Tag Archives: Krays

Krayzy Days – the Kray Twins, bombs, Monty Python and police corruption

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Krayzy Days by Micky Fawcett

The Krays – they were idiots & amusing

“We were going to kill Reggie Kray. I had a .38 revolver and we were waiting for him late one night….”

That is the first line in Micky Fawcett’s extraordinary memoir Krayzy Days about the era of London ‘gangsters’ the Kray Twins. I met him yesterday at the May Fair Hotel in London.

“The first time I came here was with Sonny Liston,” he said, when we met.

Micky was born in 1937 in London’s East End. “But I’ve never really got on that well with Eastenders,” he told me. “I don’t like the culture. I’m not a very good mixer.

“I passed the 11-plus exam, but I didn’t like schooling. I took up schoolboy boxing and had loads of jobs, some just for a day – you could just walk in and out of jobs then, just for a day. Eventually, I got a job on a fruit stall – a barrowboy – and I quite liked that. It was in Aldgate, which was a great place in the 1950s.

“In those days, barrowboys ruled the world. Families ran big fruit stalls around Upton Park. They were bullies, criminals, flash, they had big cars. It was a bit like New York at the start of the 20th century. I got to know a few of the lads round there… They used to go to various pubs and clubs around and one of the places was a club in Bow Road called The Double R.”

It was called The Double R because it was owned by Reggie & Ronnie Kray, the now-iconic London gangsters.

“I spent a good ten years associating with them,” Micky told me. “I was very, very involved with the Twins but, when they shot Georgie Cornell, that was it for me. I’d had enough of the madness. Before that, I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like being in a film. I wasn’t doing it for money. Yeah, Get enough money to go out tonight. But it was like good fun. Great fun. Big men in cars driving up and down the Mile End Road.”

“You were in your twenties?” I asked.

Reggie Kray, Micky Fawcett, singer Lita Rosa, Ronnie Kray, actress Barbara Windsor & actor Ronald Fraser

Reggie Kray, Micky Fawcett, singer Lita Rosa, Ronnie Kray, actress Barbara Windsor and actor Ronald Fraser in 1960s

“Yes,” said Micky. “It went on until 1966, when Cornell got shot. But I was getting fed up with the Twins before that. I knew they were going to reach a limit and I couldn’t see what they were going to do once they got past that. They didn’t have the ability. They were terrible judges of character. You couldn’t tell them anything. You couldn’t advise them, unless they came to you. Reggie’s wife was seeing another fellah just before she married him and he came to me about that. I handled it and I got on very, very friendly with the Twins, but they were…”

“You said they wanted to be something more than what they were capable of being,” I interrupted. “What did they want to be?”

“They wanted to be the Al Capones of London,” said Micky. “They were hooked on publicity. I’ve been involved in the boxing game as a manager, so I know the feeling when you drive up in the middle of the night to buy Sunday’s papers to see what they’re saying about the night before. I understand that. But the Twins were so hooked on it and you must always remember that Ronnie was insane. Completely raving mad. Totally insane and I never used to stop laughing day and night. It was hilarious.”

“But occasionally violent,” I said.

“Yes, I’ve been in some bad fights and shootings and stabbings and I’ve been wrongly arrested for bombing,” said Micky.

“Because…?” I asked.

“I had a fight with a family called the Tibbs,” he explained.

“It’s possibly unwise to have a fight with the Tibbs,” I said.

“Well,” said Micky, “it was unwise of them to have a fight with me. And there was another family called the Bennetts before the Tibbs, where somebody got shot and somebody else got stabbed and that sort of thing.”

“But, at some point,” I said, “you got wrongly arrested for a bombing.”

“Oh yes,” said Mickey, “and I was arrested for a shooting ten years after it happened.”

“Was that one of the Tibbs?” I asked.

“No, the Bennetts,” said Mickey. “I didn’t shoot him. The feller I was with shot him. I was in the fight. I had a knife and he had a gun… I have to say I’m really not into putting that about and saying Oh, I done this and I done that. I’m genuinely not into that at all. But you asked and these things happened. Maybe that’s why I don’t like the East End very much. There’s always somebody wants to have a go at you. It’s not that friendly old East End image.”

“So who was bombed?” I persisted.

