'He's a lovely man': Charles Bronson's friends and new wife march for release of UK's 'most violent prisoner'

Adam Lusher

And so they set off, from the pub to the Ministry of Justice, a select band of 11 protesters marching for a really special guy: loveable, peaceable OAP Charles Bronson.

On the day of Charlie’s 65th birthday, the Magnificent Eleven marched with a 21,712-signature petition in their hands, and hope in their hearts.

Hope that the man so unfairly branded ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’, so “cruelly” condemned to spend nearly 40 years in solitary confinement, might one day be free.

Free to keep a couple of llamas and a few other animals in the grounds of a quiet country cottage while living happily ever after with his new bride Paula Williamson, an actress who has graced the small screen in Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and as a stripper in Emmerdale.

Paula was marching of course, just three weeks after her wedding in HMP Wakefield, West Yorkshire. She gladly showed off her wedding ring, and corrected reports that she had walked down the aisle to the sound of Chopin’s Funeral March.

It was a sombre tune by Hans Zimmer, because Charlie gave the warders the wrong track number.

She and Charlie, who has spent all but 131 days of the last 43 years behind bars, had, of course, wanted another Hans Zimmer number: ‘Time’.

“It was quite an ironic choice,” said Paula, “But it’s a lovely song.”

Much more importantly, Paula and her friends were marching to correct far bigger misunderstandings about Charlie.

Forget the hype about ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’, she said. Charlie was actually “a victim of his own infamy.”

Yes, he possibly did hold the record for the most rooftop protests by any UK inmate, and, yes, he might have attacked at least 20 prison officers.

And yes, there had been that time he took three fellow prisoners hostage and threatened to eat one of them, before saying he would settle for a helicopter to Cuba and a cheese and pickle sandwich.

And yes, he had put a makeshift noose round the neck of a prison education worker who made unfavourable comments about his artwork, telling him to prepare to die and in his fury, during the 44-hour hostage stand-off, ripping a washing machine from the wall.

But that was years ago. Charlie was a changed man now. Literally. He had changed his surname to Salvador in homage to the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, (shortly after appearing in court in July 2014 for lunging at the governor of HMP Woodhill, Milton Keynes, and grabbing him by the neck.)

Since then, “Charles Salvador” hasn’t hurt a fly.

“He’s a lovely, warm, kind-hearted man,” said Timothy Crowley, Charlie’s prison jump suit-wearing “stunt double”, the lookalike who had the honour of the first dance with Paula at the hotel wedding reception, (the groom being otherwise occupied in the “Hannibal Cage” of Wakefield’s solitary unit.)

“His letters, his advice have been a big help to me when certain things have been going on in my personal life.”

Charlie does a lot of work for charity as well, selling his drawings to raise thousands for all sorts of good causes.

And that trouble with the artwork and the prison education officer: no-one was more remorseful for this “awful, evil act” than Charlie himself, said Bronson’s good friend George Bamby.

Mr Bamby was, he very quickly told you, “No 1 paparazzo in this country, more front pages than any other photographer in this country … Have you seen my documentary?”

He was now also Paula’s manager, after Bronson asked him to look after his fiancée.

He it was who was the only person to go with Paula on her ‘honeymoon’ to Malta, with instructions from Charlie, still banged up in the ‘Hannibal Cage’, to look after his new bride.

Ms Williamson said Charlie’s past violence had often been in response to “extreme provocation” of some in the prison system, and Mr Bamby offered a special insight into that incident with the education worker Phil Danielson:

“Do you know what he did? He terrorised that art officer because the guy said to him, ‘Charlie why don’t you draw some flowers and some fruit?’

“Charlie went ‘Flowers and fruit?! You’re having a laugh. He thought he was making an idiot of him. So he took him hostage for a few days.

“Fair enough, he’s done that. But that was in the past.”

Although in 2009, ten years after the hostage taking, Mr Danielson did seem to be having some difficulty forgetting.

“I went through hell. I have nightmares, suffered post-traumatic stress, had three nervous breakdowns and have never worked since,” he told the Mirror.

