Dir: Tom Clegg, 1980



True story or fabrication?

This 1980 biopic of the notorious criminal, John McVicar, is a pretty good prison film but lacks the punch of Scum.

McVicar (Roger Daltrey) is Britain’s ‘Public Enemy No. 1″.

An armed robber, he his sentenced to 23 years in prison but, with old friend and inmate Wally Probyn (Adam Faith) and adversary Ronnie Harrison (Steven Berkoff), McVicar breaks out and spends two years on the run.

While on the run, he forms new bonds with his wife and son and chooses to give up his life of crime.

But he is unable to provide for his family and does one last job. This alerts the authorities to his whereabouts and he is rearrested with extra years put on his sentence making a total of 26.

Daltrey was an odd choice to play McVicar. Physically, he is more muscular and in shape.

This is the real John McVicar:

John McVicar’s mugshot

And here is Daltrey in the film:

Roger Daltrey in a promotional still for the film

Daltrey’s not bad in the role, but he just isn’t quite right. To be fair, Daltrey is a singer first and an actor second.

He can’t deliver lines like a trained thespian but he tries and does a passable job.

The film has a setup of a theatre production by, being split into two acts.

To begin with, you have McVicar in the prison, rebelling against the system and just generally being a pain in the arse.

Act two is his freedom and trying to secure a better life for himself and his family.

The epilogue is his inevitable arrest and climb from the gutter into a respected journalist and fully functioning member of society.

However, this is all based on the autobiography McVicar By Himself. 

Call me cynical, but I find it difficult to believe what criminals say, reformed or not.

The film does follow the book closely, but you have to question the accuracy of the account.

People who lead a life of crime tend to be selfish and arrogant with little regard to anybody else so it’s no surprise that McVicar has always struck me as someone who is full of himself.

The book portrays the guards as incompetent buffoons and the movie follows suit.

I have a little bit of doubt of what the author says.

It is true that he escaped from prison. This we know. But, the preparation for the escape is a little dubious. I just find it incredibly hard to believe that the guards accepted that McVicar was just hiding from them and they never thought to check where he was hiding, exactly and they failed to notice him covered in dirt and soil.

John McVicar was a dangerous criminal but, here, is depicted as a loveable rogue and cheeky chappy who uses armed robbery as a bit of a hobby.

The director, Clegg, tries to paint the film as an injustice to McVicar, with the robber being thrust into a corrupt system.

There is no apology for his crimes or any sense of remorse. The film ends with a quote from the man himself, lamenting how it’s a great life being a robber but the downside is going to prison for it. That does not sound like a man who is sorry for what he’s done, but a man who is sorry for getting caught.

Because the film is split into two halves we are left wondering what happened to the other characters in prison. What happened to Wally or Ronnie? They’re not mentioned again.

A real highlight of the film is the awesome soundtrack.

Guitar driven, the music is a hard pulse of heavy rock with the opening song, Free Me, being the most notable.

Co-written by Daltrey, the song is a superb and fits the scene of McVicar being transferred to his new prison, amazingly.

With the album being made up of guest musicians, Daltrey enlists his old bandmates from The Who to contribute, all to great success.

A good prison film if you take a lot of it as a piece of fiction but, as a truly historical account, take it with a pinch of salt.


9 thoughts on “McVicar

  1. i thought was a good film but as you say it s after all it is just a film of the glamour side of being a modern day bank robber. i have been looking into the life of wally or i think ronnie dark [darky] but all files seem to be protected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an odd one as I thought they would be cleared for release, now. It’s been over forty years and he’s (I’m assuming) dead. There must be a lot more to him. Have you tried requesting a Freedom of Information request?


  2. Wally was a convicted child molester.( sentenced 1995 )… only just found this out ! Crazy ! ..although, from what we all hear of well known criminals around the 60s and 70s .. this may have been quite the norm…. Disgusting, I know.As for the film I’ve always liked it and I happen to think that RD plays the part well. And yes, the soundtrack is spot on ! There is an interview with John McVicar and Laurie Taylor on the series ‘ in confidence ‘ … really worth a watch. As a reformed criminal he’s very honest about every aspect of his life- quite a serious chap and this shows throughout.


  3. Its true about Wally the wrong ‘un, though at the time while at Durham High Security Wing, he hadn’t committed any sex offences.


  4. I was in prison Maidstone 95 I was running the laundry on Kent wing a real good fellow started that off for me I never went without. He’s name was Joey Martin I asked one day if he knew Mcvicar he loss his plot on me told me never to mention that name again. For the last twenty years I wondered why I found out last month Mr. Martin R. I. P WAS THE THIRD PERSON IN REAL LIFE ON THAT PRISON BREAK. I KNOW THAT IS TRUE WHAT WENT WRONG WE MAY NEVER KNOW DAVE GARDNER.


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