“It’s all in the book,” said Micky. “I had the most intensive efforts to arrest me. I was actually in Brixton Prison, charged with attempted murder. Then I was arrested again and went to Belgium for a while. Then I came back and was arrested at the airport on a warrant  for causing explosions with intent. That was dropped.

“What was happening was that the Tibbs family were getting bombed and they couldn’t get their hands on me, so they were screaming their heads off to the police. They had the police straight. They were metal dealers and, in those days, metal dealers always had the police straight.”

“The Richardsons were scrap metal dealers, weren’t they?” I asked.

“Yes. They had the Old Bill (the police) straight as well,” said Micky. “There was a metal firm at Bromley-by-Bow and the police used to get jobs there. He used to give them jobs, then that safeguarded him because, in those days – it wasn’t that long after the War – there was loads of scrap metal around. So they could go out, collect all the scrap metal, take it to the dealer and, if he employed policemen, the dealer didn’t have to worry about getting turned over by the police. His Head of Security would be an ex-Chief Inspector or something.”

“Police corruption never changes,” I said.

Ronnie Kray, boxer Sonny Liston, Micky Fawcett

Ronnie Kray, boxer Sonny Liston, Micky Fawcett in 1960s

“No,” said Micky. “The Twins had wanted to sign up young Jimmy Tibbs, who was a very good boxer and his father came to me and said Mick, can you do anything for us? He told me I had a lorry load of whisky in the yard the other night – stolen, obviously – but I didn’t have much to worry about, because I had a police squad car outside, minding it for me all night. You can’t beat people like that.

“So, when I had the row with the Tibbs family, I had a row with the Metropolitan Police as well – a section of them. Eventually, I had a fight with one of the Tibbs and he got his throat cut. So they wanted to kill me and they’re chasing round attacking people who had nothing to do with it, smashing into people I don’t even know. Then there were a few serious attempts on them. A bomb was placed in the yard; another bomb was under Jimmy Tibbs’ motor car.”

“And it went off?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Micky. “Serious attempts. Bombs going off. And a few shootings. Teddy Machin got shot and killed. Micky Machin got shot. Then I was arrested and alleged to have been the instigator of the whole thing. It came back to me that the Tibbs had said Our Old Bill will fit him up with ten sticks of gelignite when they get their hands on him.

“I’d already been fitted up twice by the Old Bill. Once after we had a row with the Bennetts, when a feller got shot. Me and another guy were going along in the car one day… Police cars with bells going… We’re boxed in and dragged out, slung in the back of a police car… and they gave me an iron bar, celluloid, stockings for masks… and they said they found them all in my car.”

“Did you go down for that?” I asked.

“We were in West Ham police station and a friend of mine said to me in a bit of Romany, a bit of Yiddish, a bit of rhyming slang, he said to me We’ve got nothing to worry about. We’ve had a talk and we’ll bung ‘em £200 and they’ll leave it as Being in Possession of Offensive Weapons – a 3 month sentence – not being charged with Conspiring To Rob – a 5 year sentence. So we gave them the £200, did the three months and that was that.”

“Why did you write the book?” I asked.

“I’m 76 on Thursday and you start looking back a bit and thinking I wonder why this? and I wonder why that?

Entrepreneur Steve Wraith and Micky Fawcett recently

Entrepreneur Steve Wraith (left) and Micky Fawcett recently

“For literally years, I’d been annoyed by the books I had read about the Krays and the things people said: glorifying them, building them up. It’s ridiculous. Reading all the rubbish that had been written, motivated me to write my book. I wanted to write a book saying what idiots the Twins really were. And how amusing.

Monty Python and Michael Palin did a brilliant… That nail-the-head-to-the-floor thing came from headlines in the Daily Mirror. But it was a foot that was nailed to the floor and it was the Richardsons. They did it with a knife to a feller. But the Krays were getting the blame for it.”

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British gangsters were “really lovely” – ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser on the golden age

Mad Frank at the historic Clink jail in 2002

‘Mad’ Frank at the historic Clink jail in 2001

Another day, another bit of jury service today, about which I am not allowed to write.

Different people. Different lives.

This week in the year 2000, I went on the Gangland Tour of the East End which former gangster ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser was then running in London. It was the second time I had been on the tour.

The previous time I went on it – about three years before – it had been in a luxury coach. This time it was a 13-seat mini-bus.

