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Safe-Cracking Folk Hero Movie? 2005-03-31

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Scotland.

‘Gentle Johnny’ Ramensky was ‘The Prince of “Petermen”‘, a safe-blower without peer and wartime commando cracksman, whose exploits turned him into a folk hero. Now, 100 years after his birth, the story of Scotland’s most famous — rather than infamous — safe-breaker seems set to be made into a film.

Mr.Johnny Ramensky became that rare breed — a criminal much beloved by the public — a compulsive and athletic burglar who eschewed violence, escaped from the penal stronghold of Peterhead prison no fewer than five times, and was hailed as a ‘War Hero’ after he was parachuted behind enemy lines to steal vital documents. His reputation was celebrated in tale and song, but ultimately his story is a pathetic one: he was an arch-recidivist, and neither his skills nor reputation prevented him from spending more than 40 of his 67 years in prison, where he eventually died.

Mr.Ramensky’s wartime exploits formed the basis of the 1958 film ‘The Safecracker’, starring Mr.Ray Milland.

Now Aberdeen filmmaker Mr.Lee Hutcheon, whose portrait of local gang life ‘In a Man’s World’ won best feature-length drama category at ‘The New York Independent Film Festival’, is looking for funding to put the Ramensky story on screen. He does so with what one might call ‘inside experience’, in that he wrote much of what he describes as ‘a realistic, down-to-earth and gritty script’ during an eight-week stint he himself served in jail.

A son of Lanarkshire’s immigrant Lithuanian coal mining community, Mr.Ramensky was born in the Lanarkshire village of Glenboig. He left school at 14 to follow his father, who died when he was a child, down the mines where, among other things, he learned to work with explosives.

After the family moved to Glasgow’s Gorbals in a fruitless attempt to find work during ‘The Depression’, Mr.Ramensky began burgling his way out of unemployment and was eventually sent to Polmont Borstal, near Falkirk, where a harsh regime toughened him up and gave him an appetite for physical fitness training which would serve him well in his often acrobatic entrances and exits in and out of supposedly secure premises. He became an expert ‘Peterman’ (‘peter’ being underworld slang for a safe), but while a daring and agile burglar, he was by no means immune to arrest.

The first of his celebrated escapes from Peterhead was in 1934, after ‘The Authorities’ refused to grant him ‘Parole’ to attend the funeral of his first wife, Daisy. Picking the lock of the prison hospital, where he had been committed due to ‘depression’, he crossed the courtyard and scaled the prison gate. He was caught, however, at Ellon bridge, just 24 km along the 270 km route back to Glasgow.

On release, he continued his safe-breaking career and by the time ‘The Second World War’ broke out, he was doing time yet again in Peterhead, where, in 1942, he received a mysterious visitor from ‘The War Office’ and was taken under military escort to ‘Whitehall’ to discuss the niceties of safe-blowing.

On finishing his sentence two months later, he was whisked off to Commando Training Camp where, among other things, he was supplied with a selection of specially requisitioned safes, all of which he cheerfully blew.

Much of his wartime activities remain shrouded in secrecy, but, as a sergeant in a special unit, he parachuted behind enemy lines to crack the safes of high-ranking German officers and retrieve vital documents such as codebooks and plans. In one much-celebrated episode, after the Allied liberation of Rome, he blew 14 safes in one day.

His wartime exploits won him ‘The Military Medal’ — which Mr.Hutcheon believes he never accepted — and a pardon for his crimes, but he clearly found post-war life too dull and was soon back at his old trade, and by 1952 back in Peterhead. This time he fooled the guards by leaving a dummy in his bed and went over the wall again — on this occasion, the story goes, with his memoirs tucked under his shirt. ‘The Errol Flynn of Peterhead’, as the press dubbed him, was soon caught again, however, a matter of miles from the prison, while a less-than-sympathetic ‘Official Secrets Act’ ultimately prevented the publication of his memoirs.

By this time his exploits were earning him fan mail, including at least one offer of marriage, which he politely declined. Despite this popularity, in 1955, following his marriage to a Glasgow widow, Ms.Lily Mulholland, he was given a ten-year sentence, but 1958 proved his ‘annus mirabilis’, as the blue-eyed, boyish-looking ‘con’ broke out of Peterhead three times, on the third occasion vanishing for ten days before he was found near the River Don in Aberdeen.

As he left police headquarters in Aberdeen for the van journey back to Peterhead, a cheering crowd of some 200 people — mainly women — gathered to see him off. Later, on his fifth and final escape from Peterhead, a baffled Scottish Home Department was forced to admit that it was not known whether the elusive Mr.Ramensky was inside or outside the jail. In 1967, after a bank blast in Rutherglen blew two patrolling constables on their backs, the incorrigible Mr.Ramensky was in the dock again, where he pled guilty to blowing the safe but vehemently refused to plead guilty to assaulting the two policemen during arrest.

