20th Century Gangland. John McVicar: Britain's 'most dangerous man' - with a criminology
Between the likes of Charlie Richardson or Frank Fraser (criminals telling stories about what they've done) and Dick Hobbs or LaurieTaylor (academic criminologists who explain and account for crime) there is John McVicar, known in his criminal heyday as 'Britain's most dangerous man' and 'Public enemy No 1.'
McVicar grew up in East London, turning to crime as a teenager in the mid-1950s. He quickly racked up a number of jail sentences that took him well into into the 1970s, most seriously for armed robbery. In 1968 he escaped spectacularly from the famous Special Wing of Durham prison - in which he met Laurie Taylor, with whom he was to become good friends - and for over two years was hunted down as Public Enemy No 1. During that time, at the height of his infamy, he turned to the life of the mind and self-analysis, triggered by what he'd begun to learn about criminology in prison, and on the basis of that self-examination decided that if he was returned to prison he would neither escape nor, after release, return to crime. After his recapture in 1970 he studied for an external degree from London University and was released in 1978 to continue a post-graduate thesis at Leicester University.
Laurie Taylor and John McVicar
This mix of experience gave him a unique insight into crime, in both practice and theory, and he became one of the most original and insightful commentators ever on the subject in the British context. Support for this claim can be found in his writings, and in interviews such as this one from 2002, in which he talks mostly about Frank Fraser and his rise to non-criminal fame (see previous post).
But that's not all. So rivetted were many people by the spectacular nature of his escape from Durham, and his account of it in his memoir, that two feature films resulted. One of these, thanks to what is said (though we not entirely sure by whom, exactly) to be McVicar's influence on Stephen King, and therefore on The Shawshank Redemption (1994), one of the best-known of course of all Hollywood prison films.
A little less well known - though much closer to the mark - is 'McVicar' (1980), starring the great Roger Daltrey as the man himself. This, though it has to be admitted that the competition is not especially stiff, is one of the best British prison films, with a terrific performance from London boy Daltrey and fascinating, gritty account of the escape and the prison conditions and culture of the time.
It's to the best British crime films that we'll be turning in our next sequence of blogs - beginning, of course, with Michael Caine in the incomparable 'Get Carter.'