20th Century Gangland: The Kray Twins

Few people in Britain need any introduction to the Kray Twins - the 20th century's most famous and visually iconic gangsters. Books and films galore have been made about or based on them, attesting to their significant place in popular culture and the public awareness at large. No other post-war British villains come close - they occupy a place that might be compared to that of Al Capone in the American imagination, being as they were, and are, the embodiments of ultraviolent, malevolent thuggery or gangster glamour (with a dash of the Robin Hoods thrown in) according to taste.

The twins - Ronnie and Reggie - were deeply embedded within the post-war London underworld, East End top dogs running organised crime, feared for their enforcement of protection rackets, armed robberies, arson attacks and murders, notably those of George Cornell and Jack “The Hat” McVitie (of whom more in a coming post).

But they were also more than that: they were celebrities, Swinging Sixties nightclub owners who worked the media and got themselves photographed with glamorous American stars of the calibre of Judy Garland, George Raft and Sonny Liston, and their British equivalents. They even had their pic taken by superstar photographer and fellow Sixties-icon David Bailey.

With Judy Garland

With Sonny Liston

The Bailey photograph was part of the twins' bid for big-time fame, which for many observers was the beginning of the end for them, as celebrity overreach finally eclipsed effective professional gangsterism. As Bailey himself observed in 2014: “If you’re a real gangster, nobody knows who you are.”

Regardless of all that, though, the fact is that following the twins' fall from grace James Fox and Richard Burton visited Ronnie in jail to press him for details ahead of their portrayals of loosely similar gangsters in Performance (1970) and the under-rated Villain (1971) respectively - which tells you all you need to know about their culture-icon status.

There's no space here to go into all the ins-and-outs of the Krays' long career in the public eye - for the best account of their rise and fall we still think this is the best thing you can read:

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