After a life of vicious crime, `Mad Frank' Fraser, the Richardson gang' s most notorious hit-man, has achieved a more legitimate celebrity, as author, lecturer and TV pundit. It's making him r icher; is it also making him nicer? He never backed down. He served his jail terms without remission for good behaviour

FRANKIE FRASER has spent more than 40 of his 71 years behind bars as punishment for a string of infamies, which included slashing his enemies with a razor. Hence an early nickname, "Razor Fraser". He was also known as "the Dentist" because of a reputation for extracting, with pliers, the teeth of victims from whom he was having difficulty extracting money. His violent temperament caused him to try to hang a prison governor (and the governor's dog) from a tree, and to be certified insane on threeoccasions. Hence his most enduring nickname, "Mad Frank". He has never pretended to be other than what he is: a villain. Yet, suddenly, five years after his most recent release from jail, he is a celebrity: a man who does bookshop signings of his autobiography, graces television discussions, greets VIPs with great self-assurance, and - in recent days - awaits an important call from Hollywood. "You could say I'm a cult," he says.

"A what?" I start, mishearing a vital consonant.

"A cult. I'm a cult," he repeats.

A question I'd like the cult to address is this: what happens when the man from whom everybody once fled becomes the man to whom everybody now flocks? Another: how does he - how do they - cope with a profile so dramatically altered? A third: what broughtabout this transformation? In the course of elicit- ing answers, I find myself in uneasy reminiscence about events of which Fraser has an impeccable memory.

"That piece you wrote about me 29 or 30 years ago," he says, leaning forward with dark, fathomless eyes.

"What ...?" I start again, my hands clammy.

Fraser's eyes are his most compelling asset, betraying little, even when he laughs. Their effect is discomfiting, if not hypnotic. It may have something to do with his origins: Irish on his mother's side, Norwegian and Red Indian on his father's. The eyes are on me as I try to recall the mid-Sixties, when he was the cutting-edge of the south London Richardson gang, impinging on the east/north London operations of the Kray twins (protection rackets, pornography and gambling mostly). Mad Frank, one of a family of six from the Elephant and Castle, had been an eager apprentice in race-course bookmaking, becoming in time "minder" to Billy Hill, a colourful bookie-boss.

At 13, young Fraser found himself in Borstal for stealing cigarettes. He was never known to have backed down, however intimidating the foe, which is why he served all his jail terms without remission for good behaviour, and why he became indispensable toCharles and Eddie Richardson at a time when the London gangs were on war alert. With 15 convictions and two of his three insanity certificates behind him, Fraser was pushing his "interests" in the West End in the Fifties, taking over a chain of gaming machines owned by the Krays and antagonising much of the "underworld". Its denizens enjoyed names such as "Billy Boy" Blythe, "Jack Spot" Comer, "Scarface Jock" Russo, "Big Albert" Dimes. Arguments were often settled by "glassing" (broken bottles) and "striping" (parallel slashes on the buttocks), if not with gunfire.

Mad Frank now says: "You didn't mention me by name, but I knew it was me you were referring to. Don't you remember? About London gangland - I was inside at the time." Later, a scrapbook shows that I had written, in 1964, a prediction of "vicious internecine gang war". It said: "By securing the services of a dangerous psychopath... the south London family has managed to merge five small gangs..."

His manicured hands jerk forward from the sleeves of his worsted grey suit, showing spotless white cuffs and an expensive-looking gold watch. Does retribution loom? On the contrary. He draws a box in the air. "It was that size; an outstanding article," he muses.

This seems a touch mucilaginous for such a hard, unyielding man, but he is comfortable with his new persona. "There's an overwhelming interest in crime today," he explains. "It's partly nostalgic." He is right. Notorious criminals have jemmied their way into nostalgia at a bewildering rate in recent years. Charles Richardson, boss of south London in the Sixties, who was sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment (Fraser got 10 years) at the so-called "Torture Trial" in 1967, published his autobiography in 1991, shortly after his release. The east London gangster, Reggie Kray, is still in jail, but that has not stopped him writing memoirs and poetry. At one point, he and his twin, Ronnie, who is in Broadmoor, seemed destined to leave a greater imprint on posterity than would the Richardson gang, particularly since a successful film was made about them a few years ago. Having done his book, Charles Richardson is busy mining gold in Uganda at the moment, leaving his profile low in London and his brother Eddie in prison. Despite the "Torture Trial" disclosures, of victims shot fore and aft, affray, jury-nobbling and murder, the Richardsons' reputation looms less large than does that of the notorious twins. Mr Fraser's last conviction was for receiving stolen coins. But the Richardson legend may yet overtake that of the Krays. Just as it was often left to Mad Frank, as Charles Richardson's righthand man, to contain the Krays' ambitions in the carnivorous days of their gangland rivalry, it has again been left toMad Frank to burnish historically the south London "manor" in his twilight years. And he is, of course, right in what he says: the public has an insatiable appetite for this sort of thing.

