Harry Potter’s stunt double: ‘Breaking my neck made a man of me’

The routine had already been rehearsed. A fight with the snake Nagini was supposed to send Harry Potter flying. And it certainly did that. David Holmes, Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double, felt the impact, and it hurt. But that was the nature of stunt work. He was always taking a knock, and showing off another bruise.

The next day the team came back to perfect the routine. It still wasn’t quite as spectacular as hoped. So they did what they’d done hundreds of times before: added more weight to the pulley system that would launch Harry so that he would fly through the air faster.

“I knew straight away,” Holmes says today, 14 years later. “I knew I’d broken my neck. I was fully conscious.” He had hit the wall at pace and with such brutality that he was left flopping, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. His boss, the stunt coordinator Greg Powell, asked if he could feel his legs. He couldn’t. That day not only changed Holmes’s life for ever, it changed the lives of so many people on the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Powell, who had to live with getting it wrong; best friend Marc Mailley, who had to take over from Holmes as the stunt double; actor Daniel Radcliffe, who had been coached in gymnastics by Holmes and adored him. And on it went.

Later that day, it was reported that there had been an accident in pre-production on the set of Harry Potter. “I remember seeing the news report on TV,” says Dan Hartley, then a junior member of the crew working as the video playback operator. “I got on the phone to one of the crew and he told me he’d heard it was Dave and something bad happened. For the next few days we were trading messages and we learned that Dave was paralysed.” Hartley had worked with the team for almost a decade. “Within a month we were meeting on the set and adjusting to this new norm, and it was horrific. I’d known Dave for almost 10 years and we were a very tight crew, and now he wasn’t there. Yet the team was still on the production. We’d lost one.”

The Potter crew regarded each other as family. Many of them had worked together since filming began on the first movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in 2000. They meant so much to each other, and there was something extra special about Holmes, who’d been there from the start. He was tiny, at 5ft 1in, cheeky, irrepressible and exceptionally talented.

“He was like our mascot,” Hartley says. “He was 17 on the first film. Very cheeky, very confident. Everybody was growing up on set really – the kids were 11 or 12 when it started, Dave was 17, I was only 25. Because he’s larger than life but also small, Dave attracted a lot of attention and affection. Everyone knew him and loved him. He wasn’t the soulful person we now see. He was the young lad from Essex who’d made good.”

After the initial reports about the accident, little was heard about David Holmes. There were no dramatic fallouts, public recriminations, high-profile legal battles. Holmes quietly – and sometimes not so quietly – tried to rebuild his life. Today, the 40-year-old is paralysed from the chest down and lives with four full-time carers. He is wiser and calmer, but in other ways he is little changed. Meanwhile, Mailley has gone on to be one of the world’s most prominent stunt coordinators, and Radcliffe is one of the few superstar child actors who has gone on to succeed as an adult. As for Hartley, he is now a film director, and has just made a documentary about Holmes called, appropriately, 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 grew up in Essex, the middle of three boys. His father is a deacon at the local Baptist church, his mother worked with disabled children for decades. He smiles. “Then her son goes and breaks his neck!” All three boys were super energetic – great fun, but hard work. At the age of five, an outreach team from British Gymnastics visited his school to check out the children’s potential. The three Holmes boys were supple and capable. “My mum took us to Havering Gymnastics Club and she discovered that not only was it the world’s best babysitter, it got rid of the excess energy we had.”

Young David was particularly talented, and loved gymnastics: “The greatest sport in the world.” By 13, he was performing in national competitions and hoped to represent Britain at the Olympics. But at school he was bullied for his size: “It’s hard growing up a small bloke. You’re an easy target. I was called ‘titch’ and ‘pipsqueak’, and stuffed in lockers. Gymnastics was my safe space because I was around other gymnasts who were also small.”

A year later he was spotted by Powell, a legend in the stunt business, who hired him to work on Holmes’s first film, Lost in Space, starring household names such as Gary Oldman, William Hurt and Heather Graham. He was signed up on a child performer’s contract and, as a stunt double for the character Will Robinson, he had to dive out of the way of exploding pyrotechnics in a rubber “cryogenics suit”. He had discovered something even better than gymnastics. “Imagine – I was 14, with all of my energy, allowed a free-for-all at Shepperton Studios for a summer. It was amazing. And what I noticed was as soon as you go on to a film set as a child performer, everybody treats you as an adult. I knew this was what I wanted to do; I wanted to be a stuntman.”

