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From Heist to Hits... Sofia Ribeiro Willcox on the unlikely musical legacy of the 1963 Great Train Robbery

From Heist to Hits...

Sofia Ribeiro Willcox on the unlikely musical legacy of the 1963 Great Train Robbery

by Sofia Ribeiro Willcox, Cultural Exchanger and Explorer
first published: June, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

In Brazil, Biggs found an unexpected second act...

A Superfantástica História do Balão
Disney+
(2023)

This recent Disney+ documentary series made me look deeper into the fascinating story of Britain's infamous Great Train Robbery, as one of the stars of the series, and a big musical star in Brazil is Michael Biggs, son of the train robber, Ronnie.

On a summers' night over sixty years ago, August 8th, an audacious event unfolded: the Great Train Robbery. A post office train, know as a Traveling Post Office (TPO) embarked on a routine journey from Glasgow to Euston, laden with valuable packages. Little did the postal staff know that this night would go down in criminal history.

As the train chugged through Leighton Buzzard, the unsuspecting driver, Jack Mills, encountered an unexpected red signal at Sears Crossing. The signal in a clever ruse had been sabotaged by the robbers to halt the train. While Mills investigated, he was ambushed, and his co-driver, David Whitby, was overpowered.

The meticulously prepared robbers, swiftly uncoupled most of the carriages, leaving behind only those not containing the high-value cargo. Their plan, however, hit a snag at Bridego Bridge, where they struggled to move the loot due to their limited experience with the sophisticated diesel train.

Inside the front carriages, terrified Post Office workers were held captive while the gang offloaded their plunder. Remarkably, the staff in the remaining carriages were oblivious to the unfolding drama just ahead.

The Great Train Robbery, with its audacious execution, resulted in the theft of £2.3 million, an astronomical sum in 1963, equivalent to about $75 million today. But this was just the beginning of the saga.

The gang had bought a hideout in the area, Leatherslade Farm, where they stayed to avoid immediately traveling back to London, celebrating their success, unaware that their days were numbered. A massive police investigation led to their capture, many of the gang we given the maximum 30 year sentence for the robbery. Ronnie Biggs, one of the masterminds, famously escaped from prison, and it's Biggs' story that we follow into Brazilian musical lore.

BIGGS
Biggs was born in Stockwell. Despite his attempts to lead a conventional life, his tumultuous background led to many brushes with the law. His involvement in the Great Train Robbery catapulted him into infamy.

At 18, Biggs enlisted in the Royal Air Force, but in 1947 but was dishonourably discharged for desertion after breaking into a local chemist shop. Not long after, he was convicted of car theft and imprisoned in Wandsworth. Here he met Bruce Reynolds, who would become a key figure in his later criminal endeavours.

After his third prison sentence, Biggs tried to go straight and trained as a carpenter. In 1960, he married 21-year-old Charmian (Brent) Powell in Swanage, Dorset, the daughter of a primary school headmaster. They had three sons together, and for a brief period, it seemed like Biggs was destined for the obscurity of a workaday life.

ESCAPE
For his part in the robbery, Biggs was sentenced to 30 years. He'd served only 19 months before a daring escape from Wandsworth Prison in July 1965, scaling the wall with a rope ladder and fleeing in a waiting removal van. He fled to Paris, where he underwent plastic surgery and acquired new identity papers. His wife, Charmian, joined him bringing their sons to Paris.

By 1966, Biggs had fled to Sydney, Australia, and then to Melbourne, living under various aliases. Financial pressures and media exposure forced him to keep moving, and by 1970, he found refuge in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the absence of an extradition treaty with the UK. As a parent of a Brazilian national hewas allowed him to remain in Brazil, thwarting capture. 

BRAZIL
In Brazil, Biggs found an unexpected second act. An avid jazz fan, he collaborated with musicians in “Mailbag Blues” and courted more infamy in 1978 with the remnants of the exploded Sex Pistols. He recorded vocals alongside Paul Cook and Steve Jones on "No One Is Innocent," which reached number 7 in the UK Singles Chart.

An apple never falls far from the tree it seems. Biggs' son Michael, became a star in Brazil as a member of "Turma do Balão Mágico," a cultural phenomenon. The group played a significant role in Brazilian culture, emerging during the post-dictatorship era when children became a national audience and consumer market. They filled a void in Brazilian television programming and competed with the famous Rede Globo telenovelas, breaking records and even outselling the Brazilian music king, Roberto Carlos. With tens of millions of record sales and a concert audience that would fill stadiums, they shaped the early 1980s generation.

"Turma do Balão Mágico" collaborated with renowned Brazilian musicians like Djavan and Fábio Jr., leaving a lasting legacy. Their songs are cherished by generations who know them by heart, and they paved the way for a variety of children-oriented media in Brazil, representing a bright future for diverse children's entertainment.

In 2001, Ronnie Biggs's finally returned to the UK and imprisonment. His eventual death marked the end of a storied life—one that began with a daring heist but left a lasting imprint on both sides of the Atlantic and both sides of the law.


essential info
yes, we know, Nick Reynolds, son of Bruce Reynolds–sometimes spoken of as the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery–is in the Alabama 3, (A3 in the US). Bruce sometimes performed with Nick's band too.

Sofia Ribeiro Willcox
Cultural Exchanger and Explorer

Sofia has a BA with Hons in Creative and Professional Writing and Film and Television Studies from the University of Wolverhampton (2020-2023). Born in Brazil, Sofia is an enthusiast of pop culture (cinephile and melophile), social sciences (snowflake generation), and poetry (lusophone).


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