Among those who have responded to this craving is the London lawyer/author James Morton, who, over the past decade or so, has produced compelling narratives that reveal more about low-life nastiness (in policemen as well as gangsters) than do most newspapers. In his 1992 book, Gangland, Morton's references to Fraser's activities make one's jaw drop. Mad Frank read it carefully, then got in touch with the author. Morton recalls: "I was somewhat apprehensive when he said, `You've got some mistakes in there that I think I ought to correct.' He then made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He said, `You ought to write my book as well'. He was very polite."

The new book, Mad Frank: Memoirs of a Life of Crime, was published last year and is about to go into paperback. It has attracted a great deal of attention, not least, Fraser says, from the "City investment people" who want to see Mad Frankie going to Hollywood. He tells me about this in the Art Cafe, a tiny coffee shop in Islington's Camden Passage, which his lover, Marilyn Wisbey, opened five weeks ago. Ms Wisbey is 30 years his junior. Her father, Thomas Wisbey, was one of the Great Train Robbers. Shelooks at him admiringly and wishes aloud that she had met him long ago. He is small and wiry, with cheeks the colour of cheddar and a full head of hair dyed dark-brown.

They offer me something from the menu, which Ms Wisbey reads out: "Cannelloni ... neck of lamb stew ... Marilyn's old-fashioned bread pudding..." "Parkhurst pudding," her partner interrupts, laughing at my expression. "Just kidding, Cal," he says.

The investors, he says, are "nice people", one of whom is related to Ms Wisbey by marriage. "They will want their money back, so they won't let this just lie on the shelf.

"Here's a funny thing. I was leaving them one day, wondering should I accept their offer, when I see the Wesleyan chapel in City Road. There was a noticeboard outside, with the names of various people who spoke there: Margaret Thatcher, Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop Coggan, Enoch Powell, Margaret Beckett, John Gummer, Lord Archer. And I see that the director general of the prison service Derek Lewis is to speak that day.

"So me and Marilyn go in. Derek Lewis gets on the podium and answers questions from the vicar. Even though I looked respectable, there was something about me that made him [think], `Oh dear, what's he doing here?' When he finished, he sort of flew out, but Marilyn pushed me out in front of him, so he couldn't get away. I was very nice to him and he was very good.

"I asked him if he really believed what he had just said, about being firm but fair. He said he did. Lovely, I said. And I told him about two of my friends in prison who were not getting a fair crack of the whip. He said, `I can't promise anything, but I'll look into it.' We had our photo taken shaking hands.

"I'd forgotten all about it, but the vicar lives round the corner from us in Islington and uses the Angel bookshop where I signed copies of my book. He left a letter for me, asking if I'd like to do what Derek Lewis done. And I said certainly. So on 16 February at 12.45pm, I'll be explaining to the vicar and the congregation how I got into crime and why. And if I hadn't seen these investment people I wouldn't have noticed the place."

He speaks softly but insistently. He does not waste words and is intolerant of careless speech. When I mention that "poor old Jack Spot" (a former self-styled "king of the underworld") had once removed his shirt to show me scars from a Mad Frank attack, Fraser cuts in. "Don't call him poor," he says. "He got two innocent men four years and seven years. When you live in that world, Cal, you don't go to the police. Jack Spot wasn't a real villain. He was a fake." For one who had limited schooling and an exclusively physical career, Fraser is surprisingly well-read. In prison, he tells me, he read Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, based on a real-life murder case, and Somerset Maugham's mystical The Razor's Edge (in vain, I plumb those treacly poolsfor irony). Another favourite is Gone With The Wind.

