How Fleet Street found Ronnie Biggs
and Scotland Yard lost him
The story of the scoop
By Anthony Delano
About the author
About the book
Sarah Sands, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, wrote in the Independent (9 August 2009): ‘I became a journalist purely on account of Anthony Delano's book about the Fleet Street chase to find Ronnie Biggs in hiding in Brazil.’
Earlier generations had perhaps been influenced by reading Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. The main difference is that Slip-Up is a true story.
As an advertisement for the sheer adventure and romance of the newspaper trade it is unsurpassed. Keith Waterhouse described it as: ‘Perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written.’ And The Times reviewer wrote: ‘No journalist can afford to miss this cautionary tale… the story of the in-fighting and downfall of all concerned has one rolling in the aisles. Mr Delano’s eye is astute, his ear a credit to his profession at any level; and his wit is accompanied by the ability to write clear English.’
Delano describes the days when, if a story broke anywhere, the reporter (sometimes a team of them) would collect a wad of travellers’ cheques from cashiers and a ticket on departure at Heathrow, and jet off, often within the hour.
All great fun. Could it happen today? Probably not; the evidence from reading today’s papers is that it couldn’t and doesn’t.
For Fleet Street itself is no more and the newspapers are all being run by accountants, where once there were journalists.
Delano, a former foreign correspondent (later, managing editor) is now a professor of journalism in London. Lucky students. He knows a story when he sees one and still revels in the enjoyment of his old trade. He has written another book, Joyce McKinney And The Case Of The Manacled Mormon, about similar scoop-chasing. He writes brilliantly, but also historically. Sad, though, that it is now only history.
About the Author
Anthony Delano is a third generation newspaperman. After a journalistic apprenticeship in Australia he came to Britain and joined the Daily Mirror in its celebrated heyday as `the people's paper'. Writing for it earned him the three most enviable jobs Fleet Street could offer: Chief American Correspondent, Chief European Correspondent and Managing Editor. Back in London between postings abroad he wrote the Mirror's famous Inside Page. His other books include a novel, Breathless Diversions, and The Manacled Mormon. When he left the Mirror he taught university courses in Journalism and is now Visiting Professor at the London College of Communication.
About the Book
Keith Waterhouse, who wrote an ill-fated screenplay based on this book, said that Slip-Up was ‘perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written’.
It is the story of the discovery in Rio de Janeiro of Ronald Biggs, a celebrity fugitive on the run for 12 years after the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and the fiasco that resulted when newsmen and detectives worked out a bizarre plot to bring him back to Britain.
Initially a cosy, if highly irregular, conspiracy between Scotland Yard and the Daily Express, the hunt for Biggs soon embroiled every circulation-hungry rival newspaper. And where Fleet Street led, the world’s news media followed. It was The Story of the Century.
Scotland Yard was outwitted from bungled beginning to embarrassed end. The Express was mercilessly mauled by its opponents. The ends of justice were soon forgotten. Biggs had (unwittingly though literally) planted the seeds of his own salvation and, infamously, he kept out of jail for another 27 years.
Behind the blazing headlines an even more entertaining farce had been played out but the enthralled public and exasperated British government knew nothing of it until Anthony Delano, a veteran Fleet Street man himself, produced this riveting account of greed, ambition and double-dealing among a tribe of high-powered hacks on the warpath.
A bit of a slip-up with Jack Slipper
By Keith Waterhouse
Slipper of the Yard. It could have been the title of a series back in the grainy, pioneering days of black and white commercial television when suspects were known to the Old Bill as Chummy, and Chummy himself, upon having his collar felt, said: ‘All right, Guv, you've got me bang to rights.’ Had Jack Slipper opted for a career in showbiz instead of the Metropolitan Police – a decision he might in later life wish he had taken – he was perfectly typecast for the role of the archetypal copper.
He was every inch a copper from his neat moustache to his size 12 shoes. He looked like a copper and talked like a copper. ‘Long time no see, Ronnie,’ he said as he walked into escaped train robber Ronnie Biggs's hotel room in Rio after a nine-year search.
No cops-and-robbers screenwriter would have dared pen such a corny line.
But Slipper was proud of it. He'd rehearsed it. He was a copper's copper.
Slipper's CV with the Flying Squad was spectacular. He was among the small team that solved the Shepherds Bush police murders when three officers were shot. And the £12m Bank of America robbery. All this and the Great Train Robbery, too. He rose to become Detective Chief Superintendent.