Daniel Radcliffe (right) with his stunt double David Holmes (left) on the set of a Harry Potter film
Holmes (left) and Radcliffe (right) on set. Photograph: Warner En Casa/YouTube

Three years later, in 2000, he had turned professional and was working as Radcliffe’s stunt double in Harry Potter. For Holmes, it even beat Radcliffe’s job. “You get to be a character without the pressures the actors have. I get to inhabit that character and use my skills as a gymnast to enhance the story.” He was well paid for a glamorous job he loved, a star in his own field, yet he could retain his anonymity. Win-win.

Then there was the Potter family. “Greg was my film father from when I was 14. I was a member of his extended family.” Holmes and Mailley were inseparable, and he soon became close to Radcliffe “Initially, I was Dan’s PE coach. He’d come into the stunt office, we’d shut the door, and I’d let him be a kid. He’d be jumping off Portakabins on to trampolines. We’d do judo, boxing, sword fighting, anything he wanted to do that day. On the first two films he was like my little brother, and by the third film he’d grown into one of my best friends and still is to this day.” Then it all came crashing down.

Holmes knew there hadn’t been something quite right about the rehearsal the day before. Mailley suggested he should take Holmes’s place the following day. Holmes wouldn’t hear of it – it was his stunt and he would be doing it even if it meant taking another whack. At least it shouldn’t be as bad as yesterday, Mailley told him. “It was an old way of doing flight on a wire with weights that is not done any more. It’s banned in the film industry as a result of his accident across all major studios,” Holmes says. “The rehearsal the day before was violent and fast, but we went for something a bit faster and a bit more violent the second day. In stunt rehearsals we were constantly trying to push the boundaries of what stunt action could be, whether that is flying through the air or a 15-minute fight routine.”

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.”

Did he sense it was dangerous at the time? “I hope you don’t mind, but I don’t want to relive the most horrific day of my life again. Is that all right?” he says gently. “Listen, thankfully for me, because of this film, my legacy on camera is not now me just hitting that wall 14 years ago. Maybe people will take some positives from the way I handled it, hopefully with a bit of dignity – even though all the dignity is taken away.” Among other things, the accident left him with terrible PTSD. “I’d hear the noise in my head of the crunching of my spinal cord. That would happen as I was falling asleep.”

When things get too upsetting, Holmes seeks refuge in humour. “There’s a lot of jokes I want to tell you, but I won’t.” Go on, I say. “Voldemort hit me with a spell –Wingardiumquadriplegia.” He laughs. “That’s a cracking joke. Part of me would love to do the Edinburgh festival.”

Look, he says, he was a stuntman – of course, he knew he was being paid to take chances. In hospital, despite being paralysed, he again began to feel he was lucky. “I was a stuntman, I did a risky job, and I was put in a ward with two boys who were there because of hate. One was caught up in the Mumbai terrorist attack – he’s now one of my best friends, Will Pike. The other boy, Oliver Hemsley, was walking on the road in Whitechapel and he was stabbed in the neck and the chest because he’s gay. Then they kicked a bottle of gin into his chest and he had to have his heart taken out [temporarily, and massaged]. They urinated on him as well. So I met real victims. Granted, it was not my fault, but it was a stunt accident and I did that job and I had to accept the risks. No stuntman should ever be doing that job unless you fully accept the 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.

“D’you want to hear a story about rock bottom?” he asks with a mischievous grin. I don’t think I’ve got a choice, I say. “It’s a good story!” he promises. He starts with an explainer – some people with spinal cord injuries suffer from involuntary priapism (prolonged erections). “I had a suprapubic catheter which means they cut a hole in your belly and it goes straight into your bladder. My mum and dad had learned how to get me in and out of bed with a transfer board. My mum transfers me into bed and I say, ‘Mum, can you change the dressing on my catheter?’ So now imagine I’m in a hospital bed looking at the ceiling, I can’t look down, and my mum and dad are taking ages to change this dressing, so I get the bed remote and change the angle of the bed to look down, and see my mum backhanding my boner out of the way while my dad fumbles with my dressing around the catheter. It was then I pronounced to the world I’d officially hit rock bottom! I get them for hours at a time and they pop up at the most inappropriate times. My record is eight hours.”

He says it is uncomfortable, in every sense. “If they stay up too long you have to go to hospital because they can give you a deep vein thrombosis. So they put an injection at the base of your old chap to put it down.”

