Obituary: Borra

Click to follow
BORRA, THE most famous stage pickpocket of all time, became the highest-paid European performer in circuses during the 1950s. For 60 years he was billed as "the King of Pickpockets" and encouraged his son, Charly, to follow in his cunning trade, his offspring being billed as "the Prince of Pickpockets".

As the King of Pickpockets or the Thief of Baghdad, Borra was the headline attraction of the Swiss National Circus Knie, Europe's most revered travelling circus, no fewer than five times, making his debut there in 1951, and returning with equally great success in 1956, 1963, 1971, and 1980 to delight new generations of circus-goers. Fredy and Rolf Knie, directors of the Knie circus, spotted Borra's potential drawing power early in his career and were one step ahead of their friend, the British circus owner Cyril Mills, when they first engaged him.

Continental friends had mentioned Borra's act to Mills but he failed to see how a close-up act such as a pickpocket or magician could be featured in a large tent or building before audiences from 3,000 to 6,000 people. By the time he caught up with Borra's act at an amusement park theatre in Gothenburg, Sweden, he had lost out to Knie and in signing Borra up for the following year, lost his wrist watch, twice.

Borra's debut with the Bertram Mills Circus in April 1952 was an instant success with the public. Billing and programme-matter were quickly changed to place Borra as the top-of-the-bill attraction, and he toured triumphantly with the Mills Circus for three years. He capped off these years with an appearance at the Olympia Grand Hall, London, in the winter of 1954/55, and returned a decade later to repeat this success. Cyril Mills also booked him into the Christmas circus at the Belle Vue amusement park, Manchester in the winter of 1958/59.

In the 1950s, as the early post-war euphoria for entertainment began to subside, Borra's appearances with Mills kept business from flagging, and rocketed his salary into a superstar bracket. His earnings at the Mills show later enabled him to buy a whole street of houses in Austria, which was named after him, the Borraweg.

Borra's talents depended wholly upon his charm, skill and humour to deceive his "victims" from the audience. Using the beauty and guile of his wife Ilse to distract them, he would deftly relieve them of watches, wallets and other valuables, ties, braces and even reading glasses. Often he would take the glasses from a stooge's face, place them on his own nose and continue a conversation without the victim being aware.

Taking a man's trouser braces was easier in the 1950s than in later years, when more and more people wore belts, and even the great Borra admitted defeat when he tried to perform the same trick in an Arabic country. Traditional dish-dashes are supported by neither braces nor belt.

Borra was, throughout his life, a great practical joker, and it was a sense of fun that permeated his act. He was the only thief who gave back more than he stole, for not only did he return belongings, and give them a lasting memory of stardom in the ring, but at Circus Knie he would also present each stooge with a bottle of spirits as a souvenir of their encounter. Circus Knie also benefited from the revenue supplied by sponsorship from cigarette firms like Kent and Parisiennes, since Borra's act always included some wizardry with blowing cigarette smoke rings.

Borra's passion for practical joking nearly got him the sack from Bertram Mills Circus, however, when he played a joke on his employer, Cyril Mills. Mills later recounted:

On one occasion he and Ilse were among a dozen of us who went to a country hotel to dine one Sunday evening. When the waiter served cocktails Borra whispered something to him. He knew I had a passion for peanuts and when the waiter returned with them he was asked the time, but his wristwatch had disappeared when the nuts were ordered.

When I took a handful of nuts and took the first bite I had to splutter the lot over the floor for Borra had substituted some of his own. The business with the waiter's watch had not been to amuse him only; its real purpose was to take my eye off the peanuts for a second or two. He had spent the whole afternoon drilling holes through peanuts, filling them with cayenne pepper and sealing the ends with butter.

On another occasion, at a civil reception, Borra stole the Mayor's watch, causing the local Chief Constable to laugh. But the laugh was on him when Borra discovered the Mayor's watch in the Chief Constable's pocket. Throughout his tours of England, Borra was able to dupe leading police officers at such functions and eventually became an adviser to Scotland Yard, Interpol and other police agencies of Europe on the art of picking pockets. The police force of Berne, Switzerland, extended to him a particularly unusual privilege, pledging to give him a private cell should he ever be arrested in their jurisdiction.

Borra was born Borislav Miloj-kowic in Belgrade in 1921, and spent his early years watching for shoplifters and pickpockets in his father's store. From watching their techniques, he became a professional stage magician and pickpocket by the age of 15. In 1938, his big break came in Sarajevo, when his skills came to the notice of the police authorities at a big police congress.

Escaping from Yugoslavia during the Second World War, when he gave troops shows, he made his way to Italy, and offered his services to the British forces, becoming part of the Ensa entertainment corps. He was sent to Austria, where he was reunited with his wife Ilse, whom he had married before war broke out. She was from the family of Kludsky, the most famous name in Czech circus circles. Together they settled in Graz, where they had a farm.

Borislav and Ilse had two children; their daughter Sissi trained as a veterinarian, but Charly followed his father into show business, and will assume the mantle of King of Pickpockets. He achieved a big ambition in 1990, when he was booked as the headline attraction for the Swiss National Circus Knie, in succession to his father.

Borra had his own philosophy regarding his art of honest deception:

Sigmund Freud said that there's a criminal down deep in every person. Perhaps

I, too, am a kleptomaniac, but I get a double satisfaction: when I take, I give back, and that makes me happy. When I can do that, I don't have to really steal.

The man who spoke 14 languages, in order to perform his astonishing act around the world, also admitted: "One thing I discovered is that it's not difficult to take something away; it's much more difficult to put it back!"

Borislav Milojkowic ("Borra"), stage and circus pickpocket: born Belgrade 26 April 1921; married Ilse Kludsky (died 1998; one son, one daughter); died Graz, Austria 11 October 1998.