The life of Ronnie Biggs was notable for a story that people across the whole world were drawn to. The train robbery itself is well known to the reader, but the story of celebrity and rebellion is what makes him deserve an obituary today.
The story was not the one that policy makers would like; a man who fought the law and apparently won. But it was largely a lie, sold by Biggs to an awaiting media in order to escape his life of poverty in his third-world home, yet the need of people to own this story was truthful, and for us, it would be wise to consider its relevance.
In the film Goodfellows we were told an American mafia story in two halves. The first half concerned with the sheer joy of the gang being a law unto themselves. “Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”. The individuals who made up their own rules, while the state, with their corrupt police officers, was impotent. Yet, the 2nd half completely turns the story into the sheer horror that this apparent freedom from state control necessitates, opening with an horrific murder where the victim is stabbed repeatedly in the boot of a car until his life finally drains for him. The audience is shocked and sobered. The joy of being lawless is no longer apparent. The horror of the removal of the rule of state is apparent.
The media story of the Great Train Robbery with its huge haul was similarly turned by the horrific beating of the train driver, Jack Mills, mercilessly smashed across the head with an iron bar in an pointless and homicidal attack. The story progressed till the robbers were caught and the state was victorious. The matter would have ended there, if Biggs hadn’t escaped.
After many years of flight, Biggs washed up penniless in Brazil, depending for an income on a common prostitute. Like so many working girls before her, this one had a baby only to discover that motherhood didn’t provide her with the promised contentment, so she fled leaving Biggs to survive with a young son.
The film Godfather takes a very different angle to Goodfellows to portray a story of apparently unsympathetic gangsters in a sympathetic light. Regardless of their violent criminality, he audience relates to the crime family, due to their love and loyalty to each other. They may be ruthless and murderous to the rest of the world, but within the family they are loyal, true and loving. Balanced with the lead character’s desire to move the family business out of crime, we accept and root for them against our better judgement.
Biggs was a good and loyal father to his son Michael, against great adversity, and is deserving of some admiration for this alone. Struggling to survive in the developing world with no legal right to work in the formal economy; when the media tracked him down, it was the son who saved him from extradition. Born in Brazil it gave Biggs a legal status. With this new development Biggs could now live openly and found an income through regaling tourists with tales of the robbery. Merchandise, t-shirts and coffee mugs appeared in the city as he became a world celebrity.
The people will always feel oppressed by the rules of a state, even though the state is of their very construction. Biggs’ had a story of a man who refused to accept the law of the state and lived according to his own rules. Perhaps there will always be within us a battle to be our own individual, living according to our own rules. Yet we know that we need society and its rules which necessitate a curtailment upon that very individualism. Biggs represents to us the man who refused to accept the restrictions. Although the story was mostly a lie, in that his life was hard and unhappy, we take what we want from the story. The glamour was of a train robbery, an escape and a life of apparent luxury lived on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
I was picture editing News 24 in 2001 when I was told to expect shots of a plane leaving Brazil, coming over the satellite. Biggs was returning home a broken, dying man. The Sun had been so keen to keep the story to themselves that the only shot we’d managed to get was of the jet flying up into the sky; we didn’t have a single picture of the man the story was about. But as I downloaded the film, I realised the Sun had done us a great service. While the journalist sat beside me and recorded her voice track, I watched that plane flying up into the blue and I thought that it was poetry. We broadcasted it live, then I sat back and flicked through the satellite channels of news outlets throughout the entire world and they were all using the BBC shot of the jet flying into the blue, blue sky. Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber, was heading home.
Ultimately the story of Biggs was a tragic one. But even as he died, the need of the people to believe that there was one man out there who could represent the individual living by his own rules, prospered. When his illness was so severe that he was released on compassionate grounds, the press reported that his illness was an exaggeration to once more gain his freedom, by having one over on the state. It’s highly unlikely to be factual; he was released because he was on death’s door.
The story of Ronnie Biggs was forever twisted and turned to be what the people needed it to be. But whatever the veracity, the truth is that Biggs himself was real and he gave the world a story that the world needed to own. And for that, he should be remembered.