When the death of Ronnie Biggs, the inept small-time crook who had a walk-on part in the 1963 Great Train Robbery, was announced, it came too late for yesterday’s papers. So today the obedient hackery of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre has tried to make amends with a piece by Geoffrey Wansell. This is, fittingly, as incompetent as Biggs’ contribution to the robbery.
The locomotive that hauled the mail train, seen in 1967 at Willesden depot, London. Photo (c) Grahame Wareham
“Ronnie Biggs, a serial crook who may well have killed the Royal Mail train driver, gave two fingers to justice. So why did so many treat him as a lovable rogue?” thunders the headline, which sets the scene. Driver Jack Mills of Crewe was not coshed by Biggs, who was with the replacement driver. And he died not from his head wound, but from leukaemia.
But the Mail gets one point spot on: “Biggs was nothing but a small-time felon who made his 15 minutes of fame last an astonishing 36 years by escaping from prison and a 30-year sentence”. Sadly, this is a small nugget in a whole pile of steaming bullshit, as readers get “Some unconfirmed reports suggest it was Biggs himself who hit Mills with an iron bar”. He wasn’t even on the footplate.
The Daily Mail version: wrong loco, wrong train
It gets worse: an archive photo of Bridego Bridge, where the robbers unloaded their haul from the train, is captioned “Scene: The train parked on an embankment in Buckinghamshire in the aftermath of the robbery”. Sadly, it is not the mail train, but a passenger train. And the locomotive, although of the same type, is an earlier example with headcode discs (that’s basic enthusiast stuff, folks).
The amateurish tone is maintained with “amber and red signals”. Oh dear: on the Railway, there are Red and Green as with traffic lights, but a warning or caution aspect is Yellow. Another nerdy point, but a fail nevertheless. Then we get “It was subsequently estimated that, in fact, the gang’s haul was nearer £7 million”. That’s just making it up. The £2.6 million figure is what they stole.
But do go on. “The gang had based themselves at Leatherslade Farm nearby and planned to hide there for a month after the robbery”. Wrong. A week. And somehow, Biggs’ real failing – that he recruited a replacement train driver who had never sat in the left-hand seat of the locomotive type used, and couldn’t move it – manages to elude Wansell. But the Mail does have its usual coda to add.
Yes, it’s all the BBC’s fault. How so? This is because a two-part drama based on the events was due to be screened this week. So as a last feeble act of attention seeking, the hated Beeb is accused of glamorising the robbery, which it did not. It’s only a pity that, not for the first time, the Mail devotes its vast resources not to getting the facts right, but fitting them to Paul Dacre’s warped view of reality.
Still, it makes an easy fisk of a morning. No change there, then.