On a sleepy evening in the British town of Stoke-on-Trent, YouTube daredevil Alastair Law and his four friends eyeballed their target: Festival Park, a large swath of land that holds a water park, theme park, hotel and plenty of manicured public grounds. Law is an average-skinny Brit with a ginger beard and a boyish face, but he would be recognized here, given he visited this same park in the middle of a December night and ended up being arrested in his swim trunks.
This time, avoiding confrontation was key, so the quintet quietly hopped a low gate to access a main road inside the property. Almost immediately, however, things went wrong. The first mistake: They stepped right into the path of a hidden security camera. “We’re gonna have to go through the bush, but if the security come, they’ll be on the road and we can hide in the trees,” Law told the group, optimistically.
As they scurried into the foliage to scope their surroundings, Law’s cautious fear bloomed into something worse. Instead of passively patrolling the area and staying on the road, the security team came after them, sprinting into the trees with flashlights. “Get the fuck down! Oh, shit!” Law squealed. As the flashlights grew brighter, Law and Co. pulled the trigger on a full flight, sprinting through the bushes as voices behind them screamed demands to stop and comply. (Normally, the chase happens after they’ve spent some time playing around; this time, escape was the №1 goal.)
Within minutes, two lagging members of the crew got nicked by the cops, who were incensed and kept on the hunt for the rest. For the next few hours, Law and the two remaining men were stuck hiding out in backyards and alleys in Stoke-on-Trent, unable to return to their car. “This must be the maddest chase we’ve ever been in. We’ve been running every five minutes for four hours!” Law said, stifling a giggle that was equal parts exhaustion and adrenaline.
Running from the authorities may be a nightmare for many, but it’s a fairly normal day for Law, a 21-year-old who has gained 1.4 million subscribers and 150 million-plus views for his YouTube channel “Ally Law” since he started uploading videos three years ago. What began as a tame assortment of clips of him running on rooftops in Southampton has grown into a full-fledged business and lifestyle that centers on sneaking into venues and filming the activities that lay within, whether it’s just a gorgeous view from a half-built skyscraper or bouncing at a trampoline park all night long. Law’s filmed himself scaling cranes in Dubai, towers in Hong Kong, even the Sagrada Familia church in Spain, among many other locales. All that trespassing has come with consequences, too: He’s been given bans from a number of British cities, landmarks and theme parks, as well as an alleged £150,000 in court fines from lawsuits over trespassing, which is a civil matter in U.K. law.
He’s also recently been charged for “trespass to intimidate,” otherwise known as “aggravated trespassing,” for slipping onto the live set of the reality TV show Big Brother twice in January. This is a felonious crime, and Law currently faces prison time as punishment. More important for his livelihood, Law is now confronted by a series of court orders that, if he’s charged guilty, would mean a ban on him owning any kind of camera (including a smartphone) and posting to social media, permanently. He’d also be put on curfew and restricted from leaving Britain for six months. Breaking any of these conditions would mean prison time. (Law is scheduled to appear for a court hearing tomorrow.)
In his eyes, the crackdown isn’t the kind of punishment he should expect for his exploits. Law says the police are trying to make a lesson out of him, and that the court’s orders serve as a breach of his rights, noting that even some sexual offenders contend with fewer probationary requirements. Law started a GoFundMe last week to raise £30,000 for legal fees, and his fandom has showed up, raising more than £26,000 in five days.
“I’m not a criminal, I’m not trying to hurt anybody, and we’re not forcing our way into anything. I’ve never stolen or broken anything,” Law says in another video explaining his legal troubles. “It’s just entertainment for people out there who love our stuff, and get inspired by it. I do it for fun but also because of the amazing feedback I get from you fans.”
A number of competing channels traffic in this gambit, including AldosWorldTV, Ireland Boys Productions and MoreJStu. The problem with so many of these videos is that the clickbait-y titles are undermined by the content itself. A “24 Hour Overnight at Disneyland” video from AldosWorldTV, for instance, turns out to be just a shitty vlog at Disneyland, capped off with Aldo finding a “hiding spot” to climb up into behind the Disney castle before admitting, with unconvincing regret, that he can’t complete the challenge because a friend “warned him” that Disney is a “big corporation that will sue us.”
Other videos often look stitched together using footage from a variety of stores, filmed at a variety of visits, rather than a single risky overnight stay. There are widespread rumors that other videos are made with cooperation from the venues, with permission to shoot for a few scant hours. And even when such stunts are declared successful, there’s a lack of tension, putting more emphasis on goofing around rather than the innate excitement of being somewhere you’re not supposed to be. (Taste is subjective, but God help me, I don’t want to watch young dudebros try to be funny while hidden behind a shelf of toilet paper at a Walmart, though apparently millions of other people do.)
I’ve rolled my eyes at the trend for a long time, but that changed when I discovered Ally’s videos, which always seem to teeter on the edge of chaos. It’s pretty rare to see any real trouble with security or police in most other “overnight challenge” or trespass stunt videos on YouTube. With Ally, it’s more rare to see him not encounter such opposition. The most thrilling moments come when he narrowly escapes the authorities: Sometimes it’s a sudden sprint from a cop when they get distracted or let go of his arm, while other times Ally and Co. casually stroll by security guards while wearing safety vests to blend in (“I’m just an apprentice, yea?” he tells a stadium worker, while referencing “supervisor Jonathan Hill,” who does not exist).
“With our following, we could easily, easily contact places, and even potentially even get paid to do these overnight challenges, because they’re promos for the place. But guys, if I fake videos on YouTube, there’s no fun in that. I don’t wanna lie to you,” he says in one video. “YouTube is full of fake content and fake people. And I don’t want to become that. If all these pranksters were being real, they’d be getting sued to fuck. But we go harder than any other channel on YouTube, and we’re never going to fuck about with fake videos.”
