The Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, Dead At 84

Melissa Block talks with Paul Crompton, executive producer at Barge Pole Productions, about train robber Ronnie Biggs, who died Wednesday at 84. Crompton made the film The Great Train Robber's Secret Tapes with former Daily Express reporter Colin MacKenzie, who tracked the robber to Rio after he escaped from prison, and recorded his interviews with him over a period of days.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Ronnie Biggs was part of a gang that pulled off a notorious heist in Britain in 1963. They robbed a Royal Mail train, making off with the equivalent of some $70 million today. After he was caught and jailed, Biggs escaped from a London prison, fled to Brazil and lived openly there for more than 30 years, flaunting his criminal history. Ronnie Biggs, known as the Great Train Robber, died today at the age of 84. He had returned to England and surrendered to police in 2001 and ended up serving eight years in prison.

Paul Crompton made the movie "The Great Train Robber's Secret Tapes," based on interviews with Biggs while he was living in Rio. And he joins me now.

And, Paul, let's talk first about the heist back in 1963. It was a gang of 12 men. How did they do it?

PAUL CROMPTON: This is one of the mysteries. Somehow they found out certain Royal Mail trains on certain days carried a lot of used banknotes. And that tip-off has never really been found and people have tried very hard to find that, but anyway, this gang wired a train signal to go from green to red and when the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, they pounced and made their getaway.

BLOCK: Well, they were caught and Ronnie Biggs got a 30-year sentence. Then he escaped from London's Wadsworth Prison. How did he do it?

CROMPTON: He climbed over the wall with a rope ladder and dropped onto a removal van parked outside. I mean, it sounds almost like a comedy caper. And then went into hiding.

BLOCK: And lived, as we said, for many years in Brazil. What was his life like there?

CROMPTON: Well, all the photographs in the tabloids during that period were of him living it up on the beach doing barbeques, surrounded by women in bikinis. He was feted by pop stars, movie stars. So it was glamorous, but from what I found out is that he was stuck in a place where he's a British boy, he wanted to be back home no matter what the consequences were.

BLOCK: If Ronnie Biggs was living so openly in Brazil, why is it that he could elude British authorities?

CROMPTON: Well, one of his girlfriends was pregnant and if you're going to be a parent of a Brazilian national, then you get some kind of automatic immunity from outside law and that meant the British police couldn't touch him.

BLOCK: Because he was going to have a son, he was going to have a Brazilian son.

CROMPTON: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: I want to play you a little bit of tape of Ronnie Biggs. This is from an interview, I believe, back in 1997. It's airing now in a BBC obituary. This is Ronnie Biggs being completely unrepentant about taking part in this train robbery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

RONNIE BIGGS: I don't regret the fact that I was involved in a train robbery and as a matter of fact, I'm quite pleased with the idea that I was involved in it. My poor old daddy used to say to me, I know you'll make good one day, you know. Well, I made good in a curious way, I suppose. You know, I became infamous.

BLOCK: And I gather that while he may have been a folk hero to a lot of people in England, he was also seen as a villain. The train driver, during this robbery, was brutally attacked and never fully recovered.

CROMPTON: Yes, that's something that's always been used as the one dark side of the train robbery to stop them from being totally lauded as heroes. You know, and really, deep down, they were just a bunch of villains from London who wanted to get rich quick, you know.

BLOCK: During the 50 years since the great train robbery back in '63, has Ronnie Biggs' name been very, very much in the British consciousness? I mean, is he still or has he been a figure everybody would know about?

CROMPTON: Yeah, he started off his life in his adulthood as a jobbing carpenter from Surrey in South London. He was, you know, skirting around the edges of low-level crime and that would have been the rest of his life if only this amazing set of circumstances hadn't catapulted him into this amazing status as being the most wanted man in the world and a bit of fairytale figure.

Anyone who was antiestablishment thought he was a hero of theirs because he embarrassed the police. He embarrassed the government. He embarrassed the judicial system and they couldn't catch him. And so he became a bit of a comic character for the British public. They either loved him or hated him. Most people loved him.

BLOCK: Paul Crompton, thanks very much for talking with us.

CROMPTON: Thank you, Melissa. Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Paul Crompton made the film "The Great Train Robber's Secret Tapes." The subject of that film, Ronnie Biggs, died today. He was 84. Here he is singing "No One Is Innocent" with the Sex Pistols.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NO ONE IS INNOCENT")

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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