But Mr Bamby knows how to persuade Charlie to daw flowers and fruit without being taken hostage. You just have to ask him nicely, in a roundabout way.

“It’s how you speak to Charlie and how you deal with him,” explained Britain’s No 1 paparazzo. “That’s the thing with Charlie: you’ve got to know how to talk to him.”

And just in case anyone doesn’t know how to talk to Charlie when he is released to spend more time with his wife and his llamas: "Charlie doesn’t want to have interaction with people. He just wants to sit in the garden of his cottage somewhere rural and do his art and stay in the house.

“He won’t go to the shops, he won’t mix people. He just wants some freedom, to have fresh air and smell the roses.”

And so they petitioned, not for Charlie to be released immediately, but for him to be released from solitary so he could mix with other prisoners and show how rehabilitated he was by not taking them hostage or threatening to eat them.

“He is no longer a violent offender but an artist,” said the petition. “Yet he spends 22 hours a day in solitary confinement because of something that happened 17 years ago.” That something being a life sentence for terrorising the art officer, not that the petition was so indelicate as to mention it.

Instead it asked the Home Secretary: “Give him the chance to prove he is no longer 'Britain’s most dangerous inmate' but a man who has found true love.”

They handed out flyers, with a message from Charlie and a picture of the gentle OAP. With his fists clenched, in a boxing stance.

“I have never killed anyone,” declared Charlie on the flyer. “I have never raped anyone, I have never molested anyone, I have never been a threat to the general public. All of my crimes have been on the inside.”

Although he was first jailed in 1974 for stealing £26.18 in an armed robbery on a Post Office, and was returned to prison when he was arrested for robbery 69 days after being released in 1988. And returned to custody again when he was arrested for conspiracy to rob 53 days after being released in 1992.

But in the words of one 71-year-old who seemed a little hesitant when asked to confirm he had no criminal record: “They’re going to be releasing [road rage killer] Kenny Noye soon, and he’s stabbed people. Charlie hasn’t. Everybody deserves a chance.”

And so the Magnificent Eleven marched, with Paula’s friend Bev Straker, 61, leading the way in her mobility scooter, the name Salvador dyed into her hair, in purple lettering, using her megaphone to tell passers-by “Let’s free Charles Bronson Salvador.” And proudly telling The Independent she was Charlie’s “cockney sparrah”.

Alas, some couldn’t be there to join in the fun. Ex-gangster Dave Courtney, sometimes referred to as “the most feared man in Britain”, according to his website, had made it for the wedding but couldn’t be there for the protest. He was filming, apparently.

Fellow popular after-dinner speaker and Bronson wedding guest Eddie Richardson had also been unable to attend the protest.

After all, the former South London gangland boss, of the so-called “Torture gang” – although he has insisted his big brother Charlie was the one ordering torture that could involve pliers-assisted teeth removal and a victim mopping up his own blood with his underpants – is now 86.

But make no mistake, said Mr Bamby, “All the underworld figures are up in arms about what has happened to Charlie.”

He confirmed that both the ex-gangster wedding guests had signed the petition.

And with the support of friends like these, how could Home Secretary Amber Rudd and vicar’s daughter Theresa May fail to be impressed?

Because, get the scones out Theresa, they’re coming to No 10 with their petition on Thursday.

Today the Ministry of Justice, tomorrow Downing Street and tomorrow, freedom for Charlie.

Although there wasn’t complete clarity on this.

“No-one wants him released from prison tomorrow morning,” said Mr Bamby through the megaphone.

“I do!” said one voice, to loud declarations of agreement.

“Well, we all want him released tomorrow morning,” backtracked Mr Bamby, “But being realistic…”

Emerging from the Ministry of Justice flanked by Charlie’s cockney sparrow and his stunt double, Ms Williamson confirmed the petition had been received “very politely.”

Equally polite were the two Ministry of Justice employees who happened upon the demonstration as they returned from their lunch break.

They declined to comment, but by then The Independent had already spotted the looks of bemusement, followed by laughter.