I sense it’s important for him to tell me this story – not to make me laugh, but to show me the indignity of life with his injury. A while ago he met Margot Robbie on the set of Barbie. And he really tells this one with relish. “It was the wrong day to wear matching cashmere bottoms. I was so paranoid! I was like, please don’t, please don’t … I used my bad arm to cover my lap just in case.”

Initially, after the accident, he could use both arms to an extent. Now only his left works at all, and there is a danger he may lose use of that, too. Holmes’s neck break was complicated when he developed a cyst in his spinal cord, resulting in ongoing deterioration.

In one way, Holmes adapted astonishingly well to his disability – designing his new home from the hospital bed, comforting loved ones, telling his mother there was no point in being angry or bitter. He says Warner Bros, the studio that made the Potter films, acted admirably. “Roy Button, who was head of physical production and had given me many bollockings before, came to my bedside and said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s going to be a process, you’re going to be all right.’ I needed that voice of authority and they’ve always been supportive.”

Daniel Radcliffe (left) with David Holmes (right), the man who was his stunt double on the Harry Potter films until an accident paralysed him, in new documentary The Boy Who Lived about Holmes’s life
‘He’s my boy, isn’t he? I love him’: with Radcliffe in new documentary The Boy Who Lived. Photograph: John Wilson/HBO

Was he already worrying about the future financially? “Well, I’d just signed the mortgage. I was starting to own a home. Life was happening.” He had moved into the house with his then girlfriend. But the relationship did not last. “Everything changed. There is not one aspect of your life that is not affected by spinal injury. Nothing is the same.” He pauses. “Apart from one thing – watching a film. That’s the same, so I watch films.”

What was hardest to accept? “It’s all hard. It killed me that I couldn’t go back to work on Harry Potter. I wanted to see Harry through to the end. I’d read all of those books, picturing those action sequences. It killed me. The book behind you has even got my Post-it notes from where I read it and went, ‘There’s a stunt I might be doing.’ I could read the character and picture the stunts I was going to do. No one in the world had that, except me. Honestly, all I wanted to do was go back to work.”

Even though he knew he couldn’t return to work, he refused to accept that he had to change his lifestyle after the accident. He talks about a lost decade, then decides “lost” isn’t quite the right word. “It was a decade of decadence and fun. I’d say I wasn’t grown up enough. The thrills I used to get setting myself on fire and jumping off buildings, I was just trying to find that in the way I could.” Such as? “I’d take groups of people to Ibiza and blow thousands of pounds.” He travelled the world, drove ridiculously fast customised cars he could control with his hands, partied, drank and took drugs. “I was fortunate to have those experiences, but I wasn’t really dealing with this. I was putting it on the back burner and not accepting my disability for what it is, which is a life-changing thing.”

The Boy Who Lived is not just a moving examination of the devastation wreaked on Holmes’s life, but also the profound impact the accident had on others. Greg Powell was at the top of his game when it happened. He is a tough, charismatic, cigar-chomping man who comes from a line of boxers and stuntmen (his father and uncle were Nosher and Dinny Powell respectively). In one of the film’s most powerful moments, he breaks down. “I was the last one to touch him, when he could walk, and the first one to touch him when he couldn’t walk, and that’s an awful feeling. I feel choked up there proper. It hurts, cos I fucked his life right up. He’d have been doing anything he liked now,” he tells Hartley in the film.

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Had Holmes been aware of the effect the accident had on Powell? “Yeah, he carries that scar on him every day.” He talks of his mentor with affection. “Greg’s legacy should not just be the stunt accident he was connected to through me. The legacy should be every working-class stuntman he opened the door for, all the action sequences he’s brought to the world, whether that’s Tom Cruise floating with the sweat dripping in the first Mission: Impossible or us making the first broomstick flight.” And has he become known for the accident? “Of course. Death by association. But you know he still goes to work, he takes great precautions with safety – double, triple, quadruple checking, not over-rehearsing stunts any more, not letting the director do too many takes when someone’s taking a whack.”

David Holmes, who was Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double on the Harry Potter films until an accident paralysed him, in his wheelchair at home in Essex
Holmes at home: ‘I designed the house in my head when I was on the spinal ward.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

Is he still close to Powell? “Yes, I talk to him all the time. Not as close as we were, though.” As he talks, the water bottle he’s holding pops out of his hand and falls to the floor. “I am aware him seeing me struggle like this with a bottle of water would be a trigger for him.” Because Powell has told him or because he’s seen it? “I’ve seen it. I see it in his eyes when he sees me.”

