The unrepentant villain who's pleased to media

Crime paid Dave Courtney well when he was a gangster. Now it's even better
It's Saturday night in east London. The pavement outside the club is strewn with flyers and discarded beer cans, some of them being kicked by disenchanted, freezing clubbers in skimpy clothes standing in the static queue. A white Rolls-Royce pulls up, and out of it steps a hulking, shaven-headed man in a black greatcoat, followed by two other crew-cut, muscle-bound men in bomber jackets. The bouncers almost fall over themselves to clear the way for the newcomers, shoving aside the posts and chains and prospective clubbers. As Dave Courtney strides in through the crowd, he points to three teenagers at the front of the queue, two shivering, bare-legged girls and a spotty boy with gelled-back hair.

"Let 'em in, Pete," he says to the head bouncer. "My good deed for the night," he adds, as we all pile in.

Inside the club, beside an entrance marked "Private: Restaurant", important- looking men in suits line up to shake hands with the newcomer. The three men, now accompanied by a leading actor from EastEnders, enter the private area where Dave orders Dom Perignon for everybody.

Dave Courtney is determined to be a celebrity. He writes a column in front, a new lads' magazine, and is to host his own talk show on national television next year. He's just made a single, and features on another, soon to be released by Tricky, which will be part of the sound-track on an upcoming film by Steven Spielberg. He thinks he may have a part in the film, too. He's funny and charismatic, with the presence of a TV star in the East End clubs where he's already well known. Soon, if everything goes according to plan, he'll be similarly received among the glitterati at London's Met Bar and the Groucho Club.

But Dave Courtney is a killer, who has taken the lives of three people and wounded many others. He is one of Britain's most violent, amoral, long-term criminals. Under his white Versace suit, his gold-studded Versace shirt and his pounds 20,000-worth of diamond-encrusted jewellery, is a man who has served time in the maximum security wing of Belmarsh Prison, the jail in south-east London that houses some of Britain's most notorious offenders.

A latter-day henchman of the Kray brothers, he organised the security for Ronnie Kray's funeral in 1995, his reputation helping to keep London's fighting "firms" at peace that day. Once an enforcer and debt-collector, he has a fearsome reputation earned by some serious violence in his younger days (he is now 39, and has given that all up, or so he says). Judged by his past, Mr Courtney is evil.

The next day, we are sitting in a trattoria in north London, talking trivialities while I summon up the courage to ask him some more difficult questions. Everything I have seen about Mr Courtney has been perfectly polite and proper, and his amiability does not seem to be a front. But I have read up on his past, and perhaps such a successful criminal is also a master of self-presentation. Perhaps when I ask this surprisingly articulate man about the morality of what he has done, that big grin will freeze and disappear, and I will see the side of him that several Chinese waiters saw in 1981 when, irked at something, Mr Courtney attacked them with a meat cleaver. (He consequently spent a year in prison.)

"So, Dave," I take a big slug of brandy and Coke, "don't you think what you have done and are doing is heinous and immoral?"

"I do understand that some people - not the majority, I think - would say that I'm building something out of crime and that's bad," he says. He speaks with conviction and calmness, fixing me with his disturbing blue eyes.

"If I was born in another walk of life, I might just say that myself. I don't hate people for thinking that; I understand completely. But," he adds, "those are the cards I have been dealt."

But there's a paradox here. If you're going to do so well for yourself in the criminal world, you are presumably not much bothered about being liked. However, this seems to be one of his driving ambitions.

"I'd love it if everyone in that club said, `That Dave Courtney, he's the bollocks, man.'" That's why he let in the youngsters freezing outside. That's why he bought everyone champagne.

"'Course I like to be loved," he says. "I'm more of a Robin Hood than a robbing bastard."

His life of crime started early: at school, he stole charity money donated by parents to help Biafran children. Does he regret that, I ask?

"No," he replies, genuinely bemused at the question. I tell him I think it was immoral. He shrugs. He became a kind of rent-a-yob after being expelled from school, fell in with the East End's "firms", and soon, through his reputation for fighting, became a well known hood with his hand in everything. He tells me he's killed people, but has never been brought to justice for them. This includes a murder of which he was acquitted in 1989.

"'Course I was guilty," he says. "They deserved it. I didn't do nobody that didn't. I know everybody says that, but in my case it's true."

He served a total of 37 months in jail for his crimes, most of them on remand, including the spell at Belmarsh. Changing times, as well as enough money to live on happily, were the reasons behind his career change. The "noble villain", who treats everybody like family and bumps off only people who deserve it, is history. No amount of muscle power and respect will win a battle with a crazed crackhead armed with a Luger.

And now, he has the young Courtneys to think about. Married twice, he has three teenage children by a previous wife, and a one-year-old daughter, by his current live-in girlfriend. Would he encourage them to go into a life of crime?

"No," he says emphatically. "My life of crime was excellent. But things are different now."

Everything in Mr Courtney's media career - the music, the column, the TV show, even a forthcoming autobiography, to be published by Virgin - is based on his notorious past.

"I may be guilty of glamorising crime," he says, "I'm ever so sorry, but there are a lot of elements about crime which are very glamorous."

Though you have to try very hard to stop yourself from liking Mr Courtney for his perverse honesty, sense of fun and outward affability, it would also be too easy simply to judge him evil. Too easy, because he wouldn't be getting anywhere if the general public weren't fascinated by his crimes, and if the media - so keen to moralise - weren't so eager to exploit his potential. It's a natural human instinct to be attracted by those who break the rules that the rest of us are constrained by, particularly those who get away with it as spectacularly as Dave Courtney. Ordinary young men were delighted to be seen with him in the club; ordinary young women stood with him in nervous delight.

On his own admission Dave Courtney shouldn't be building a career as a celebrity; he should be in jail. But there was an undeniable buzz about being with him in that nightclub where he was king, and a lingering feeling that this man is not so much evil as amoral, and not so different from many other people you might encounter every day. Towards the end of our chat in the trattoria he said he had something to ask me.

"Would your editor be interested if I can set up a full interview with...", he said, naming one of Britain's most notorious criminals.

"Oh, yes," I said, choking on my drink, sensing a scoop.

Dave Courtney just smiled.