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Why Are We so Obsessed with Making the Kray Twins Legends?

The murderous brothers have almost achieved national treasure status in the UK.

The Kray twins were among the last prisoners to be held at the Tower of London. Photo via Flickr user David Holt

As Tom Hardy's dual turn in Legend hits UK theaters this week, the Krays are just about everywhere. Take a stroll down Whitechapel Road in London and it feels like the late Ronnie and Reggie are keeping a watchful eye on their former turf from bus advertisements and billboards. In nearby Brick Lane there's a pop-up exhibition featuring a mock-up of the twins' mother's front room, where you can sit and drink tea. There's also a horrendously duff-looking straight-to-DVD future cult classic titled Rise of the Krays doing the rounds.


The Krays are back—if they ever really went away—and if you want to know why the violent convicted murderers, allegedly complicit in hundreds of other crimes, are still heroes to many and deemed worthy of another film, then Legend is a good place to start. A semi-serious look at their downfall in the mid to late-1960s, the violence and cruelty is just the right side of cartoon, and the suits and one-liners sharp enough to hammer home the pop culture icons tag. Legend reboots the Krays brand with one eye on Instagram and a new generation of fans, and is way funnier than it should be given the subject matter.

But do we need another Krays film? Many of those I meet on an organized walking tour of the Krays' East End one gloomy Saturday afternoon would say so. The group of around 20 is a mixture of the curious and the die-hard, and some wouldn't have looked out of place cracking heads or running Maltese crooks out of town as part of the Kray's firm. The twins are "heroes," "real Eastenders," and "legends" to these people.

Not so to John, our tour guide, a guy in early middle age with a salt and pepper beard who looks like the proprietor of a small west London record shop specializing in rare groove. But even he has become fascinated by the Krays since taking the job, and plans to write a book. As we make our way from the Blind Beggar to Vallance Road, where the Krays had their HQ, past the Bath House and Repton Boxing Club, before finishing at the Carpenter's Arms, I find myself getting sucked into the Kray myth, too. I'm suddenly part of their world and experiencing a creeping misguided nostalgia for a time in London's history that I was not party to.


But a myth is all it is, and as John rightly points out, "We all love gangster films, but we wouldn't like to be in them for real, would we?" The Krays were able to carefully hone their image while incarcerated for life terms for the murder of George Cornell (Ronnie) and the brutal slaying of Jack "the Hat" McVitie (Reggie) in a Stoke Newington basement. Shortly before being sent down, the twins had approached Ian Fleming biographer John Pearson about telling their story. The Profession of Violence (1972), his first of several books on the twins, is seen as the seminal Krays text and is also the matter-of-fact source material for Legend. The Krays also spent much of the 1980s wrangling for a film to be made, and though they were reportedly unhappy with Billie Whitelaw's depiction of their mother Violet as a foul-mouthed matriarch in Peter Medak's The Krays (1990), the film undoubtedly added to their notoriety.

If there's one cliché concerning the Krays you'll hear more than "they loved their mom," it's "they looked after their own." One person who isn't fooled is playwright Camilla Whitehill, who's just returned from a successful run at the Edinburgh fringe with Where Do Little Birds Go? The play is based on the true story of Lisa Prescott, a hostess at the Krays' Winston club who was kidnapped by the twins one night in 1966 and locked in a flat with "The Mad Axeman" Frank Mitchell for four days to act as his sex slave. The Krays had just broken Mitchell out of Broadmoor, but soon realized they didn't know what to do with him. He disappeared without a trace soon after.


"I was reading several books about the Krays because I'm interested in crime stuff," says Whitehill. "Lisa's story was in a couple of the books, to varying degrees of detail. I was really pulled in by it and frustrated that there was so little about her and so much about her abusers. So I changed her name and created a childhood and background for her. But what happened to her—the kidnap and abuse—that's completely true."

She continues: "The 'legend' of the Krays doesn't seem to follow the facts of what they did. They weren't suave, genius criminal masterminds. That's what they wanted to be. They were thugs. They were violent and unpleasant, and they didn't give a second thought to whom they were affecting. They wanted to be Mafia-style kingpins, and yes, they controlled a lot of the pubs and clubs and had a huge network, but they made stupid mistakes, and real gangsters wouldn't have wanted to be famous. They did. It was a weird, singular chapter of our history. I don't intend to see the film because I'm not interested in anything that glamorizes violence. And the trailer appears to make them out to be something I don't recognize from the research I did to write my play."

David Bailey, who perhaps captured the most iconic image of the Krays for The Sunday Times in 1965, recently said that he felt the Krays' celebrity had been their undoing; "If you're a real gangster, nobody knows who you are," he told the BBC. While it certainly brought them to the attention of the authorities, and also invited the mockery of other criminal gangs, such as their South London rivals the Richardsons, celebrity has, in hindsight, blunted some of the darker aspects of their history.

They'd always wanted to be stars, of course: the East End of their youth was awash with big characters, not just from the criminal world, but also from the dying embers of vaudeville. Legend is simply going to further fulfil their wishes and help to wipe history clean of some their most heinous crimes. The Krays still rule.

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