The Story Behind The Perfect Photo Of Sports' First Streaker

Ian Bradshaw
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

When freelance photojournalist Ian Bradshaw went to Twickenham Stadium in the spring of 1974 to cover a rugby union friendly between England and France, he expected to shoot nothing more than another bloodbath between two fierce rivals. He returned instead with an instantly iconic photograph that signaled the start of a cultural phenomenon.

The spectacle of stripping off one’s clothes and running around bare-ass naked was just starting to make the jump from college campuses to the mainstream, beginning with an incident at the Academy Awards, when activist Robert Opel rudely and nudely interrupted co-host David Niven as he was introducing Elizabeth Taylor.

About two weeks after the Oscars, the Sunday Mirror sent Bradshaw to Twickenham, 10 miles west of central London, where a crowd of some 50,000 rugby supporters had gathered to watch the England-France match and test their limits of inebriation. At half-time, when most of the other photographers ducked into the tunnel to get warm, Bradshaw remained in his spot beyond the end zone. Suddenly, he heard a commotion from the crowd.

He looked up to see a naked, bearded young man who was soon corralled by a trio of policemen and marched toward Bradshaw.

Bradshaw lowered his camera and began shooting. One consideration raced through his mind: How could he possibly get a picture of the X-rated scene that a newspaper would publish?

“Every time I pressed the button the streaker was exposed,” he recalled. “I thought, I’ve got to get one frame where his damn private parts are covered!”

Ian Bradshaw was a World War II baby, born in 1943. He was bound for university, but he rebelled from that path to follow his heart and become a photographer.

“‘Photographer’ was a dirty word in 1960,” Bradshaw told me, speaking via Skype from his home in Sligo, Ireland. “My headmaster said to me, ‘Standing on a street corner with a monkey on your shoulder is a waste of your education.’ That’s how photographers were thought of in those days: on the seaside, with a monkey, getting snaps with the tourists.”

To allay his parents’ fears about his future, he took photography classes at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London. By his early 20s, he was a staff photographer for The Times, shooting general assignment: news, sports, entertainment.

Bradshaw found creative inspiration inside the pages of popular magazines from the U.S., including Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Look, Time, and Life. “I was heavily influenced by the American style of photography because they were always trying to get something different visually,” he said. “I learned a lot from Ralph Morse, a great technician who shot all the NASA images, as well as [photographer] Co Rentmeester and John Loengard [the photo editor at Life].”

Bradshaw left The Times to freelance, and found plenty of work on Fleet Street, the heart of London’s publishing industry. He typically shot rugby on Saturday afternoons for the Mirror.

In February and March of 1974, Twickenham Stadium hosted two matches of the Five Nations Championship, a prestigious rugby union tourney that featured England, France, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. (With the addition of Italy in 2000, it’s now known as the Six Nations.) Ireland won the event, but much of the coverage was overshadowed by the airplane crash that occurred on March 3, the day after England and France played to a 12-12 draw in Paris. All 346 people on board were killed, including 18 players and supporters of the Bury St. Edmonds Rugby Club who had attended the England-France march.

England and France arranged for a charity match to raise money for the Air Disaster Fund. They agreed to meet at Twickenham, the hallowed grounds of rugby union, on par with Wimbledon for tennis and Wembley for soccer. Tickets sold briskly.

Saturday, April 20, dawned gray and chilly, and the fans flocking to Twickenham liberally consumed beer, whiskey, and more to stay warm. The game started at 3 p.m., so they had plenty of time to get drunk. Countless choruses of “Jerusalem”—the so-called “rugby anthem”—were sung mightily.

One rugby enthusiast who was feeling no pain was Michael O’Brien. He had grown up in Australia, outside of Sydney, and attended a local Catholic School. The lads on his school rugby club team called him “Mick.” He stayed true to his homeland, drinking Foster’s beer that afternoon.

The 25-year-old O’Brien was working in England as an accountant. With half-time approaching, a wager was broached: If O’Brien shed his clothes, socks included, and then ran across and touched the stands on the far side, he’d win 10 quid.

“My mates were talking about how impossible it would be to streak across the park,” O’Brien was quoted as saying the next day. “But a few drinks later I said it could be done. My friends surrounded me and I stripped off. Two of them went across to the other side of the terracing and waited there with my clothes.”

Bradshaw was positioned at the south end of the field, along a narrow bench between the first row of spectators and the back of the try zone (similar to the end zone in American football). Two photographers, Ed Lacey and Tony Duffy, joined him there.

Most other photographers preferred to shoot from the sidelines. “We were more concerned with getting a different view of the game,” Bradshaw said, “because if we were running up and down the touchline, our stuff would look the same as everybody else.”

Bradshaw brought two cameras. One was a motor-driven Nikon with a long lens to capture the frenzied, violent collisions on the pitch. “The people running up and down the touchline only had normal-sized lenses, and they couldn’t cover the stuff happening in the middle of the field,” he said. “They only got throw-ins and anything that happened within 10 yards of them.”

When the action came toward his end of the field, or when a try was scored in the goal area directly in front of him, Bradshaw switched to his other option: an old 35-millimeter Nikkormat, with a 200-millimeter lens.