Is this all stupid and unnecessarily risky? No doubt. Still, there’s a pure energy to Law’s acts that has little to do with self-promotion and everything to do with the thrill of the getaway. You sense the actual awe he experiences in seeing the world from unusual angles, like when he soaks in a sunrise from the top of a roller coaster. And each video offers a jolt of that nervous energy that builds at the top of your stomach before you do something you probably shouldn’t — and that breathless, choked-up excitement that bursts when you get away with it.
He’s part of a long tradition of daredevils who have gotten mass attention for their public stunts, including the iconic Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who stunned the world by secretly rigging a tightrope across the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City before successfully crossing it in August 1974. Over the course of months, Petit and his friends snuck into the towers, which were still under construction, using fake ID cards and hid in various areas to observe security and worker activity. He was hit with several charges of trespassing, but the act impressed the public so much that the district attorney dropped the case altogether.
More recently, another Frenchman, Alain Robert, has made headlines by climbing up massive towers in some of the world’s most iconic locales, drawing spectators, news helicopters and police alike with his antics. While he’s gotten permission for some of his climbs, many others have resulted in his arrest and copious fines, including in Malaysia, New York, Sydney and London, where he’s permanently banned from entering the Shard skyscraper.
Law himself would likely admit that many of his stunts are legitimately stupid, like when he got caught trespassing in Dubai and was (luckily) released by the property owner without charges. (“I don’t know what would’ve happened, but I didn’t get my hands chopped off like everyone warns you about.”) Or when a cadre of police swarmed to the top of the Tour One skyscraper in Paris with weapons drawn at Law and his friends. (“I had the GoPro recording, but I lost the fuckin’ footage and it hurts me.”) His popularity, on the other hand, suggests that it may all be worth it — and that he’s an evolution of a personality like Robert, just for the internet age where volume of content seems to matter as much as quality.
There’s an odd power dynamic at play here, considering that Law is a young white kid in Britain doing dangerous things and wasting taxpayers’ resources for the lulz, while other young men of color get gunned down or harassed for merely existing in a space that someone thinks they’re not supposed to be in. Law says he started urban exploration and parkour as a way to treat his depression, weight problems and video game addiction, but his family background is unclear.
Then there’s the fact that Law and his friends carry themselves with an air of entitlement, as if they should be able to get away with a minor crime again and again. It’s led some to root for their failure, as with one English observer who posted on Law’s Facebook page. “It looks as though we will be winning our battle to keep this daredevil criminal out of our streets. This criminal has already spent nearly 2 years or possibly more wasting police and other authorities’ time with their stupid and unnesecary [sic] illegal activities,” wrote Rubinho Gonzalez. “There is something called the law and it seemed he doesn’t care about it and does shit anyway.”
The cops are often friendly enough about encountering Law on a call, but the Big Brother case, along with Law’s lengthy record of trespassing, means a crackdown looms near. Whether or not the court will actually strip him of the ability to film or post anything is unclear, but the threat represents “incredible overreach” on the part of law enforcement, says V. James DeSimone, a lawyer in L.A. with experience in civil rights. While British law differs from American law, its protection of the right to free speech and expression is similar to that in the U.S., DeSimone notes.
“The proposed order appears to be unprecedented in its scope. Judges in the U.S. have banned cell phones when they’ve caused accidents and banned individuals from social media when they film violent crimes. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed limits, holding a sex offender couldn’t be banned from all social media because it was protected speech under the First Amendment,” he observes. “Any ban on social media use should be narrow in scope so as to deter illegal activities, but protect the legal use of the internet. It will be interesting to see what happens with Mr. Law.”
It would be easy to assume that his millions of views (and counting) would help handle the legal costs, but YouTube monetization has seen changeups over the last few years, and content deemed illegal or offensive is often prevented from creating revenue. Theoretically, Law’s viewership could be giving him thousands of dollars a month; he claims to be suffering major financial hardship, however, because of the £150,000 he’s amassed in lawsuit bills.
Some of the blame lands squarely on Law for not picking his battles more wisely. Elstree Film Studios, where Big Brother was being filmed, offered to settle out of court with Law if he destroyed the footage and posted nothing more. Instead, he chose the opposite, bringing on £36,000 in fines between him and YouTuber friend Ryan Taylor, who was with him at the time. Apparently, doubling down on his exploits is something Law considers important. Perhaps it’s part of his need to show something authentic. Or maybe it’s more of his ego, driven by an appetite for good content that outweighs anything else, including risk and punishment — a habit seen in some of YouTube’s biggest young stars like Logan Paul, who appears to get off on doing anything for the clicks.
“The fact he’s in legal trouble doesn’t bother me. Anyone who watched his content saw it coming from a mile away,” says Bradley, a 21-year-old fan who frequently posts on Law’s Reddit page. “Like Nightscape (another urban explorer guy) says, Ally just let YouTube get to him, and he got a bit cocky. You can only continually tip toe around the law for so long before something goes wrong.”
Regardless of his urges to act out, Law may be at the end of the line for this particular chapter of his career. He could potentially move to the U.S. (like his friend Taylor has) to start anew, or maybe start working as a carpenter, a craft he claims to be trained in. The internet’s thirst for more stunts and break-ins, meanwhile, will surely remain. As one older fan from Ashland, Kentucky, wrote to Law on his Facebook: “If I was your mum I’d ground you, lol. Watching your videos with my son makes my hands sweat and my heart pound, but I love them!!”