Frankie Fraser's been a naughty boy again. Several decades after he ceased to be the premier hard man of London's gangland, he showed he can still get his wild up by having such a barney with a fellow resident of his old folks' home that, at 89, he's collected an Asbo. We know this because of the advance publicity for a television documentary on him tonight.
It's the latest manifestation of that odd phenomenon, the celebrity criminal. Know what I mean? Course you do. Diamond geezers, bit of a handful but very good to their muvvers. Kept the streets safe, they did. Any little toe-rag duffing up grannies round their way and they'd be onto 'em. Don't get me wrong, they were a bit tasty and gave the bogeys the run-around, but you knew where you were with them. There was nothing – how shall I put it? – indiscriminate about their violence. Mind, you wouldn't want to cross them; but they only took it out on their own. It was only other villains they was sorting out. Know what I mean?
Well, up to a point. It's true they didn't go in for mugging and razoring the likes of us. But their disputes were not Oxford Union debates. Murders were committed and widows were made. A "ticking off" might involve an axe in the head; a bloke messing with another bloke's woman would get shot where it mattered; and faces got re-arranged – the Stanley Knifer being paid according to how many stitches the knifee had to have (a quid a stitch was the going rate even 60 years ago). In his pomp, Fraser was so feared that Eric Mason, a Kray Brothers sidekick, said of him: "When Frank joined the Richardsons it was like China getting the atom bomb." Not for nothing was he known as "The Dentist", owning a pair of pliers with which he would extract teeth without an anaesthetic or, indeed, the patient's permission.
The purpose of all this mayhem – so ugly close-up, so apparently entertaining when reconstituted and served up several decades later – was not to lay on some colourful East End diorama for the media, but to commit armed robbery, demand money with menaces and run industrial-scale fruit machine rackets. Hardened criminals, it seems repeatedly necessary to point out, are not pleasant people.
But there are, in our consumption of past crimes, degrees of unpleasantness.
Some criminals – those who commit offences against women or children, like Dale Creggan, jailed for life last week for murdering two policewomen – have always been abhorred. A few murderers – the serial killers and meek little middle-class poisoners like Major Armstrong, the Herefordshire solicitor with wandering eyes who bumped off his wife and had a go at a nosy colleague – achieve not just notoriety but a lasting hold on people's fascinations. And a rare few criminals (Fraser is one) go beyond that, into the foothills of what you might call old lags' national treasuredom.
The heyday of the celebrity villain began in the 1950s when gangland bosses began to produce their memoirs, an unthinkable development 20 years before. Billy Hill (extortionist and black marketeer), for instance, wrote Boss of the Underworld, a book enlivened by his retinue of colourful associates such as Soapy Harry, Long Stan, Bear's Breath, Square Georgie, Tony the Wop and Teddy "Odd Legs" Machin. Later examples included Freddie Foreman (armed robber and double-murderer) and his Respect; Dave Courtney (gangland hard nut who once attacked five Chinese waiters with a meat cleaver) with six titles so far; and half-a-shelf full from Fraser, including Mad Frank: Memoirs of a Life of Crime, Mad Frank's London, Mad Frank's Britain, Mad Frank's Underworld History of Britain, and, for all I know (he is more productive than Pippa Middleton), Mad Frank's Guide to Finger Food. Based on these assisted jottings, Frank toured with a one-man show (An Evening With Mad Frank) and conducted heritage walking tours of London's most criminalised pavements. He has a website where fans can ring a premium rate number (£1.53 per minute) and hear his thoughts.
Film rights were sold (the Krays shared £225,000); documentaries filmed; authorised Kray mugs, T-shirts and limited-edition prints marketed; and headlines regularly made. The doings of men like Fraser, the Krays and the Great Train Robbers became a sort of long-running soap opera. Each re-arrest (like that of train robber Roy James for attacking his father-in-law and ex-wife), celebration (Ronnie Biggs' toast in Rio to 30 years on the run), remarkable reform (Roy "Mean Machine" Shaw, former armed robber and Kray sidekick became an internet and property millionaire), suicide (Buster Edwards hanging himself inside a Lambeth lock-up), contract killings (train robber Charlie Wilson gunned down as he prepared a salad at his Spanish home) and deaths (broadsheet obituarists seeing off the departed with admiring 1,100-word salutes) all amply reported. There was even (if somewhat inactive at present) a Krays Supporters' Club. Membership was eclectic, including one woman who took her study of the twins' modus operandi so seriously that she was subsequently jailed for hiring another member to beat up her violent husband.
So what turns people who most of us would think of as nasty pieces of law-breaking work into geezers? First, à la Robin Hood and highwaymen like Dick Turpin (in reality a glorified mugger and low-life horse-thief), there is the mythologising and, thereafter, sneaking admiration of the outlaw. And part of that process is to sanitise their activities. Their blaggings may have left in their wake injured guards, frightened staff and mail train crew who were never the same again but the targets, we tell ourselves, were not ordinary folk but banks, security firms, gold shippers, Royal Mail and the owners of unsavoury licensed premises. Thus the crimes are seen as a lark, a caper, a dress rehearsal for a Bob Hoskins movie. And we yearn for the characters committing these crimes to be larger than life, speaking the understated lingo of the hard-case subculture where vicious, short-fused, teeth-breaking Fraser "had a bit of a temper on him" and blowing someone's kneecap off was "having a word".
Is it possible there is something else at work, too? That there is still in us residues of the 18th-century mob's resentment at the forces of law and order? That, so long as no ordinary folk got hurt, we admire those who tweak the noses of convention and authority? Once we start thinking along those lines, we are seeing these geezers not as they truly were but as real-life Norman Stanley Fletchers. Criminals made cuddly.