possesses a kind and giving nature. Similar to Mailley, he expresses how thrilled he is to witness Radcliffe’s growth and development as one of the producers of The Boy Who Lived. “He’s like a son to me. I adore him. I am immensely proud of him. When I see his physical transformation, I can’t help but feel joy knowing that I played a small role in it.” What is he trying to say? “Just look at him, he’s in great shape!”
Holmes discusses with JK Rowling the possibility of including a wheelchair-bound wizard in the upcoming Harry Potter TV series. They also touch on the ongoing efforts to enhance the quality of life for individuals in similar situations. Holmes expresses his desire for a solution that would allow him and others with quadriplegia to regain bladder function through a simple device that can be controlled by voice commands. He envisions a product that attaches to a catheter and can be operated using Siri, making it easier for individuals to urinate without needing assistance from a caregiver. Despite the availability of technology, Holmes has yet to find anyone willing to develop and market this idea.
The person has a plan to establish a stunt studio in order to give working-class children a chance to break into the industry. They credit their own success to Powell, who gave them their first opportunity. In order to become a professional stunt performer in Britain, one must join the British Stunt Register and possess exceptional skills in at least six sports. However, acquiring these skills without private coaching is nearly impossible. The person was fortunate enough to earn enough money from working on the Harry Potter films as a teenager to pay for their own coaching. They believe that currently, only wealthy individuals have access to training for the stunt register, which excludes people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds like themselves. This is why they have a big dream of creating opportunities for those who cannot afford to train for the stunt register, such as black boys who can double for black actors. They acknowledge that this dream would require a significant amount of money, but they are hopeful due to their connections.
Holmes has newfound optimism due to his relationship with Rosie, a woman who was left with even more severe disabilities than him after a car accident when she was 19. Despite needing a team of 14 people to care for her complex needs, Holmes finds her to be beautiful and fully woman. Their love blossomed through written communication and their first kiss required the assistance of four people, but it was a meaningful and worthwhile moment for them both.
In the upcoming week, he will be visiting Rosie’s home in Sheffield. This is his first romantic relationship in a decade. He had accepted the idea of being single, but it seems that fate has brought them together. Why did he believe he would remain single? It was because he never felt adequate or desired by the women he dated. However, with Rosie, he feels like a true man and that is priceless. Even though he realized his desire to have children at a young age, he and Rosie have decided against it. They do not want to rely on others to raise their children for them.
Despite his optimistic attitude, Holmes’s outlook for the future is not good. He is expected to live until the age of 65. According to his surgeon, he will have difficulty with breathing, speaking, and swallowing independently. This is a difficult reality to face. The pain he experiences is constant and feels like having 10 elephants on his head. He lacks muscle structure to support the weight of his head. Holmes would trade 30 years in prison just to be able to do a handstand again. The challenges he faces are incomparable to anything else he has experienced. Living with this condition is extremely tough, especially for someone who used to be so physically active.
The individual is optimistic that the movie will accurately portray both the positive and negative aspects of his life. Is he satisfied with it? “I have not viewed it yet. I am not emotionally prepared at this moment. I experience it every day, so there is no need for me to see it. I acknowledge that there will come a time when I will be bedridden and at that point, I will watch the film.” Currently, he believes it is unnecessary to dwell on that moment. “Why confront death? Let’s delay and give it a good kick in the backside.”