Bronson: Fit to be Free? review – has Britain’s most violent criminal really been saved by art?

The last time he was let out of jail, Charles Bronson robbed a jeweller’s and fought a rottweiler. Will this time be different for the inmate now known as Salvador?

The prisoner formerly known as Bronson wants the world to know he has changed. “I’ve done some mad things, I’ve been a nasty bastard,” he says from his maximum security cell in one of the many prisons where he has been incarcerated since being jailed in 1974 for armed robbery (with only a brief spell of freedom in the late 1980s). “I have found my true self through my art. I’ve swapped the sawn-off shotgun for the sawn-off paintbrush.”

These days he calls himself Charles Salvador. He even has a Dalí moustache. Auctioneers of his pictures of prison and psychiatric hospital life call him an outsider artist. Nonsense. He’s an insider, though that may change.

Next week, the Parole Board will decide if the 70-year-old regularly billed as Britain’s most violent criminal – who has received 17 convictions, taken 11 hostages and attacked more than 20 prisoners and staff with weapons including makeshift spears, jam jars and silk ties – should be released. The board will no doubt be mindful that the last time Bronson left jail, he was only out for 69 days, during which time he robbed a jeweller’s, fought a rottweiler for a bet, and became a bare-knuckled underground fighter.

Another factor in their decision may be Bronson’s treatment of his art teacher. “I thought: I’m going to die,” recalls Phil Danielson, who suffered two breakdowns and post-traumatic stress disorder after he was taken hostage for two days by Bronson at HMP Hull in 1999. “He jabbed a knife into my ribs and said, ‘Take your last breath.’” Danielson never went back to that job. “The damage that was caused by him has moulded my whole life … It’ll be with me for the rest of my days.”

Bronson with bald head, John Lennon specs and bushy beard in 1997.
Bronson in 1997. Photograph: Shutterstock

“You don’t have to be a nice person to be released,” says Nick Hardwick, former chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales, “you have to be a safe person.” But is Bronson? Forensic psychologist Kerry Daynes tells us that “after 70, violent recidivism drops to nil”. I distrust that data, particularly when I hear Bronson’s son, George Bamby, and his wife, Maz, worry about the safety of him visiting them at home.

Bronson: Fit to be Free? uses video call footage between the prisoner in his cell and his son. The footage was licensed from Bamby and is broadcast without permission from either the prison or the Ministry of Justice. Quite a coup by Channel 4, then, though they missed a trick: they should have hired Tom Hardy, who played Bronson in the eponymous film, to narrate.

This programme does Bronson few favours in terms of his parole hearing. At one point, George asks his dad if he feels remorse for what he did to Danielson. “I never hurt the man,” says Bronson. “Mentally, obviously, I did. He didn’t deserve what he got, but did I deserve a life sentence just for wrapping him up? … When you’re locked up in a concrete coffin, 23 hours of a 24-hour day, sometimes in life you’ve got to do something mad.” That doesn’t sound like remorse – which, George explains, is what the Parole Board will want to hear.

If released, Bronson says, he plans to move near the Bambys’ home in Devon, and live in a caravan. As the camera pans across one of the county’s many caravan parks, I wonder how it would feel if he moved in next door. On one hand, you might not sleep at night. On the other, proximity to Britain’s most notorious ex-con might boost a property’s value.

As Bamby knows, crime does pay. He runs a true crime museum in Torquay, where he proudly shows off the exhibits, including waxwork models of Bronson and Coronation Street actor Paula Williamson dressed for their wedding day in 2017. We don’t see footage of the ceremony inside prison, but we do see a clip of the bizarre reception. Williamson is on the arm of a Bronson lookalike – her husband being unavoidably detained. Two years later, Williamson, estranged from Bronson, was found dead in her bedroom; the police did not treat her death as suspicious.

Two questions remain. First, is Bamby really Bronson’s son? Bamby is a paparazzo photographer who in 2017 got a phone call from Bronson claiming that he was his father. The con had seen Bamby on telly and reckoned George had the family nose. Can’t see it myself. Later, Bamby visited him in jail, where Bronson plucked two moustache hairs to be submitted for DNA testing. Result? A certificate claiming 99.98% likelihood that Bamby is Bronson’s son.

The second question is more imponderable. Will Bronson ever be freed? Last year, Deputy PM Dominic Raab empowered himself to review Parole Board judgments. If the board decides to release Bronson, overturning the release of Britain’s most notorious criminal would, you might think, be a canny move for the alleged serial bully, distracting from his and his government’s manifold shortcomings. “I’m coming home, I’m definitely coming home,” says Bronson. Don’t bet on it.

• Bronson: Fit to be Free? aired on Channel 4 and is now on All 4.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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