“You must call him Ron. It’s not ‘Ronnie’. You lot have given him the name Ronnie. Nobody who really knows him ever calls him that.” Charmian Brent reproaches RT with a steely smile, because no one knows Ronald Biggs quite like she does. Her wariness is understandable. As the ex-wife of Ronnie Biggs, Brent has had her life splashed across front pages, chewed over in newspaper columns and retold in documentaries. Even the funeral of their eldest son, Nicholas, who died aged ten in a car crash in Australia in 1971, attracted reporters hoping Biggs would show up.
Three years later an Australian newspaper arranged for her to fly to Brazil, where her husband had fled to avoid extradition, to visit him in prison, only to be told he’d fathered a child with another woman and wanted a divorce.
“So I’m in shock, in tears, and all of a sudden the doors open and about 30 press with cameras are ushered in. It must have been arranged with the prison authorities by some journo. It was the most terrible invasion of privacy, ghastly.”
It’s a plea for privacy that sits uncomfortably with Brent’s life lived out in public. Having found herself married to the Great Train Robber who became infamous after he escaped from prison to begin his life on the run, Brent has sold her story to the press several times. And now she has had a hand in retelling her time with Biggs for ITV1’s new five-part drama Mrs Biggs, in which she is portrayed by Sheridan Smith.
It’s not a life she could have imagined while growing up in Reigate in Surrey. A headmaster’s daughter, Brent (her maiden name) dreamt only of university, but ended up an office clerk after slipping a grade in Latin. One morning, in October 1957, a dapper chap with a mischievous grin approached her on the train and asked her out for a coffee. Her father was horrified, especially when it turned out that Biggs who’s ten years Brent’s senior had a criminal record and lived with an older woman. But by the end of that year the smitten Charmian had run away with Biggs to Swanage in Dorset.
When they married, in February 1960, Biggs embraced the straight and narrow for a few years, setting up his own building business. But when he had trouble finding money for a deposit on a house, he called on his old pal from inside: Bruce Reynolds, the ringleader of the Great Train Robbery. Brent says she was under the impression they were off to Wiltshire to do a logging job.
Brent is talking at a preview screening of Mrs Biggs, and as the story whisks her back to the 60s she fumbles for a handkerchief. Why put herself through it again? “I wanted the story to be told,” she says, composure swiftly regained. “Truthfully.” She talks with a guardedness that leaves you wondering what she’s really thinking behind that carefully made-up face.
Nowadays, Brent, 74, speaks in the flattened vowels of Melbourne, her adopted home since 1966. She moved there with Biggs after he’d escaped from Wandsworth Prison, where he was serving 30 years for armed robbery. She still lives in the same house from which Biggs fled on the night in 1969 he heard Scotland Yard had tracked him down to the Australian suburbs. He later resurfaced in Rio.
Following the divorce, Brent reverted to her maiden name and forged a new life as an editor, publisher and – somewhat ironically – journalist. “After my son was killed, somebody said to me: ‘If you could live your life over again, what would you change?’ I said: ‘I would have gone to university.’” Desperate for distraction from her grief, she decided to do just that – “I wrote my thesis on William Faulkner: there’s no such thing as historical truth. Ain’t that the truth.”
She bears scant resemblance to the harpy-housewife who appears in a co-authored autobiography (one of several) that Biggs published in the 90s. “I didn’t like the portrayal of me: too many dressing gowns and hair curlers. Or perhaps I felt that he hadn’t acknowledged how much I’d invested in the whole relationship. He became a different person over the years. He had a public persona that wasn’t really him at all. Or it became him. But it wasn’t the person I knew.”
Brent resolved to write her own autobiography to set the record straight, but abandoned it: “When I embarked upon it, I found it overwhelming. I lay awake at night with all these emotions rushing around in my head. I decided it wasn’t good for my health.”
When she agreed to act as a consultant for Mrs Biggs, for which she was paid an undisclosed fee, sleepless nights again ensued. It took a week to tell her life story: “Once I’d started talking, I couldn’t stop.” She also handed over the archive she’d compiled over the years: cuttings, footage, photographs, even the letters she and Biggs wrote to each other during his years on the run.
There was a verbal battle with the writer, Jeff Pope, over the script. “I said, ‘I wouldn’t have said this, so-and-so wouldn’t have said that.’ We fought all that out at great length.”
A decade ago, Brent gave an interview to ABC TV in Australia in which she said the hardest thing when you’re associated with a known criminal is being tarred with the same brush. “I was never that way inclined. I was horrified that Ron had endangered our future happiness and the happiness of two little children by participating in it. But once it had happened, I tried to do the right thing by him.”
She made it clear during that interview that it would be her final word on the subject. Does she now think Mrs Biggs will be her final final word? “I would think so. I’m not a publicity-seeking person. I like a quiet life.”
But over the years she’s sold her story many times, often for large sums of money; she bought her house with the proceeds of one interview alone, for which she admits being paid AUS$65,000. After this latest round of interviews, she is looking forward to flying back to Australia and relative normality. “Don’t knock on my door,” she warns, with another steely smile.
In the drama, Biggs is played by Essex-born actor Daniel Mays, who invests him with a puppy-dog enthusiasm. “Sometimes he was Ron,” admits Brent after the screening. “His hair is a little darker and he hasn’t the pale blue eyes, but he’s exactly the right height, the right build and he got the mannerisms perfectly. He really nailed it.”
It’s easy to see how Brent would have been swept along by this charismatic, fun-loving fellow. And he is portrayed more as a victim than a villain. Doesn’t she worry that the dramatisation glorifies the Great Train Robbery?
Brent bristles. “No, I don’t think it glorifies it. It’s a very honest, warts-and-all account of what occurred.” Jeff Pope jumps in. As the producer of last year’s Bafta-winning drama about Fred West, Appropriate Adult, and before that See No Evil: The Moors Murders, he is no stranger to controversy.
“I think it’s a legitimate question. But the programme doesn’t try to say that the robbers were really lovely fellas, and it doesn’t try to say that they didn’t assault the train driver, Jack Mills, which they did. It doesn’t say that we should feel that they were unfairly persecuted.
“So it’s not an apology for the Great Train Robbers. It’s a love story. It’s about an 18-year-old girl meeting this guy who was from the wrong side of the tracks. She fell for him very hard and very quickly. Lots of things happened that were out of her control and then she was really in a situation there was no way out of.”
Brent’s two sons are supportive of the drama. They value privacy, preferring to distance themselves from their notorious father and live anonymously. “They did go to South America to visit him a couple of times, but he concentrated on Michael, the child who was born in Brazil,” says Brent. “He ultimately abandoned them.”
Did she consult Biggs before co-operating with the drama? “No, why did I have to consult him? He has never consulted me about any of his projects. This is my story.”
Biggs would be hard-pushed to demur. Since the Home Office controversially granted him compassionate release from his prison sentence in 2009, after a number of strokes, he’s lived in a care home in north London and can barely walk, talk or eat. However, he did manage to give Mrs Biggs a double thumbs-up when given a sneak preview.
“His only quibble was the scene where Charmian flashes him in prison,” says Pope, chuckling. “In his way, he said it was inaccurate; he said Charmian wasn’t in fact wearing a bra!” Brent smiles properly at that.
It’s been 38 years since that day in Rio when Biggs asked for a divorce. Did she find love again? “Not really, no. Once you’ve been through that, you don’t lay yourself open to it again. You don’t put your fate in somebody else’s hands ever again. He was a hard act to follow.” So what about regrets? “Being me,” she says, “I’d probably do it all over again.”
Mrs Biggs starts tonight at 9.00pm on ITV1