Saturday, May 15, 2021

"George Blake and the Prison Escape Story Hitchcock Spent The Last Decade of His Life Trying to Make"

From CrimeReads:

The spy who escaped prison and captured popular imagination.

In 1950, George Blake, a British MI6 agent, was taken prisoner by the North Korean army. By the time he was returned to Britain, three years later, he had been converted to the Soviet cause and was acting as a KGB double agent. He was caught in 1961 and sentenced to forty two years in prison. He was serving his time in Wormwood Scrubs prison, in London, in 1966, when he decided to escape.

All this time Blake had been waiting anxiously inside the prison wall for Bourke to throw him the ladder. As time passed he began to give up hope. He claims to have waited ‘a whole hour, which turned into an eternity’. He later recalled thinking: ‘Now he’s gone away. I couldn’t go back, but I also couldn’t go over the wall.’ At this point, it seemed probable that he would be caught and spend the rest of his life in prison. Then, suddenly, he heard Bourke’s voice coming through again. But by this time people were parking in the street for visiting hour at the hospital, and Bourke had to resume his wait. Time was ticking away. Blake knew that, when the prisoners were returned to their cells at 7 p.m., the wardens would discover that he was gone. It was about 6.55 p.m. when Bourke finally threw the ladder over the wall. Blake climbed up it. When he reached the top, he realised that Bourke had forgotten to affix a metal hook to the ladder so that it could be attached to the wall. Blake jumped 20 feet, broke his wrist and cut his forehead, but Bourke picked him up and bundled him into the car. In Simon Gray’s play “Cell Mates,” when a minor character is told about the escape, he responds: ‘But that’s – that’s – (Laughing.) It’s like something out of a – a comic book!’ Within twenty minutes Blake and Bourke were safe inside the bedsit that the Irishman had rented just a few hundred yards from the prison, at Highlever Road. Soon afterwards, a prison officer found the rope-ladder and Bourke’s chrysanthemums, still wrapped in florist’s paper. Only about forty-five minutes after the breakout did the prison authorities alert the police.

News of the escape delighted the prisoners. The Observer quoted one prisoner as saying the atmosphere in the Scrubs was ‘like Christmas Day after Father Christmas has been’. In Zeno’s telling, even the prison wardens seemed happy that Blake was free. Meanwhile, at Highlever Road, Blake and Bourke watched TV news report the escape, and raised a glass.

Some people on the outside were pleased too. ‘Flags went up on my house,’ Jeremy Hutchinson said half a century later. The prime minister, Harold Wilson, reportedly remarked in private: ‘That will do our Home Secretary [Roy Jenkins] a great deal of good. He was getting too complacent and he needs taking down a peg.’ Jenkins hadn’t even known that Blake was in Wormwood Scrubs.

The British prison system was starting to look as error-prone as the British intelligence services. A couple of dozen prisoners had escaped in the previous two years, including the Great Train Robbers Charlie Wilson and Ronnie Biggs, and six men from Blake’s own wing of Wormwood Scrubs on 5 June 1966.

Ten more prisoners would get out in December 1966, including the ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell, who once at liberty began writing letters to the newspapers. ‘Over Christmas,’ wrote the New Yorker magazine in early 1967, ‘the breaks were such almost daily occurrences that some of the more sporting-minded newspapers took to facetiously reporting the figures in handy tables, like football-league results or horse-race prices.’....