And then along came Biggs. And this is how I, peripherally, come into the story.
Learning that the fugitive bank robber was holed up in Rio, Fleet Street's finest, with Slipper of the Yard leading (and sometimes following) the pack, descended upon Copacabana Beach. When every national newspaper is chasing after the same story bedlam ensues.
When it turned out that no one at Scotland Yard had thought to ask if Britain and Brazil had an extradition treaty (they didn't) and that the Home Office knew nothing of the Brazilian escapade, bedlam degenerated into pandemonium. And, defeated, Slipper of the Yard came home.
There was a classic news picture of a despondent Slipper returning to London with a vacant aircraft seat next to him where Biggs should have been sitting. Actually, it was occupied by Slipper's sergeant, but an enterprising snapper, Michael Brennan, waited for the right moment when he went to the toilet. The caption was ‘The Empty Seat’.
Meanwhile, another resourceful UK journalist, the writer Anthony Delano, was preparing a blow by blow account of the whole hilarious episode. His book, Slip-Up, was perhaps the best analysis of Fleet Street at work ever written. It was brought to me by TV producer Graham Benson and director James Cellan Jones who thought there could be a great TV screenplay in it. There was. I wrote it. It appeared on BBC TV under the title The Great Paper Chase. It was a huge success. And Slipper sued for libel.
Jack Slipper and I met for a couple of large ones at the old Wig and Pen Club opposite the Law Courts. Somewhat given to malapropisms, he explained his position: ‘No one minds a bit of dramatic licentiousness, Keith, but you have made me out to be a right prat.
‘For instance, take that scene where I'm ordering a drink for my sergeant and me at a café table, and I'm supposed to say to the waiter, 'Uno beero and another uno beero'. All right, Keith, fair enough, it's the only way you can get served in some of these places.
‘But then you have me turn to my sergeant and say: You see what we're up against, Peter. They only talk Brazilian down here.’ Slipper took a brooding swig of his whisky.
‘Now I'm a much travelled man, Keith. I've been to Malta, I've been to Rhodesia, I've been all over the place. So I knew they only talked flaming Brazilian before we even got there.’
The BBC had to pay him £50,000 libel damages, plus costs. Plus an injunction against them repeating the offence. Pity - it was a very entertaining 90 minutes. But as Jack Slipper would have been the first to agree, you can't win them all.
Order this book, with free postage worldwide, from The Book Depository
What the papers said
No journalist can afford to miss this cautionary tale . . . the story of the in-fighting and downfall of all concerned has one rolling in the aisles. Mr Delano's eye is astute, his ear a credit to his profession at any level; and his wit is accompanied by the ability to write clear English.
Marvellously funny and told with ease and wit... The best stories are sometimes the ones behind the news. There never was a more hilarious tale.
Anthony Delano, a reporter of much experience, has written the most useful, intellectually coherent and - yes - serious action-study of the British Press that anyone has given us for years... and hysterically funny. . . A beautifully articulated case-study of the code of the Code of the Street in action.
Bruce Page, New Statesman
The funniest book of the summer. With expertly witty hands, Delano uproariously describes how "the biggest comeback of a condemned man since the Resurrection" was bungled... Lovely fun.
Delano mercilessly exposes the savage Fleet Street competition that underlay the Biggs scoop, and the tale is pacey, absorbing, humorous.
Has an authentic ring. For anyone interested in the inner workings of a popular newspaper, it is enlightening and amusing. A readable and entertaining piece of work.
I'd say it's the funniest book about Fleet Street since Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. I stayed up half the night to finish it. It's one of those you-can't-put-it-down books. SLIP-UP includes some devastating portraits of Fleet Street characters. Delano's wicked pen spares no one.
Phillip Knightley, U. K. Press Gazette
A Billy Wilder-style comedy of muddle, mistrust, and misplaced zeal.
New York Times
Gripping . . . Delano tells it superbly. It's hard to think of a book since Scoop in which doubledealing, grappling ambition, spectacular successes and the glaring ineptitudes of daily journalism are examined so sharply and with such wit.
A story worth telling, not only for entertainment, but also for the light it throws on journalistic practices. The characters are vividly and sympathetically presented.
Times Literary Supplement
Dead-eye Delano has done it... He has taken on two of those worthy - if somewhat frowsty - British institutions, Scotland Yard and the Daily Express and demolished them with wit, pace and a keen eye... A hilarious straight-through read. Very, very good value for those who like a laugh. For journalists it is a must.