‘Mad’ Frank was wearing a soft light blue and white woollen pullover as he told his tales of a golden bygone era of crime when everyone was “really lovely” except dead victims like Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie who had, at one time, been “lovely” but who, shortly before his death, became “a really horrible person” and “well out of order”.

In 2000, Frank was 77 years old and had spent 42 of them in prison. Of the Kray Brothers, he said (I taped bits):

“Out of the three, I liked Ronnie the best. He was….don’t get me wrong, both Reggie and Charlie were smashing fellers….but Ronnie was right down the line. If he didn’t like ya, there’d be no nonsense. He’d tell ya. And, if it was OK, then he’d tell ya. No in-betweens. Very honest guy. Very likable.”

‘Mad’ Frank has a little chat

‘Mad’ Frank has a bit of a chat with an acquaintance in 2002

Frank claimed, rather dubiously, that George Cornell had not called Ronnie Kray “a big poof” (the supposed reason for his shooting by Ronnie in the Blind Beggar pub).

“That wasn’t true,” said Frank. “That wasn’t true. Because no-one knew for sure then. Nowadays, you can’t get to be an MP unless you’re a gay. Then it was unheard of but today it’s trendy, innit? You go for a job now, you gotta take a little handbag. Honest to God, I never had a clue. I’d heard a whisper that he was. Didn’t believe it! I thought it was some spiteful sods trying to…belittle him.”

Of George Cornell, Frank said: “George was a lovely man and, personally, I don’t think Reg would’ve agreed with it and Ronnie was (pause) …well, a bit off his head…”

Then Frank suddenly changed the subject:

“But getting back to….Maltese Frank and Bernie Silver approached us (the Richardson gang) and said they had films and they’d shown blue films in flats at the back of the Tottenham Court Road. They had the police straight: the coppers were in for their share…..”

On both occasions I took Frank’s Gangland Bus Tour, he was the epitome of the well-scripted presenter, constantly tailoring his ‘pitch’ to his audience:

“People like yourself – women and children especially – nice people like yourself – untouchable. Any rows we had was only with people like ourselves and, if we hurt one another – well – so what? It’s part of life.”

As we were driving along Bethnal Green Road, past market stalls, he told us:

“The older market traders, they can’t speak highly enough of the Kray Twins. If anybody was to take a liberty with them, then Reggie and Ronnie was there for them.” (In fact, the Krays made local traders pay them protection money.)

At the time of the bus tour, Reggie Kray was starting his 33rd year of imprisonment.

“He’s done well to stay sane,” someone commented.

“Yes, he has,” agreed Frank.

Reggie Kray was also, yet again, trying to get parole, which seemed unlikely to succeed.

“What’s done him harm, I think,” said Frank. “is Freddie Foreman the other week on television where he said he (Freddie) had shot Frank Mitchell. It’s his business he done that: it’s up to him. But the bit that done Reggie a lot of harm: Freddie said he’d done it on the Krays’ orders. Remember they was charged, – the Krays – but they were found not guilty of it.

“But now that’s opened a can of worms. Parole-wise, that’s done Reggie a lot of harm – it’s done him a helluva lot of damage. From a man who was their friend an’ all. Freddie should’ve known better. And he’s now been nicked – Freddie Foreman – and he’s on police bail on allegations of perjury because at his trial he denied killing Frank Mitchell but now he admits he did. Once you’re found not guilty of murder – which he was – no matter if you run round the streets afterwards saying, I done it! I done it! – they can’t nick you for it. But they can nick you for perjury if you denied it in the witness box.”

Mad Frank interviewed at Repton Boys Club

‘Mad’ Frank interviewed in boxing ring at Repton Boys’ Club

Since the previous bus tour I took, Frank had been given his own key to Repton Boys’ Club in Bethnal Green, the boxing club which the Kray Twins used to frequent. The photographs of the Kray Twins and of Frank had had to be removed from the walls, he told us, because “they kept getting stolen”.

Afterwards, when we were alone, I said to him: “It must be good to be a legend.”

“Sometimes,” he told me quietly and rather sadly, a wan look in his eye.

“Makes your life worthwhile,” I added.

He said nothing. His body language was slightly tired. He was a 77 year-old man standing slightly stooped, giving tours and talks when maybe a man of his age should have been having an afternoon tea and nap at home.