Dan Hartley tells me that what struck him when interviewing people such as Powell and Mailley is how raw they still were. “There was clearly a sense that they hadn’t processed it. What I found remarkable was their emotional honesty and sensitivity. It was so far removed from that cliche of what male machismo is.”

Back at his house in Essex, Holmes tells me Marc Mailley has just arrived and he’ll open the door for him. I’ve begun to suspect Holmes has superpowers. How do you know, I ask? There’s been no knock on the door or bell rung. He bursts out laughing. “Because I can see him through the window.” Holmes tells me how proud he is of Mailley. “As an action coordinator he’s one of the best in the world. He’s currently working with Tony Gilroy on [Star Wars TV series] Andor.”

Mailley is short, slight and supremely fit looking. He has a black eye from a rugby injury he received at the weekend that needed stitches. The pair met when they were 17 and out clubbing. Both were keen dancers. “I met Dave at this Sliding Doors moment in my life, when I’d done something I shouldn’t have done and I’d moved out of home,” Mailley says. “Dave helped me turn my life around at a time when I was making all the wrong decisions. He put me back on the straight and narrow.” They moved into a flat together; Holmes trained him to be a stuntman and got him work on Potter. “We drove to work together, we worked together, we’d go home together, we’d go clubbing together, we were inseparable for seven years.” In the film, Mailley’s tears break your heart when he talks about the accident.

Today, he tells me he’s been in therapy since. “When I told the therapist about everything, she bawled her eyes out. She said, ‘I’m really sorry, I never do this, it’s really unprofessional of me.’ I’d just told her about Dave’s accident and how it had changed our lives. My dad was dying of cancer at the time, then my best friend breaks his neck … ” Mailley trails off. He tells me he wanted to walk out on the Potter film, but Holmes asked him if he would replace him. “I only did it because Dave asked me to. I was supposed to be doing another job. Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe. I had to turn that down.”

Was it easy to continue after the accident? “No. I resented the job, the film industry, everything really.” How long for? “A very, very long time. Sometimes even now. I don’t think it will ever be something I totally come to terms with.” Why did he blame the film industry? “I was just looking for something to blame.” Going to work upset him? “There were just too many things that reminded me. We went from seven years of bliss, having the time of our lives and one of the best jobs in the world, to going to the unhappiest you could be at work after Dave’s accident.”

Holmes knows just how tough it was for Mailley. “He had to dye his hair and put the costume on and do the stunt I had my accident rehearsing. My best mate had to step up as the stuntman. That’s the reality of it.”

Mailley continued working as a stuntman for around three years after Holmes broke his neck. But his focus was changing. He became more interested in stunt coordination and trying to ensure a similar accident never happened again. He helped devise the new technique that didn’t simply rely on weights to create the effect of characters flying through the air. “To stay in the industry after Dave’s accident, there had to be some reward. And the reward for me was to make things safer, especially on that kind of stunt.”

Has there been another accident on such a scale since then? Probably not, they say. But Holmes tells me of a horrifying incident involving his friend Olivia Jackson in 2015, when she was riding a motorbike on Resident Evil: The Final Chapter in South Africa. Jackson was travelling at speed one way, while a crane-mounted camera on a vehicle was heading towards her. “There was a miscommunication and she went face first into the camera at a combined speed of 60mph. It ‘degloved’ her face – took all the skin off. It was put down to a road traffic accident and was not covered by the insurance policy the film company had taken out.” Again, he tells me how lucky he is. “In the UK, under the banner of the British Stunt Register, Equity and big production houses like Warner, it’s all covered by liability insurance.”

With Radcliffe behind the scenes of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Photograph: Mirrorpix

Is there anything he gained from the accident? “Yeah, hugely. I will always say breaking my neck made a man of me. For sure, 100%.” But he believes it’s only over the past few years that he has truly accepted his disability.

There have been terrible lows along the way. In 2019, when he had four spinal surgeries and a brain drain, his mother thought she was going to lose him. He says he was in such pain, he no longer cared. “I asked not to be resuscitated. I told my surgeon: if you get into complications, let me go. The mix of medication, pain and irritability all kicked into a state of hopelessness.” Did he actively want to die? “No, but I thought if it happens, I’ll be happy to. I’m cool. I’ve had a good crack.” How long did the hopelessness last? He grins. “Not long.”