For the moment, he savours his own literary potential. He was the centrepiece of a BBC television series, Underworld. His 70th birthday party in a Stockport Hotel was televised. He has appeared in a television link-up with Ronnie Biggs, the fugitive Great Train Robber. His views on "Buster" Edwards, another GTR, after the latter's recent suicide, have been broadcast. He has been consulted publicly about prison riots and will soon address students of criminology at Hull University. But all this attentionhas not quite taken his mind off other things. In 1992, for example, he was shot in the face as he emerged from a pub in south London. (Oddly, the bullet's entry mark is hard to identify in the craggy countenance.) But, generally speaking, he appears atease with himself and Marilyn, a jolly woman who wants to write her own memoirs ("Have I got stories to tell!"). Apart from the likes of Jack Spot (still alive, "but I wish he was dead"), there seem few people around to make Frank mad. He speaks of his friends with respect and affection: not just former comrades-in-crime, but showbiz people, such as Steven Berkoff, the dramatist, actor and director ("and a great friend of ours, actually"). Listening to him, one marvels at how villains of the Sixties always sought a retinue of the great and the glam (particularly the Krays, cosying up to the likes of Lord Boothby and George Raft, and the Richardsons, who partied with Stanley Baker and other stars of the time), whereas the modern criminal doesn't bother. On the Art Cafe wall there are pictures of Marilyn Monroe and one of Frank Sinatra, addressed to Ms Wisbey and signed by Ol' Blue Eyes himself.

As for old foes, Mad Frank has made charitable visits to them in their respective prisons. (He regrets not being able to see Eddie Richardson, because of his Category A status.) When he went to see Reggie Kray, he jokingly asked him if he needed a dentist. He also tells me of a visit to Ronnie Kray. "I went with Steven Berkoff, and Bob Long, who [ghost-] wrote Charlie's book, and a guy called Eddie Jones, a nice fella. In Broadmoor, patients and visitors go to the same toilet. Eddie Jones went, and thenRonnie [a homosexual] followed him in. And I thought, you know what I mean. I thought, well, that's his affair, nothing to do with me. But then I'm thinking about my pal, ain't I, so I rushed out and when I got in, there was Eddie Jones at the urinal. Ronnie was tapping him on the shoulder and singing `It's a lovely day...' Eddie was so frightened he splashed it all down his trousers. I said, `What's happened?' And Ronnie says, `I'm just telling him it's a lovely day.' He was just being nice. He wasn't trying to . . . eh, know what I mean. Just in for a, ah, slash. It was a nice summer's day. But it went all down his leg, it did. In the pub afterwards we nearly killed ourselves laughing."

Who, I ask, will play Mad Frank in a movie?

"It's only in the last month I've thought about it," Mad Frank says. "Marilyn's dad suggested Gabriel Byrne to play me when I was younger. Other people suggest Bob Hoskins when I was older. But Bob said, `The trouble is, I'm so busy.' Anyway, he'd be better playing Charlie Richardson." What about Steven Berkoff? "Yeah, even better! Steven Berkoff!"

As a star performer on television and the cocktail circuit, does he not find this sudden attention fatiguing? "Well, I suffered a great deal in my life", he says. "Solitary confinement, body-belts, handcuffs, the cat, the birch, you name it. It was really hard in prison. When I look back at them things and then find I have to appear in films or talk to universities, it's rather simple. It's fun, innit, after what I've been through. The cab drivers nearly all recognise me now. If they don't I never give them a tip."

Mad Frank then gives me a tip, as I rise to leave. He points at my briefcase. "I ought to warn you that 17 people have recently been mugged leaving here with a briefcase just like that. Be very careful!". It is a tense moment. Then Mad Frank laughs in myface and claps my shoulder. "Just kidding, Cal."

One may take the view that if Mad Frank is engaged in recreating his image, he will have less time or inclination for the pursuit of his previous career. Equally, one may argue that the promotion of the recreated image romanticises a violent lifestyle. Charles Richardson, in his own memoirs, describes Frankie Fraser as "one of the most mild-mannered men I've met, but he has a bad temper on him sometimes."

Few criminals recall their past volitions with the bleak realism they deserve. The felon in the footlights can produce rib-tickling anecdotes that may replace our proper aversion with an accommodation of cruelty. But some will insist that Fraser is Mad Frank no longer. Maybe they are right. When police visited him in hospital after he was shot in the face in 1992, Marilyn Wisbey told them: "He's, er, Frank Tomkins". Through his bandages, her lover croaked: "That's right!" !

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