The Last of the Famous International Playboys: Ronnie Biggs

Ronnie Biggs, the infamous bank robber died on Wednesday at the age of 84. His is a life story that reads more like something from the pages/screen of Shantaram-cum-Prison Break than actual events. Biggs was part of the notorious band of criminals who robbed a mail train in 1963, which bagged him and his 15 accomplices approximately £2.6 million pounds (more than £45 million in today’s money).

The combination of extraordinary amount of money and the bravado of the criminals gave the thieves global exposure, but placed huge emphasis on a nationwide witch-hunt for the criminals, the government browbeating the police to arrest those involved. The Conservative government of the time was still deeply embarrassed by the Profumo affair that implicated the Secretary of State for war in an affair with the mistress of a Soviet Spy, resultantly the criminals needed to be taught a lesson by a seemingly inept government. Criminal penalties were harsh, and Biggs got 30 years

He became the most notorious of the robbers and equally the most romanticised because of his daring escape from Wandsworth Prison, scaling a rope ladder and dropping into a furniture van below. After five months in safe houses he escaped to Paris where he underwent “painful plastic surgery”, before catching a flight to Sydney, where he would live a high profile life in Australia, later he would move to Brazil.

In Brazil he became a celebrity, photos of a tanned Briggs constantly reappearing in the English press, much to the acrimony of the Government back home. Tourists flocked to him; photographs, lunches and mugs ‘adorned with his image’ all part of the 'Biggs the rebel' package. Whilst there he would also record 2 singles with the Sex Pistols and appear in Julien Temple’s film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. His celebrity persona was augmented by the release of his autobiography, Odd Man Out: The Last Straw and has been immortalised in popular culture, appearing in films such as Prisoner of Rio and Long Time No See Ronnie. 

He eventually tired of a life on the run, turning himself in to Colin Mackenzie of the Daily Express, ostensibly to sell his story before serving the remainder of his sentence in the UK. Mackenzie’s superiors however contacted the police; Superintendent Jack Slipper flew to Rio to attempt to bring him home. Bigg’s mistress; Raimunda won popular support against his extradition, as the Brazilian government decided that they could not send back the father of a Brazilian Child. They also had no formal extradition agreement with the United Kingdom. 

In 1979 he once more eluded capture, this time from a different source. He became friendly with John Miller, a former Scots guard. Prior to being alerted of Miller’s intention to kidnap him and return him to England in order to sell the story, Miller kidnapped Biggs from a restaurant, shoved him in a bag and put him on a flight to Belem, (in North Brazil) before putting him on a boat to Barbados. The boats engines failed however, and local police rescued Biggs. He returned to Brazil to a heroes welcome. 

Biggs returned to the UK in 2001 (of course, on his own terms) after suffering two strokes. He landed in typically Biggsian style, in a private jet chartered by the Sun who had also paid his family £20,000 for his story. The aircraft was met somewhat ceremoniously by 110 policemen. After an 8-year incarceration in Belmarsh and Norwich Prison, he was released on ‘compassionate grounds’ after suffering from a spate of illness, including MRSA. 

He still remains a divisive figure, many seeing him as violent burglar, others still see him as a latter day ‘Robin- Hood’. His persona as a ‘lovable rouge’ (Literally, by his own admission he “had over 2,500 girlfriends” in his 35 years on the run) has won him many admirers. There is no doubt that he has had a lasting effect on contemporary culture as the quintessential rogue.

Tom Bamford