He had never assaulted anyone in his life, he protested, and only the safe-blowing charge stuck.

By this time, however, he was well into his sixties, and a sad shadow of his old athletic self, which became only too evident in 1970 when he had a serious fall from the roof of Stirling county buildings while trying to escape from another court appearance.

The only truly effective jailbreak Mr.Ramensky ever made was in 1972-11, when he died in Perth Royal Infirmary following a stroke while in Perth Prison. While they cursed him when his escapes dragged them out in all weathers, the police developed a certain affection for ‘Gentle Johnny’. Back in 1962, Detective Superintendent Mr.Robert Colquhoun recalled that:

‘Like most policemen who have come into contact with Mr.Ramensky, I find him an engaging character, the kind of man who, applying his brain to another, more acceptable type of occupation, could probably have made good’.

Mr.Colquhoun was speaking after his retirement — just before which he had received a message of goodwill from Johnny himself, who was once again a guest of Her Majesty and had heard that the policeman was ill.


The safe-breaker wished the detective a speedy recovery and suggested he had been working too hard in pursuing him. Widespread public sympathy with the safe-breaker was reflected in at least two songs, one of them, ‘Ramensky Must Go Free’, written by the actor Mr.Roddy Mcmillan, while ‘The Ballad of Johnny Ramensky’, written to the tune of the old song ‘Jamie Foyers’, was published by the late MP and folk song collector Mr.Norman Buchan in the pages of this newspaper in 1959:

Far distant, far distant, in Peterheid jail, Lies Johnny Ramensky, his escape bid did fail, Iron bars and red granite keep him frae the sun, An’ Johnny Ramensky nae freedom has won …


‘It is undoubted true’, wrote Mr.Buchan at the time, ‘that almost all people, regardless of the rights and wrongs of his case, felt some sympathy for the man who detested prison so strongly that he broke out of Scotland’s strongest jail five times’.

Mr.Hutcheon, too, has been captivated by the Ramensky legend, although he wasn’t born when Mr.Ramensky died:

‘As I was growing up in Aberdeen, there were all sorts of stories about his exploits’, he says,

‘And from a filmmaker’s “point of view” it’s a wonderful tale.

‘He was eventually caged and guarded by no fewer than six wardens, 24 hours a day.

‘He makes “The Birdman of Alcatraz” look like “The Budgieman of Alcatraz”‘.

Mr.Hutcheon sees actor Mr.Peter Mullan as ideal for the title role, and hopes to discuss possible funding for the project with ‘Scottish Screen’.

And he makes ‘no bones’ about the fact that his script for the proposed film bears a certain stamp of authenticity, as he wrote much of it during the eight-week sentence he served in Aberdeen’s Craiginches Prison for assault, following his involvement in what he calls ‘a silly street brawl’.

‘So I didn’t have to search very far for inspiration’.

Mr.Hutcheon recalls ruefully that he was stuck in Craiginches on the night that ‘In a Man’s World’ won its award in New York, USA, having fought off 450 competitors. That film was made on a negligible budget, without any assistance from ‘Scottish Screen’.

Now he hopes that the prestige of the award will help attract funding for the Ramensky project.

‘I’ve written it to be quite realistic and gritty, because that’s the nature of where he came from.

‘There’s a lot of emotion in it, and humour.

‘Basically, he became a folk hero, and I’ll express it in that way’.

One of Mr.Hutcheon’s sources — an explosives expert who had been a witness at some of Mr.Ramensky’s trials — was rather dismissive of the safe-blower’s professional reputation.

‘He seemed to think he was messy, the way he went about his work’, says Mr.Hutcheon.

Others thought otherwise. The late Mr.Paddy Meehan, the safe-cracker wrongfully convicted of murder and pardoned after serving seven years, once told a ‘Scotsman’ journalist that he and Mr.Ramensky had done a job together on what was then a state-of-the-art safe. Johnny, said Mr.Meehan, didn’t want to use too much explosive, because he didn’t want to unduly damage the safe.

‘He was the sort of thief who wanted to tidy up after he’d blown the “peter”‘, he recalled.

So, however the life of Mr.Ramensky emerges on screen, it’s unlikely to have scenes like that famous one in ‘The Italian Job’, with Mr.Michael Caine protesting at an overenthusiastic safe-cracker:

‘You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off..’.


1. Vera Wilson/nee Webster, and Georgina Webster/ Giebel - 2009-08-26

We remember Gentle Johnny visiting our local village of Methlick, in the mid to late 50’s on many of his many small excursions. He was remembered by all,as a lovely story teller and a likable man.

2. Vera Wilson/nee Webster, and Georgina Webster/ Giebel - 2009-08-26

Would love to have the book.

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