Frank’s monologue that day in 2000 mentioned drugs more than it had three years before. His angle was that everyone takes them, including judges, MPs, showbiz people and the police. So, he reasoned, it was like Prohibition in the US in the 1920s. Eventually, they had had to re-legalise drink in the US. And they will have to legalise drugs in the UK.

The driver of our minibus on the tour that morning in 2000 was the nephew of a famous East London gangster. I was not convinced that he had ever driven a minibus before, because he hit a car outside the house where Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie was killed and he went over three kerbs while going round corners.

If Frank told him to turn right, he almost inevitably turned the bus left.

The previous day, Frank had been up at Elstree Studios, recording an interview for a BBC TV programme on the 1970s, to be screened a couple of weeks later. He was soon to give a talk for Spennymoor Boxing Academy at Whitworth Country Park in Northumbria.

It must have been a strange life for a 77 year old man who had been in prison for a total of 42 years.

It must still be. Frank is still alive; he will be 90 this year.

When we met on another occasion, over a cup of tea in 2002, Frank told me that he wasn’t “really frightened of anything but I’m a bit worried what they’ll say about me after I die.”

So it goes.

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The great showmen and conmen of London: why I am proud to be British

I saw a special screening of Showmen of the Streets tonight – a 45-minute documentary about street performers of the 1930s-1960s and their precursors. People like The Earl of Mustard, The Road Stars, The Amazing BlondiniPrince Monolulu, The Man with X-Ray Eyes, The Happy Wanderers (who I just about remember playing Oxford Street in my erstwhile youth) and Don Partridge aka ‘King of the Buskers’, who actually managed to get into the UK hit parade and who hired the Royal Albert Hall in 1969 to stage a show called The Last of The Buskers with some of the great street performers of that and previous eras.

A couple of characters not in the film whom I remember are Don Crown and ‘Little Legs’.

Don Crown used to perform an act with budgerigars in Leicester Square and various other places. I used him on TV programmes a couple of times but, the last time I met him, he was a broken man: he had become allergic to feathers.

True and sad. Though I see from his website that he seems to have recovered and performs on the South Bank in London.

The other character I remember was a dwarf called Roy ‘Little Legs’ Smith who was a busker himself, but he also used to collect money for street performers. A busker would play the queues in Leicester Square and Little Legs would go along collecting money in, as I remember it, a hat. The theory – which proved true – was that it is almost impossible not to give money to a dwarf collecting for a busker.

Little Legs appeared in the Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour. He died in 1989 and, according to his obituaries, he had worked for the Kray Twins as an ‘enforcer’ in the 1960s. Indeed, a book Little Legs: Muscleman of Soho was published in 1989 which traced, among other things, “his long career as a street entertainer and card-player”. In 1999, his nephew stood as a candidate for Mayor of London.

I merely pass this on.

The DVD of the documentary Showmen of the Streets is being released in a couple of weeks time.

Director John Lawrenson – who used to perform the ‘ball and cup’ magic routine in London’s streets – is currently preparing a new film about great hoaxers, including William Donaldson (aka Henry Root) who wrote to prominent public figures with unusual or outlandish questions and requests and published their replies.

Also in the film will be the late but glorious Fleet Street hoaxer Rocky Ryan who, among other career highlights, persuaded major British newspapers to print stories that sex and drug orgies were taking place on Mount Everest and that the Yorkshire Ripper was being let out of Broadmoor to go to the local disco as part of his rehabilitation into society. He also managed to persuade several Israeli newspapers that Adolf Hitler was alive and well and living in Golders Green… a famously Jewish London suburb.

It makes you proud to be British.

Although Rocky Ryan was Irish.

But let’s not get into that.

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Shoreditch dreams – Satanic stand-up comedy and Lycra-clad policemen

Perhaps it was the fact I only had two hours sleep the previous night.

But what is it with Shoreditch in London?

It seems to have aspirations to be trendy Islington but its pockets of aspiring Yuppieness have been dropped down into what, at night, seems like a set from a Jack The Ripper film – jet-black stone streets with added 21st century traffic. It’s like King’s Cross but darker and with less investment.

