In the new Britbox documentary Secrets of the Krays, the veteran photographer David Bailey warns: “You have to be careful making heroes of people who don’t deserve it.” This seems rich coming from the man who immortalised Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the sadistically violent brothers who ruled the East End in the 1960s, via black-and-white portraits in which they were suited, booted and staring insolently into the camera.
Nonetheless, it’s among the more enlightened statements in a series that assembles the Krays’ friends, associates and family members to trot out the same old platitudes that have been applied through the ages – that they looked after their own; that they were vicious but well-mannered; that they doted on their mum. We need a new documentary on the Kray twins like we need a piece of lead piping through the skull. Yet here we are, hoovering up the same stories and watching them hailed as icons of Swinging London, up there with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
Why? Because we can’t get enough of them, or so we are led to believe. Secrets of the Krays arrives at a time of renewed popularity – and alleged respectability – for true crime, which allows us to lap up real-life tales of depravity and cruelty within the safe space of popular entertainment. The genre is fashionable now, but the fascination with the Krays goes way back. In life as well as posthumously, they have been catnip for film directors in thrall not just to their mobster magnetism but to their sharp tailoring and their celebrity hangers-on. These include Barbara Windsor, who had a brief fling with Reggie, and Judy Garland, who sang to their mother, Violet, at their kitchen table. In 1990, the brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, of Spandau Ballet, starred in The Krays, Peter Medak’s biopic made, astonishingly, with the twins’ cooperation, while 2015’s Legend, starring Tom Hardy as both Ronnie and Reggie, was a glossy, glamourised portrait complete with wise-cracking villains and flat-footed coppers.
Mercifully few saw the 2018 film The Krays: Dead Man Walking, starring Josh Myers, Leslie Grantham AKA Dirty Den, and Rita Simons, which went straight to DVD. Documentaries, among them London Gangsters and Kill Order, have been plentiful, however, while the pair crop up frequently in crime podcasts. There are over 50 books, too, many written by the henchmen who worked for The Firm, the gang name by which the Krays and their associates went (it was later amusingly adopted by Princess Diana to describe the senior royals). Thus, as well as perpetuating the myth of the Krays themselves, the publishing industry continues to line the pockets of the men who carried out their dirty work.
The titles of these mighty, macho tomes are variations on the same theme: The Profession of Violence, The Cult of Violence, The Twins: Men of Violence, The Krays: A Violent Business and so on. Some make no attempt to hide their annoyance at the competition – see Eddie Richardson’s No Handcuffs: The Final Word on My War with The Krays and James Morton’s Krays: The Final Word. We must presumably brace ourselves for Ronnie and Reggie: The Very Last Word. That’s It. The End.
Elsewhere, there have been plays (Alpha Alpha by Howard Barker, and Snoo Wilson’s England, England) plus lyrical references from Morrissey, Ray Davies, Blur, Lethal Bizzle and The Libertines. The long-running soap EastEnders partly modelled local gangsters the Mitchell brothers on the Krays, and even installed the real-life brothers’ old pal Barbara Windsor as their fictional mother.
That an entire industry has sprung up around the Krays is perhaps not surprising. The blend of celebrity and secrecy, glamour and brutality is a potent one for storytellers. The blatant hero-worship is more unsettling. Violence is central to the Krays’ story, though the shootings, stabbings, beatings – and their alleged penchant for removing their victims’ toes and teeth with bolt cutters and pliers – are often treated as an inevitable part of the lifestyle; a requirement to maintain top-dog status, as opposed to a catastrophic moral failing.
Today you can go on walking and bus tours of their East End hangouts. You can also visit Littledean, a former jail in the Forest of Dean that has been turned into a museum where you can gaze at the twins’ sawn-off shotguns, knuckledusters, penknives and a crossbow, plus Ronnie’s wedding suit. These sit happily alongside Nazi trinkets, Moors murderers’ memorabilia, and a tie that allegedly belonged to Fred West. I have little desire to see such artefacts, but it seems a more honest appraisal of the Krays than most.
Of course, there’s nothing the twins loved more than seeing themselves immortalised in this way – it was Ronnie who donated his suit to the museum. Growing up, the pair gorged on old gangster movies and modelled themselves on Angels with Dirty Faces actor James Cagney. Rumour has it that, when they met their criminal counterparts in the US, they were seen as ludicrous; a nostalgic approximation of hoodlums as seen through a Hollywood lens. But their cartoonish personas were beloved in Blighty, providing a supposedly sophisticated veneer over their grubby activities. The pair made their money running rackets, demanding menaces and hurting people, nearly always in front of witnesses. They spent most of their adult lives in prison, their love of the limelight having made it that much easier to bring them to justice.
Criminal masterminds they were not, though the Krays were excellent at PR. When they were jailed for murder and sentenced to 30 years, the judge, Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, told them: “Society has earned a rest from your activities.” Clearly, he had no idea what was coming.
Secrets of the Krays is available on Britbox now