The Nikkormat was completely manual; there was no autofocus in those days. After loading the film into the camera, he had to hand-crank the winder to advance the film. He used Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film that day because, with the overcast conditions, the pictures were “sharper and more contrast-y.”

After 40 minutes of play, the whistle blew for half-time. According to Tony Duffy, who was shooting for the Allsport photo agency that day, “There was an exodus of all the photographers. They left to stretch their legs, chat with their mates, and get a nice steaming mug of tea under the tunnel.”

Michael O’Brien had been waiting for the players to leave for the break and his stage to clear.

He stepped over the low barrier separating the field from the turf, made his way to the halfway line, and took off for the other side, naked as the day he was born, a pale figure running across the lush green turf.

A buzz rose from the terraces, punctuated with audible, raucous laughter. The ruckus caught the attention of Bradshaw, who had remained at his post. He watched as O’Brien, running from Bradshaw’s right to left, approached the far stands.

There, a policeman named Bruce Perry confronted him. Perry later wrote that O’Brien explained the bet to him and pleaded to be allowed to touch the stands to earn his 10 pounds. Perry agreed to let him do so, and says a grateful O’Brien shouted at him, “Give us a kiss!” (O’Brien disputed that part when they appeared together on a TV show in 2006.)

Perry and two other policemen surrounded the buff O’Brien in what one wag described as “a cozy foursome.” The nearly all-male crowd (with the exception of Princess Alexandra in the royal box) roared and whistled and hooted its approval (the historical record is silent on Princess Alexandra’s reaction).

Bradshaw walked a few steps to the back of the end zone and stood there as the trio escorted O’Brien down the left sideline. They headed directly toward him.

Using the Nikkormat with the 200-millimeter lens, Bradshaw clicked and wound the film. He aimed at O’Brien and Perry, who had removed his bobby’s helmet and was trying to use it to shield O’Brien’s genitals.

Bradshaw had one goal: to take a “decent” picture without overexposing O’Brien. “The thought going through my head was, ‘I wish that policeman would hold the bloody helmet steady,’” he laughed, “because it was bobbing up and down every time I pressed the button. All I was concerned with was, have I got the damn thing sharp and was the helmet in the right place?”

And finally it happened: Perry’s helmet completely enveloped O’Brien’s full monty. Bradshaw snapped his camera.

“In a way it was the easiest picture I’ve ever taken,” he said. “Right place, right time, right lens, film in the camera. I only had to move about 10 yards to do it.”

The contretemps was laid out for him as if on a platter, but Bradshaw didn’t give in to the jocularity of the moment. A pro’s pro, he focused on his task, carefully winding the film after each shot so as not to shred it inside the camera.

O’Brien was ushered from the stadium and, now fully clothed, taken before the local magistrate. He was fined the grand total of 10 quid for “insulting behavior,” and allowed back into Twickenham to catch the end of the match. (France won, 26-7.)

As the hubbub died down, Bradshaw raced to a payphone and called the picture desk at the Sunday Mirror. The editor had already heard about the streaker; he told Bradshaw to “forget about the match and come back with the film straight away. We want to look at it.”

Bradshaw hurried to his car and drove to the Mirror’s offices in Holborn. He couldn’t be sure that he’d gotten the shot until he developed the film. He slipped into the darkroom and unwound the roll. He felt a pang of unease, he said, “because the film seemed to come off the spool a bit quick,” as if it might have come off the sprockets inside the camera and failed to advance while he was shooting. That would be a disaster and ruin the whole roll.

He heard a fierce knocking on the darkroom door. It was the assistant photo editor, beseeching him, “Have you got it? Have you got it?”

Bradshaw answered: “I don’t know what I’ve got. I just hope to hell the film wasn’t spinning around and it’s all on the same frame.”

The editor slunk away muttering, “I think Ian’s fucked it up.”

Bradshaw began the ritual of developing the film. He dropped it into the fixer, then into the wash, and then into the drying cabinet. Finally, he peered at the negatives under a magnifying glass. He breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t fucked it up.

His sequence of pictures missed the start of O’Brien’s streak across the field, but he’d nailed the denouement. In the center of the frame is the “cozy foursome,” with Perry’s big black helmet discreetly eclipsing O’Brien’s privates, the two engaged in what appears to be intimate conversation.

What completes the tableau is the exasperated gentleman behind them, scurrying upfield with his “modesty raincoat” to put an end to the abomination. He has been identified as Jim Huggins, a committee member of the Bournemouth Rugby Club whose charge at Twickenham was to monitor the teams in the dressing rooms.

Bradshaw admits that he “didn’t register” Huggins’s presence while shooting the sequence. “It wasn’t until I processed the film later that I noticed this official straight out of central casting rushing over with his coat,” he said. “It couldn’t have been better.”

The picture ran the next day on the front page of the Sunday Mirror, beneath a headline that read: “Well, It WAS a Royal Occasion.” It was cropped to fit the space, excising a kneeling photographer in the distance on the far right. Today, whenever the photo is reproduced, it is usually cropped tightly. “People can crop as they see fit,” Bradshaw explained. “The [guy in the] white jacket at left is distracting, and I cut out as much as I can as it adds nothing to the photo.”