Shoreditch is a dark night-time nether corner of schizophrenic Hackney, where partly-trendy-yet-immensely-downmarket Hoxton meets a corner of Hackney proper and the world that was the Kray TwinsBethnal Green, which now has 1950s Brits intermingled with penniless immigrants who have nothing but hope in two generations time.

And round the corner from all this sit the glass towers and stone solidity of the City of London.

Shoreditch is a very strange place.

The area is like some darkly surreal imagining on the thin border where a dream may or may not turn into a nightmare.

So, a couple of nights ago, I went to Shoreditch after only a couple of hours sleep the previous night with these thoughts in my mind and comedy in my heart.

Yes, I have no fear of bad writing.

I went to see the weekly Cantaloopy Comedy show run by Miss D aka the interesting part-comedian, part serious journalist that is Daphna Baram.

Last time I went, the Cantaloupe pub cat stole the show, meandering across the stage and occasionally finding high points from which to look down disdainfully at the performing comedians.

This time, sadly for me, there was no cat but also, sadly, no headliner Arthur Smith, whose mother had had a bad fall. Daphna reckons I am bad luck when I go to one of her gigs. She may be right.

But the Cantaloopy bill was so choc-a-bloc, the lack of the two main attractions did not damage the show.

One highlight for me was Janet Bettesworth, who is just plain weird and I cannot for the life of me figure out why.  It had nothing to do with my lack of sleep. It has something to do with her Joanna Lumley voice, the dry sometimes almost literary delivery, the unexpected shock of red hair and her extraordinary transformation late in the act into a comedy ventriloquist with Hammer Horror hints. It was like watching a refined relative talk sweetly to you but with a whiff of the Satanic and dark deeds behind the curtains of Middle England wafting from the stage. I began, at one point, to think I must be hallucinating.

Highly entertained and utterly fascinated… but hallucinating.

This can’t be happening, I thought.

Yet it was and I was pleased it was.

I knew it wasn’t my lack of sleep. I had seen Janet Bettesworth before and was equally mesmerised before.

I had never seen David Mills before despite the fact he was recently crowned New Act of the Year – the highly prestigious award formerly known as the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year and proof that something good can occasionally come out of Hackney.

But I was amazed how a totally top-notch professional camp American of this quality had  escaped my radar. Especially as he has apparently lived in the UK for a decade. Much like Maureen Younger being a new act for me at a Pull The Other One gig a couple of weeks ago.

Curiouser and curiouser.

A few weeks ago, someone mistook me for Antipodean intellectual Clive James. At Cantaloopy, David Mills said I reminded him of Shrek. I know which I prefer. But alas I know which is more realistic.

Altogether an unusual night in Shoreditch especially when, on my walk back to the car, I bumped into Noel Faulkner just leaving his Comedy Cafe venue and, after crossing Shoreditch High Street, he became fascinated by the sight of two police cars pursuing a man on a skateboard.

“The guy should just keep going,” Noel said to me. “Police cars will never catch a skateboard.”

When I reached my own car I saw, up an adjacent side street, two policemen and a policewoman milling around in the middle of the road while another two policemen were climbing up on a wall to look over railings into a graveyard.

I wondered what the man had done. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a spate of major skateboard robberies which will be countered by Scotland Yard establishing a Skateboard Squad of Lycra-clad coppers.

Or perhaps I just need more sleep.

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The death of a UK boxer linked to the sadistic murders of prostitutes by serial killer ‘Jack the Stripper’

I missed the 2008 movie The Bank Job when it was released in cinemas, but saw it on TV last night. It is about the 1971 robbery of the safety deposit vault at Lloyds Bank in Baker Street, London, and is allegedly based on a true story that one of the safety deposit boxes contained sex pictures of Princess Margaret (who is oddly never named in the film). Whether it is true or not I have no idea.

But the combination of seeing The Bank Job last night and the sad death of boxer Sir Henry Cooper yesterday reminds me of the story about British boxer Freddie Mills which I have heard for the last fifteen years from unconnected people in both the boxing and crime worlds.

The story is that Freddie Mills, a former World Light Heavyweight boxing champion who appeared in two Carry On films and many TV entertainment shows – he was the Frank Bruno of his day – was also a serial killer nicknamed Jack The Stripper who murdered six or possibly eight prostitutes between 1959 and 1965.

A 1969 novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square was loosely based on the case and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1972 movie Frenzy was loosely adapted from the book.

