The audio walkman recordings are of poor quality due to the positioning of the mic. Headphones may be more suitable. First time I ever made that mistake and last. Such a bad ‘Sleuth!’
In January 1990 I took a flight to Rio De Janeiro with out any preconceived photographic projects in mind, it was primarily a holiday break but also armed with my trusty Nikon instead of the usual large format plate camera with all the accessories required. I had mentioned the great train robber Ronnie Biggs to a freelance journalist living in Rio who had met him and gave me his number. It took me a couple of days to pluck up the courage to pick up the phone to request a portrait sitting. I wasn’t looking for ‘a story’ and no intention of paying him. So there I was on the phone to the great train robber himself ‘Britains most wanted’ trying to convince him I wasn’t a journalist and that the portrait would be for myself, would take half an hour of his time and that I would send him a print. Well as I had expected he was reluctant and little ‘grumpy’ It was no big deal to me wether he said yes or no, the experience/buzz of speaking to him on the phone would have been enough. I didn’t let it go and asked me when I was returning and suddenly changed his mind.The following day I was in a taxi negotiating the winding cobblestone roads high up in the bohemian district of Santa Theresa. I was a little apprehensive being on my own without any support from a magazine/newspaper client along with the folklore associated with him which as a ‘back room boy’in the Great Train Robbery would never have been heard of, had it not been the circumstances of the escape and the lengths he went to be free. I remember trying to explain to the Portuguse speaking taxi driver, who I was visiting, quite comical, with me making train noises in the taxi! not sure he worked it out. After being dropped near to where Ronnie was living I was approached by a somewhat brash and friendly Brazilian 16yr old “Hello I’m looking for Ronnie Biggs” to which he replied “you mean my Dad” in his London/Australian accent. The Australian ‘twang’ was picked up from spending time with his stepbrothers,sons of Ronnie and Charmain who had settled in Australia while ‘on the run’.” Its Scotland Yard, Slipper! Slip up” mockinglying referring to the Dectective Sargent to the flying squad, Jack Slipper, the man who got so much mileage out of trying to recapture Ronnie, and nearly did when after been untraced for 11yrs tracked him down in Rio but the Brazilian government had turned down grounds for extradition due to Ronnie becoming a father to his pregnant Girlfriend’s child,
Michael Biggs born 1974.
His apartment (In Michael’s name and with the proceeds of Michael’s singing group) was basic but outside was quite an idilic setting with a couple of chirping Parrots, a mini pool big enough for a dip and with a rooftop view of the city and sea in the background. We sat on a bench with a mug of tea . He was interested in my experiences I had during this brief visit, the ‘Voodoo’, Favela visit, and being mugged by a few kids in Copacabana. Ronnie was born in Kimberley Road just up from the ‘Landor’ pub where I was playing a bit of Pool at the time, in the Brixton/Stockwell area of London. So he exchanged memories and named places of the area. He knew of the first black family to live there, The Johnson’s which led to his account of the time spent in Barbados on ‘Death Row’ as the only white person. He took a keen interest in some samples of my work I’d shown him which led too many related conversations including the process of buying an Island dwelling off North West Brazil with an Australian documentary maker.’A great place to escape too’! I’d mentioned I’d lived with a family in my first year at art college and that his name was Ronald Biggs! who was tired of people asking if he was related so he swopped Ron for is middle name Arthur which coincidently is also Ronnies middle name!
He was very annoyed with an article Q magazine had done on him with lots of made up quotes/stories. He wasn’t allowed to work and had to report to the police every Tuesday and Friday so when the opportunity arose and being the proven opportunist that he was! of course he’d be up for an antic or a’stunt’ but this was not on a regular basis after all its Brazil. I asked him about his collaboration with Paul Cook and Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) ‘Nice guys, bit wild, played up the the punk image in fact I’ve a lawyer on the case and reckons Richard Branson of Virgin Records owe me £750.000 as it had sold 7 million” I wished him luck on that one.
It all became quite Bizarre talking quite openly about Jack Slipper ( Who incidentally met a friend of mine at a wedding in Mid- West America in’96), an account of being ‘detained’ on Death Row in Barbados (after a failed kidnap attempt) of how his son, Michael aged 6 was appealing for his release on Brazilian TV who took him to their hearts thus rushing through arrangements for his return. I began wonder if I was ever going to Photograph him, seeing thats really what my intention was, instead of drinking mugs of tea in the sunshine talking about how he’d love to visit the pubs of Margate and walk round Clapham Common. I reminded him of how that would be a media circus unless he was in disguise, Not that I was suggesting anymore plastic surgery! (ref to a bad piece of back street plastic surgery in Paris’65 on the run) I could tell how close and influential(!!) nah, I mean a good father to Michael, who was showing great promise as a musician.
Eventually I got to do the portraits. Thinking of a visual taster I asked him if there was a ‘prop’ that came to mind that he could be associated with. ” A toy train or a hack saw!” He was a good subject and as I’d assured him on the phone, it was pain free. Ronnie then suggested we pop down the local bar. Well, It’ll be rude not too I thought. Although releasing I needed to be extra vigilant with my newly exposed Iford FP4. So off we went down the hill to Bar de Gomez which began life as a Spanish migrants grocery store ( hence its other name Armazem Sao Thiago). It was founded in 1919 and retains idiosyncratic charms of the past, with jars of ancient – looking olives and tinned food still lining the shelves. With many a character passing through, Ronnie was no exception as we appreciated the local ‘Chope’ (Portuguese for draught beer) Time to go as my main concern was to return the film to the hotels safe. A memorable day indeed.
Santa Teresa Rio 1991
2ND MEETING WITH RONNIE THE FOLLOWING YEAR
After sending him some prints with an added extra – a large pack of tea bags. That was it or so I thought. About 16 months later I was commissioned by Chiat Day in Toronto to shoot a Canadian Airways campaign and one of the many countries/cities we travelled too included Rio. So this time I was with a crew and client. We shot the AD on Botafogo Beach and in hindsight it would of been great to have invited him over but the job was too important to risk any potential ‘difficulties’! even though I had hired security with us. Later that day I rang Ronnie and arranged to meet at his local bar the following day as we had a few hours to spare before packing and off to the airport. So Karen and Rob from the agency, Brian McIntyre (assistant) and our producer Jan Davis hopped into a taxi. I told them were going off to see a friend and the look on Brian and Jan’s faces was priceless when I introduced them. Karen Prince and Rob being Canadian didn’t have a clue until I gave a quick overview. He loved the pictures and tea which can be heard in the audio clip, which this time he knew about, and of better quality. Michael at 17yrs old was planning to come over to Germany to visit his mum and then spend some time in London with a view to meeting music people. I invited him to stay which Ronnie was pleased about which did surprise me a little, what with his contacts!! hmm a different tack maybe.
MICHAEL’S LONDON VISIT
Michael stayed with me later that year and showed him around Brixton and the house where his Dad was born and raised. Went to a Brazilian club then off he went to be interviewed on the Jonathan Ross Show. A friend of Ronnie’s living in Rio originally from Dublin Ireland (sorry can’t remember your name) helping him to get a record contract and asked me If I would do some studio publicity portraits. I duly obliged.
A series of shots from following year and in London with Michael.
Portraits of Ronnie can be purchased. please email at firstname.lastname@example.org