Thursday, 19 December 2013

RIP Ronnie Biggs: A Train Robber Finally Derailed

Ronnie Biggs has recently died, by a bizarre coincidence, just as a new TV two-part show covers the story of the Great Train Robbery from the criminals and police sides.

The BBC reports that:

"British criminal Ronnie Biggs, who took part in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, has died aged 84, his spokeswoman has confirmed."

One thing that struck me as a little odd when reading that was that former Train Robbers now seem to have their own PR people to hand out news stories. You would have thought a doctor or medical examiner would have been the proper person to confirm it, but there is evidently no limit to the medical expertise of a good PR firm.

Danny Shaw, writing on his death, noted how ambiguous his life was:

"Loveable old rogue or violent criminal? Ronnie Biggs divided opinion like few other offenders.Some admired his audacity - the robbery, the prison escape and the 36 years on the run, cocking a snook at authority as he lived the high life in Brazil. Others detested his cavalier attitude to the rules by which most law-abiding people live their lives - and they remember that the robbery was not a "victimless" crime. Jack Mills, the train driver, beaten with an iron bar, never fully recovered and died of leukaemia seven years later. The case of Ronnie Biggs is a reminder of our sometimes conflicting attitude to crime and criminals."

But Anthony Delano, who wrote a book about Biggs, met the criminal a number of times, and his attitude was very different:

"He was a man with no moral compass whatever," he told BBC Radio 5 live, "He was a small-time crook who probably would have ended up in prison for a greater part of his life anyway."

I think his escape probably lent him a glamour that the other robbers didn't really have. "Buster" was portrayed by Phil Collins in the film of the same name, but I would be hard pressed to tell you his surname, or where he went on the run, or even what he really looked like. The names of the other robbers would be one of the more obscure questions for a Pub Quiz. But say "Ronnie Biggs", and everyone knew who you were talking about, and what he looked like.

The end of the tale very nearly copied fiction. In "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951), the crooked Henry Holland portrayed by Alec Guinness is tracked down to Rio de Janeiro, where he tells his tale, only revealing at the end that he is in handcuffs, and his listener is in fact the policeman who has arrested him. Although he had seemed to get away, movies of that period could not have criminals escaping scot free.

Almost like the Ealing comedy, DCS Jack Slipper travelled to Brazil, where he attempted to arrest Biggs in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, with the words "Long time no see, Ronnie." But Biggs was to become the father of his pregnant Brazilian girlfriend's child, and the extradition failed, and the papers dubbed Slipper as "Slip-up of the Yard". It never ended like that in the movies, but the Ealing writers would have probably enjoyed the element of high farce.

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