On 24 July 1965 Freddie Mills was found shot through the right eye in his Citroen car, parked in a cul-de-sac behind his nightclub The Nite Spot in Charing Cross Road, London. He was said to have shot himself inside the car with a .22 fairground rifle borrowed from a friend who ran a shooting gallery. The Coroner’s Court brought in a verdict of suicide. His family never accepted the verdict.

In 1991, Tony Van Den Bergh published Who Killed Freddie Mills? which brought up the Jack the Stripper story.

In 2001, former London crime figure Jimmy Tippett Jnr was reportedly writing a book which claimed Freddie Mills was Jack the Stripper and killed himself because the police were likely to arrest him.

In his 2004 book Fighters, James Morton concluded that Freddie Mills had killed himself because he was depressed and was convinced the Kray Twins were about to kill him.

In 2006, David Seabrook published Jack of Jumps which deduced that Freddie Mills was not Jack the Stripper.

The story I heard in the mid-1990s and over the years from multiple separate sources was that Freddie Mills was Jack the Stripper and – because the worlds of crime and boxing are inextricably intermingled in the UK and there is a crossover between crime and showbiz in Soho – he was known by crime figures to be the killer. It was said that, at the point of sexual climax, he was known to lose control of his violent inner self.

The police did not have enough evidence to arrest him, so those crime figures killed Freddie Mills. The police knew or suspected this was the case but, because of the Jack the Stripper background, did not pursue any investigation; they figured justice had been done. As the Coroner’s Court had decided the death was suicide, there was no need to investigate.

In 1999, I had a chat with Brian J Ford, first British President of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations, specifically to ask him about the Freddie Mills ’suicide’ story. Shortly after Freddie Mills’ death in 1965, he had written an article for the Sunday Mirror, pointing out the complete lack of any psychological profile for a suicide.

In a 1965 interview with ITN, boxing promoter Jack Solomons said of Freddie Mills: “He would never accept defeat… I would assume that he had no enemies in the boxing game – what he did outside of that in his after boxing life, that I couldn’t say.”

One very unusual detail in this alleged ‘suicide’ was that Mills had his right eye open when the bullet hit it. Usually, people close their eyes as the trigger is pulled.

Professor David Wingate, resident medical officer at Middlesex Hospital the night Mills’s corpse was brought in, carried out an examination on the body and was convinced that someone had taken the gun off Mills and shot him with it. He was not called to give evidence at the Coroner’s inquest.

Brian J Ford told me he had also looked in detail at the alleged ‘suicide’ weapon and concluded that it was physically impossible for Freddie Mills to shoot himself seated in the back of that type of Citroen in the way that he was shot with a gun which was too long to manipulate through 180 degrees. There were also signs of a violent struggle before the alleged ‘suicide’ took place in the back seat. Brian did not go for the Jack The Stripper angle and just believed Mills, as a boxer, was involved with criminal types who shot him for unknown reasons.

But the story refuses to go away.

I heard it again last year.

It may be an urban myth.

It may be the truth.

That’s the ironic thing about the real world. You can never be absolutely certain what’s true and what’s not.

There is a BBC TV documentary about Freddie Mills here on YouTube in which Scotland Yard’s ‘Nipper’ Read, who investigated the case, says he believes Freddie Mills killed himself, but Mills’ family still dispute the ’suicide’ verdict; towards the end, there is also a reconstruction of how not to shoot yourself in the head with a fairground rifle in the back seat of a Citroen.

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“The Long Good Friday” – inside one of the two greatest British gangster films ever made

Last night I went to the Museum of London’s Docklands cinema for a special screening of the 1981 movie The Long Good Friday, introduced by its scriptwriter Barrie Keeffe. Very appropriate, as the film’s plot is partly about 1980s plans for Docklands’ re-development. In the film, there is a model of what Docklands might look like in the future. As Barrie Keeffe said last night: “We never imagined it would look like it does tonight – Manhattan…”

I am a great admirer of The Long Good Friday – it is on an equal footing with Get Carter as the greatest British gangster film ever made.

I have blogged before about The Long Good Friday – I was working at Lew Grade‘s ATV in Birmingham when the film encountered its post-production problems.

Both Barrie Keeffe and I assume that Lew Grade did not actually read the script before agreeing to finance the £1 million film but then – hey! – I never read the Killer Bitch script which I financed – I still haven’t. Not that the two movies are exactly comparable… Anyway…

When Lew Grade saw the completed movie of The Long Good Friday, he was so shocked by some of the plot details – especially the film’s climax – that he refused to release it as a feature film, refused to screen it on TV without massive cuts to the violence and the plot and even refused to allow anyone to buy it off him – until George Harrison (yes, the Beatle)’s Handmade Films made him an offer he felt he couldn’t refuse – a financial offer not involving any horse’s head.

It is difficult to discuss The Long Good Friday without mentioning the twist that most offended Lew Grade, but here goes…

It is a wonderful film partly because the crucial opening sequence is shot without audible dialogue – the only line clearly heard by the audience is someone saying something in an East London accent during an abduction… also partly because the audience is suckered into looking the wrong way in plot terms… and also partly because it has a triple ending.

There are two scenes at the end which feel like the rounding-off of a normal thriller but then there’s a sudden shock ending which should, in theory, have an equally sudden cut-to-black (as in French Connection II). Instead, director John Mackenzie uses a final static and very effective shot held on one character’s face for an extraordinarily long time.

Barrie Keeffe says his inspiration for The Long Good Friday was his love of film noir movies from the 1940s and 1950s. He wanted to make a black and white Humphrey Bogart film noir of the 1940s in colour in 1979 (when the film was written) – and he always had the then relatively inexperienced Bob Hoskins in mind for the central role of gangster Harold Shand; producer Barry Hanson had previously worked with Bob.

Barrie and Barry had a crucial script discussion with Bob shortly after he returned from filming Zulu Dawn in South Africa. They went to see him at the School of Tropical Medicine in London because he had managed to get ill with a 26-foot-long tapeworm inside him during the shooting. The film-making duo were told by medical staff not to get Bob excited about the Long Good Friday script because they were operating on him the next day and, if he got too excited, the tapeworm might split in two with dangerous consequences. Bob got excited but the tapeworm kept calm.

One format for film noirs is that the chief protagonist is a gangster who faces rivalry from another gangster. Barrie decided to make the opponent Harold Shand faces not a rival gangster with his own values but an opponent of an entirely different kind who does not share Shand’s values.

Perhaps mistakenly, Barrie revealed who that opponent was to the audience before last night’s screening and some members of the audience had not previously seen The Long Good Friday. A friend who was with me had not seen the movie before and told me afterwards that knowing whodunnit had not spoiled her enjoyment of the film (she said it was “brilliant”) but I still think audience ignorance is a good thing in The Long Good Friday.

The film was criticised by one newspaper for over-use of religious symbolism – in particular. the sequence in which one man is found crucified on a wooden warehouse floor. But, as Barrie explained, this was not uncommon as a punishment in London gangster circles at the time. As a young reporter on East End newspaper the Stratford Express, he was once sent to interview the victim of a crucifixion. The guy lay there in his hospital bed covered in bandages and, when Barrie asked him what had happened, his reply was: “It was a self-inflicted D.I.Y. accident.”

Barrie’s background was partly as a journalist on the Stratford Express during the heyday of the Kray Twins in 1960s London. As an innocent-eyed 18 year old, he once stood in the men’s toilet of an East End pub with notoriously violent and rampantly gay Ronnie Kray.

“Take a look at this,” Ronnie said to him standing at the urinal, looking down at his own groin. “Go on, son, look at this – the handle on it.”

Barrie reluctantly looked down.

It was a gun.

Barrie was relieved it was only a gun.

In The Long Good Friday, there is a scene in which a gangster is approached by a woman in black widow’s clothing who raises her veil and spits in his face. This was taken from a real incident in which a bereaved widow raised her veil and spat in Barrie’s face after he had pretended to be working for a newspaper rival of the Stratford Express.

After the screening, I was able to talk to Barrie briefly and ask if it was true that he had once been going to re-write John Osborne’s classic 1950s play The Entertainer with comedian Malcolm Hardee in the Laurence Olivier role.

“I wasn’t going to re-write it,” Barrie told me, “but we were going to adapt it to suit him.” He paused, then added: “But I don’t know what his discipline would have been like…”

Indeed.

Yes.

Indeed.

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