Thirteen years ago today, in 2001, former gangster Mad Frank Fraser was being filmed for a documentary about his life.
Filming took place at the Clink prison museum near the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the south bank of the River Thames.
I chatted to Frank over coffee between camera set-ups.
He told me there had been no recent talk of filming the story of his life: “I think they’re waiting till after I die,” he said flatly, “because then they can say anything. They could make up things or, if I did something when I was defending myself, they could just say I slashed someone for no reason at all.”
Frank was, as always, gentlemanly and very slightly deaf in one ear. He and his then wife Marilyn Wisbey, daughter of a Great Train Robber, lived in a rented flat off the Old Kent Road. The next day, they were both travelling up to Birmingham to sign copies of their new books: her first autobiography Gangster’s Moll and his Diary (his third autobiographical book).
We had lunch in a clean but characterless local cafe a short walk along Clink Street: Frank, me, the cameraman, the sound man and a stills photographer from Tunbridge Wells who had done a few fashion shoots but really wanted to break into travel photography.
At one point, Frank, the sound man and I were sitting alone at a table when the sound man suddenly said without warning: “Do you want to see some magic?”
He entertained us with some close-up magic, putting a paper napkin into his closed fist then making it disappear. When he and I were alone later, he faked bending and swallowing a fork and told me forlornly that Americans just accepted magic tricks for their simple entertainment value, but the British wanted to see tricks over and over again to work out how they were done. He was interested to work in movie special effects because his father used to run a firework display company.
After lunch, we relocated to an upstairs room at the Clink, which had the walls and ceiling in prison/dungeon/torture chamber style but which also had a bar and giant stand-up fridge for drinks and a small glitter-ball dangling from the ceiling. Presumably it was occasionally used for private parties and discos.
We then all drove to Repton Boys (boxing) Club in Bethnal Green where the Kray Twins used to box.
Frank had brought along a colour photo of him shaking the hand of an ashen-faced, bed-ridden Reggie Kray just a few days before he died.
Reggie had white bandages on his right wrist.
Then we drove to the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell in 1966.
Standing outside the Grave Maurice pub opposite the London Hospital where he once deposited a man with a hatchet in his head, Frank was greeted by strangers coming out of the pub inviting him in to drink with them. Walking back to the Blind Beggar, along the pavement lined by Indian and Pakistani-owned stalls, everyone – even small Asian children – recognised him.
Finally, as we were saying our goodbyes in the large Sainsbury’s car park behind the Blind Beggar and I was talking to Frank, a lone little girl, aged about 13, came up and asked to shake his hand. He did with an: “Of course.” She said nothing, then turned and went away, a happy smile on her face.
“Did you see that?” he asked.
“You don’t have to worry about any feature film,” I told him: “You’ll be Uncle Frank to her forever.”
The police say Mad Frank killed 40 people, though it sounds like a figure just plucked out of thin air, either by the police or by Mad Frank himself for publicity purposes.
So it goes.