The photo caused an immediate sensation and was reprinted immediately in numerous publications and countries. In France copies of Paris Match were folded open to the centerspread of the photo, and sales soared.

Bradshaw earned a £100 bonus and won numerous awards, including the World Press Photo of the Year and Life Magazine Picture of the Year.

Photographers Tony Duffy and Ed Lacey had also remained on the field at half-time, and they took pictures of the incident. Duffy’s are in color and look magnificent considering that this was the first time he’d ever covered rugby. Lacey also took excellent photos of the scene.

Their images may have O’Brien’s scrotum, but they lack the compositional balance of Bradshaw’s masterpiece.

“What makes Ian’s photo shine is the outstretched arms of the streaker,” according to Duffy. “He looks like a Biblical depiction of Jesus. It’s almost like he’s giving a benediction, like he’s blessing the police or the crowd.”

“It’s brilliant,” said Duffy, best known for his shot of Bob Beamon’s miracle long jump. “It’s a picture that doesn’t need a caption.”

The photo also captured the changing times, as Britain was emerging from “all the regimentation and deprivation” of the post-war years, said Duffy. “This was just after the Swinging Sixties, and the liberalizing effect of Flower Power; Make Love Not War; sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was a form of self-expression.”

Streaking officially turned into a fad in the summer of ‘74, buoyed by the full-frontal assault at the Academy Awards as well as Ray Stevens’s novelty tune “The Streak,” which went to No. 1 on the charts. “Oh, yes, they call him The Streak/He likes to show off his physique,” went the chorus.

After Twickenham, sports venues became magnets for streakers. Sightings came from the Indianapolis 500 and the Kentucky Derby, where one soul climbed the flagpole at Churchill Downs before removing his clothes. At the infamous “10 Cent Beer Night” at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, some 19 streakers were reported. In Los Angeles, a stripper named Miss Cyndi spilled out of her mink coat wearing nothing but a Kings cap and white skates, and became the first recorded NHL streaker. It later emerged that Miss Cyndi had been hired by the Kings’ PR director.

Sports leagues and teams increased security to prevent streaking, but it has never completely disappeared, including at Twickenham, where Erika Roe bared her breasts while smoking a cigarette at an England-Australia match in 1982.

TV networks have since adopted a policy of not showing streakers on their broadcasts. These days, the thrill comes in the pursuit—will the yellow-jacketed security folks slam the intruder to the turf?—and not so much the sight of a solitary naked person inside a cavernous stadium.

Although Michael O’Brien is considered to be the godfather of streaking, he doesn’t appear to have relished this role. In 1974, immediately after the incident, Bradshaw visited O’Brien and shot a “normal” portrait (ie, fully clothed) for a follow-up story. “He wasn’t a happy bunny,” Bradshaw recalled. “He seemed to think the police got more publicity than he did.”

O’Brien eventually returned to Australia, where resumed playing club ball for the Melbourne Rugby Club. Today, in his late 60s, he works in finance with Patersons Securities in Melbourne. An interview request went unanswered. So, too, did a request sent to Bruce Perry, the former police officer who is now a licensing officer for Hammersmith & Fulham council.

The two reunited via an Australian TV program in 2006, when Perry presented O’Brien with his policeman’s helmet. In what may well be the only interview he’s given since 1974, O’Brien expressed regret for jumpstarting “the stupidity that went on for years and years later … If Ian Bradshaw hadn’t got that photograph it probably would never have happened … [He] went click click click, got the photo and the rest is history.”

Asked if he had any advice for would-be streakers, O’Brien replied: “Absolutely. Don’t.”

At 73, Ian Bradshaw still shoots professionally, having switched from film to digital years ago. He works often in the States, specializing in education photography, and is represented by the Jean Denis Walter Gallery of Sports Art in Paris.

His most famous picture has been reprinted in numerous books; the contact strip of the sequence appears in Pictures On a Page, Harold Evans’s treatise on photojournalism. The image is currently being shown at an exhibit entitled “Who Shot Sports,” at the Brooklyn Museum, through January 8, 2017, and in the companion book by curator Gail Buckland.

Advertisers have also coopted the photo. A print ad for Holeproof underwear played on the premise that O’Brien was speaking to Perry. The copy accompanying the photo reads: “Excuse Me Officer, is this the way to the 20% off Holeproof underwear sale?”

“I like the streaker photo,” Bradshaw said. “It made me well known. But in terms of overall effort, there wasn’t much to it. The guy was there, it happened and bang!”

The photograph came to his aid in 1999, when Bradshaw and his wife applied for dual citizenship to America. He was asked to submit examples of his work with the application before going to the U.S. embassy for the final interview.

“The guy started flipping through the pages of my portfolio and came to the streaker picture,” Bradshaw said. “He goes, ‘Did you take this?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You’re in.’ He stamped our papers and that was it.”

David Davis is the author of Waterman: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku.