John McVicar, who has died aged 82 of a heart attack, was a former armed robber who famously escaped from Durham prison in 1968 and became the subject of a film starring Roger Daltrey of the Who. He would later become a writer and a controversial commentator on crime.
Born in London a few months before the start of the blitz, he was the son of a law-abiding couple, George and Diane, who ran a newsagent’s. He was a success at school as a student, athlete and chess player but soon drifted into petty crime, breaking into shops and stealing cars. His first arrest came in 1956 when he was sent to a remand home in Essex and took part in his first escape. A two-year term in borstal followed and he moved into armed robbery.
In 1964 he was arrested for robbing a jeweller of £1,000 and, always an articulate and combative man, conducted his own defence, leading to a hung jury and a retrial at which he was convicted and jailed for eight years. Another escape followed, this one from Parkhurst. During a period of freedom he fathered a child, Russell, with Sheila Wilshire, with whom he had fallen in love and who adopted his last name; they later married.
The life of crime continued. In 1966 he was charged with the attempted robbery of an armoured security van and received a further 15-year sentence, to run consecutively with his previous sentence, meaning that he faced 23 years behind bars at the age of 26.
“As a criminal I have been a lamentable failure,” he wrote in McVicar, By Himself (1974). “Whatever money I gained by crime I could have earned as a labourer in half the time I spent in prison. My character, which is addicted to taking risks, was a guarantee that I could not be a success as a thief or a bandit.”
It was while serving his sentence in Durham, where he got into bodybuilding, that he and another prisoner, Wally “Angel Face” Probyn, known as “the Hoxton Houdini” for his many escapes, tunnelled their way out of a supposedly impenetrable prison. This led to McVicar being described in the press as “Public Enemy No 1”. A reward of £10,000 was offered and the police description suggested he had “a fresh face, a muscular body carrying no surplus fat and thin snarling lips”. He would remain on the run for two years, living for a while with Sheila in Blackheath, south-east London, where he looked after weapons for other criminals and was known to buy a couple of bottles of champagne every Friday night from a local off-licence. The search for him continued and he was recaptured and returned to jail.
In Durham, he had met Laurie Taylor, the sociologist, writer and broadcaster, who taught prisoners there and would become a mentor and friend. Taylor’s book In the Underworld (1984) is partly based on his conversations with McVicar. He took A-levels in English, sociology and economics and started writing. His memoir would be turned into a successful film, called simply McVicar, in 1980, directed by Tom Clegg, with Daltrey in the lead role and Adam Faith as Probyn.
On his release he became a journalist, writing for the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Punch, the New Statesman, Time Out and Spiked. His writing was as combative as his hardman prison persona. In an article for Spiked in 1995 he suggested that the Olympic gold medallist Linford Christie had taken performance- enhancing drugs. The athlete sued successfully for libel and won £40,000 in damages at the high court. He also fell out with former criminal friends when, in response to the 1990 riot in Strangeways, he suggested that the SAS be sent in to deal with the inmates.
His book on Jill Dando, Dead on Time (2002), was reviewed in the Guardian by Bob Woffinden, who concluded that “he seems to regard most of humanity with varying levels of contempt, and writes movingly only of the death of his dog”. McVicar’s theory as to who carried out the murder “must be one of the most preposterous advanced in modern criminal history”, Woffinden suggested.
In 1996 he found himself back in court when he was charged with attacking another man in Battersea over an argument involving their dogs. He was alleged to have head-butted the man, breaking his nose, but was acquitted after conducting his own defence, claiming that he was acting in self-defence. After the verdict, Judge John Baker told McVicar that he had presented his case “successfully with great skill and ability”. Dogs remained an important part of his life; he died while walking his husky, Lucky.
In 2002, having been divorced when in prison by Sheila, he married Countess Valentina Artsrunik, 17 years his junior, at the Russian Orthodox church in Knightsbridge. Together they ran a small publishing company, Artnik, which had been launched at the Bulgarian embassy and which published Dead on Time.
That relationship came to an end, and at the time of his death McVicar was living in a caravan in Althorne, near Maldon, Essex. “I have always thought that John went off to live on the coast, well away from all his contacts, because as a former fitness fanatic, he could not allow anyone to witness any sign of his physical deterioration,” said Taylor. “This may seem fanciful, but I always reckoned that the dog he adopted – a very wild creature – was a sort of surrogate for his own lost powers.”
Russell recalled being taught by his father to play chess at the age of five and said: “He would never allow me to win.” Russell himself also ended up behind bars, most notably for stealing a Picasso in 1997. Like his father he took a degree while in prison, specialising in environmentalism and, following his release, wrote a book on climate change. The two had not spoken for 25 years as his father was critical of him for following his footsteps.
McVicar is survived by Russell and his sister, Janice.
• John Roger McVicar, former criminal and author, born 21 March 1940; died 6 September 2022
• This article was amended on 27 September 2022. John McVicar was born a few months before the start of the blitz rather than during it. The article was amended on 28 September to correct inconsistencies in the naming of McVicar’s first wife.