He came back fighting harder than ever. Now, he says, there is so much he is doing and still wants to do. He has recorded 41 episodes of a podcast series called Cunning Stunts, in which he interviewed stunt performers with the help of his old friend Radcliffe. There is a lovely generosity to Holmes. As with Mailley, he tells me how happy he is to have seen Radcliffe, who is one of the producers on The Boy Who Lived, evolve and grow. “He’s my boy, isn’t he? I love him. I love him. I’m so proud of him. You think of how many child stars don’t make it through that pressure, that whirlwind. Every time I see his physicality, to know I had just a little input into that brings me joy.” What does he mean? “Look at him, he’s ripped!”

Holmes is talking to JK Rowling about introducing a wizard in a wheelchair in the forthcoming Harry Potter TV series. Then there is the battle to improve the quality of life for people like him. “What I and the thousands of other quadriplegics in this country need is the ability to regain the function of our bladder. I just need a product developer to invent a simple device that sits on the outside of a catheter and I can say: ‘Hey Siri, open my catheter’ and two ball bearings open and you can wee. And I can say, ‘Hey Siri, close my catheter.’ That means I’d be able to regain bladder function without having to ask a carer to come and open and close the catheter. All the technology’s there. It would be such an easy thing to develop, but I’ve just not found anyone who wants to take that idea and run with it.”

Then there’s his plan to launch a stunt studio to enable working-class kids to get a foothold in the industry. He was lucky, he says – Powell gave him his start. To become a professional stunt performer in Britain you have to sign up to the British Stunt Register. To do that, you need exceptional skills in at least six sporting disciplines. And it is almost impossible to acquire those skills without private coaching. Holmes was one of the few exceptions because he earned enough money as a teenager on the Harry Potter films to pay for his own coaching. “Right now we can only have posh boys training for the stunts register. Scamps like me who were born in Romford could not afford to train for the stunt register. We shouldn’t be in the situation where Marc can’t find black boys to double black actors because the socioeconomic background doesn’t allow for it. So that’s my big dream.” Another grin. “It would cost 35 million quid. But I’ve got some connections.”

One reason Holmes has renewed hope is that a year ago he began a relationship with Rosie, a woman who was left even more severely disabled than him after a car crash at the age of 19. “At the moment she has a team of 14 looking after her – her needs are more complex than mine. She’s beautiful. She’s all woman. I fell in love with her over words on email. The greatest way. I didn’t even see her face. It was so natural,” he says. “It took four people to get us close enough for our first kiss, but it was worthwhile.”

Next week he’s going up to stay with Rosie, who lives in Sheffield. It’s his first relationship in 10 years. “I’d resigned myself to being single, but the universe seems to have connected us.” Why was he convinced he’d be single? “Because every able-bodied woman I dated, I never felt good enough. I never felt wanted enough. And I feel enough with Rosie. She makes me feel like a man, and you can’t put a price on that.” Though Holmes says he first realised he wanted to have children as an 11-year-old coaching younger children at the gym, he and Rosie have ruled it out. “We’d have to task other people to raise our kids for us and that’s just not going to sit with us.”

Despite his positivity, Holmes’s long-term prognosis is poor. His life expectancy is 65. “My dad’s 65 now. That’s a lot taken off. My surgeon said to me, ‘Breathing, speech and swallowing independently, you’ll be lucky to keep all three.’ That ain’t easy to face.” As for the pain, he says, it’s constant. “It feels like I’ve got 10 elephants standing on top of my head. I’ve got so little muscle structure holding its weight. I’d do 30 years in prison if I could do a handstand again. There’s no amount of fuckery compared to what I have to live with. This is hard. This is the biggest test I can think of, particularly for someone who needed to move as much as I did.”

He hopes the film will give people an accurate sense of his life, for good and bad. Is he pleased with it? “I haven’t watched it. I’m just not ready yet. I live it every day, I don’t need to see it. I know there will be a time in my life when I get in bed and won’t get out of it, and that’s when I’ll watch the film.” For now, he says, there’s no need to think about that time. “Why look death in the face? Push him down the road. Kick him up his arse.”

David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived is on Sky Documentaries and Now from 18 November in the UK and on HBO on 15 November in the US.