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John McVicar: The real story

Updated on September 12, 2014
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BritFlorida loves to track down historical stories, especially scandals and mysteries from the UK.

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The British true crime story that inspired Shawshank

In the nineteen eighties, I saw an interesting film called McVicar. It starred Roger Daltrey (yes, the singer from The Who) and it was supposedly the true-life story of a famous jailbreak that had taken place in 1967. It was based on the book written by the escapee and notorious criminal himself - except it wasn't true.

The autobiography that never was

Yes, convicted armed robber John McVicar had written about his life and his famous escape from prison and the film was based on that. But there were two factors that made it inaccurate. This wasn't revealed until John McVicar wrote the book you see here.

Written in prison

It was against the law for inmates to write their stories for financial gain. John McVicar had indeed written his story during a jail term but he had to do so in secret. The writing was cramped and hard to read. The manuscript was smuggled out of the prison and transcribed - badly. He wasn't highly educated - it's easy to see how his writing could be misread and misinterpreted.

But didn't McVicar write the script for the film?

Yes, he was involved in it. But (he says) Roger Daltrey had a major part in the writing because he knew how he wanted to be portrayed - he was planning a movie career away from his work with The Who. Understandably, an ex-con would be influenced by a major pop star and other film experts and influential people. He claims that the movie - and indeed the story itself - was led by Daltrey.

So the book and the film weren't accurate

The book you see above is the re-write - that John McVicar wrote in later life to put the record straight. By this time, his criminal years were behind him and he had become a respected journalist.

The escape

If you have seen Shawshank Redemption, McVicar's escape from high security prison might seem familiar to you. With a fellow-convict, McVicar painstakingly tunneled through an interior prison wall where there was a shaft leading to the roof. They concealed the hole with papier mache, painting it to match the wall and adding filler every time they worked on it. They discovered that the shaft wasn't wide enough to take them to the roof however.

But it did go down

They discovered that the shaft ran into a cellar with barred windows. Gradually, over time, they worked on loosening and removing the bars. Using the prison's facilities, they made escape clothes including warders' uniforms. When the pair made their break, the alarm was raised almost at once. The two became separated and with warders and police dogs in pursuit, McVicar swam a river. (In England. In October).

London

After living rough for several days and keeping constantly on the run (literally - he was extremely fit) he made it to London. He was now considered to be public enemy number one and,according to newspapers, was wanted dead or alive.

Betrayal

Eventually he was betrayed by an acquaintance. He went back to serve his sentence with an additional term added because of the escape. He expected to be inside for twenty six years. He studied, acquired qualifications and a degree. He decided that he would re-write his book. He was paroled after eight years.

The movie that got so much wrong

Below you can watch the trailer of the McVicar film that starred Roger Daltrey.

It's absolutely not true - the story is based on McVicar's life in jail and escape but as John explains in the book,that story was motivated by reasons other than the truth.

Nevertheless it gives us a glimpse into prison life in those days and an insight into the character of John McVicar - or at least, the character he wanted people to know...

A Right to Kill? Tony Martin's Story
A Right to Kill? Tony Martin's Story

Demonstrating the difference between British and American law, rural farmer Tony Martin shot and killed burglar who had entered his home. Martin was arrested and charged with murder. He was then actually charged with murder and jailed. Although this book is 'by' Tony Martin and 'edited' by John McVicar, during an interview on BBC radio, he claimed that he had nothing to do with the book.

 

© 2013 Jackie Jackson

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    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @sousababy: He's very articulate when he talks about it, isn't he? And he had that confidence, as you say. That's possibly because he was so physically fit. It's interesting to learn how he turned his life around in such a manner.

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 3 years ago

      I found it incredible how John McVicar spoke so matter-of-fact about his escape in that video. He seemed so confident that he'd make it too. Interesting that he became a respected journalist. There must be some parallel between the two careers - having the guts to pursue dangerous things (and in such a calm manner). Well-spoken man and it's a shame his former years were spent in prison.

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