Why do we go on glorifying such seedy sadists?

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My favourite story about the US mafia television series The Sopranos is that tapes of genuine mafiosos talking about the show were played at a US mafia trial. The defendants, as usual, were claiming to have nothing to do with organised crime. But the surveillance tapes portrayed them asking each other if they had seen the programme, remarking on how very authentic it was, and enthusing about how very similar some of the characters in the series were to themselves.

My favourite story about the US mafia television series The Sopranos is that tapes of genuine mafiosos talking about the show were played at a US mafia trial. The defendants, as usual, were claiming to have nothing to do with organised crime. But the surveillance tapes portrayed them asking each other if they had seen the programme, remarking on how very authentic it was, and enthusing about how very similar some of the characters in the series were to themselves.

The evidence, apparently, was successful, in more ways than one. The television series has been lavished with praise and awards. But what higher accolade could it hope for than the stamp of approval from the criminals it portrays themselves.

The Sopranos - a new series of which starts screening in Britain this month - is quite a phenomenon. Set in New Jersey, it is essentially a family saga starring Mum, Dad and the kids leading the affluent life in leafy suburbia. Mum and Dad are plagued by the teenage rebellions of their daughter, trouble at school with their son, and the difficulties of deciding how to care for the children's paternal grandmother now that she's too mentally frail to look after herself. They're a perfectly normal family, except for the fact that Daddy is a Mafia boss.

Daddy's troubles begin when the ducklings which have been hatched in his swimming pool, take off and fly away. The loss prompts a panic attack and Tony Soprano is referred to a psychoanalyst. In his analysis, Tony tells a sanitised version of his troubles at work and at home, while we see the real story on screen. The real story is of tawdry violence, seedy sex and pathetic drug addiction. The analyst is not fooled, but finds herself identifying with the mafioso, and wishing to hear his stories all the same.

It is a brilliant metaphor for our own obsessive interest in organised crime, and the manner in which we are seduced by the images the bad guys wish to project, rather than the reality of what they do. As such, it has found a new way of glamorising the image of the mafia, just when it seemed safe to assume that Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese had taken the genre as far as it could go.

The image of the birds in flight is an important motif in the development of the vulnerable side of Tony Soprano's brutalised psyche, so it is an odd coincidence that in Philip Ridley's eponymous vision of the The Krays, the film begins with a shot of a swan in flight over the caption "Shall I tell you my dream?"

Reggie Kray's friends, during the few days of freedom he experienced before he died, told The Mirror his dream. He wanted to live out his final days in a beautiful cottage in the country. Unable to grant their friend his wish, his companions bought him a video of a cottage in the Norfolk Broads. "That's lovely, perfect - just what I've always dreamed of," Reggie apparently told them. Exactly where extortion, torture and murder fit into this craving for the simple life isn't clear. But plenty of people still seem extremely indignant that Reggie Kray didn't leave prison years ago to take up such an idyll.

One despairs at the sight of Reggie's old chums lining up to defend him with their tired old rhetoric even now. EastEnders' cast members have been out in force declaiming homily after homily. Mike Reid, who plays Frank, had this to offer: "Had the Krays remained free, the London of today would be a safer place. During their reign there was no mugging." Dave Courtney, who organised the security for Ronnie Kray's funeral in 1995, declared: "I love Reggie, he's a very, very nice man. Anyone who ever met him will tell you he is completely harmless."

Anyone tempted to take Mr Courtney at his words should bear in mind that this is the man who is said to be the model for Vinnie Jones's character in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. If the kind of good fellas peddled at the moment by Guy Ritchie and others seem oddly reminiscent of the dysfunctional anti-morality of the Kray Twins' era, then that's because these stories, three or four decades apart, are sourced in the very same myth.

Interestingly, while Britons took the Krays to their heart in part because they were Britain's own little answer to the all-pervasive fascination of the US mob, the American Mafia did have talks with the Krays about linking up their evil empires but decided our boys were a bit too far out there for them.

Meanwhile, its a safe bet that Mr Courtney and friends will now be arranging a send off for Reggie, the like of which we'll never see again. Ronnie's funeral featured six black-plumed horses, all the paraphernalia of a state funeral, and an audience of 60,000 onlookers. But since he was the paranoid schizophrenic, closet gay, thick one, it's safe to assume that the brains of the operation will muster even greater sentimental hysteria.

The oddest paradox about the claims made by the ever-loyal posse of supporters who continued to gather round Reggie throughout all of his years in prison, was that eventually the things they said became true and right.

Under any compassionate criminal justice system, a man should be released after he had served his sentence. It is hard to see how the continued incarceration of Reggie Kray after his 30-year sentence had been completed was justifiable. Until that time his parole had been denied because he would not show remorse for his crimes. But after his sentence had been served, that should have been an end to it. Instead Reggie Kray has died as a sick sort of martyr, a man who any fair-minded person would have to agreed was wronged.

Again though, it is easy to see why this happened. Not only did the chorus of fools and worse who continually clamoured for the Krays' release, do more to keep them behind bars than anyone else, they also ensured that the Krays themselves never ever really had to question their own actions.

Constantly held up as nothing less than an unconventional hero, Reggie Kray continued to believe that of himself. In prison he was treated as a privileged prisoner, wore clothes he washed and ironed immaculately himself and sported a gold bracelet with the legend, "legend", inscribed on it. He wrote several books for which he received generous advances, and cooperated avidly with the myth-making process which was co-ordinated on the outside by his elder brother Charlie (who died in prison last year after being sentenced to12 years for drug offences). It was during the making of a film about his twin that Reggie met his wife of three years, Roberta Jones.

As it is, the Krays are testament to how corrupting glamour and celebrity are. Smart clothing, a toughly seductive image (for which in part we have David Bailey to thank), louche nightclubs and the support of friends in high places from Judy Garland to George Raft were the trappings which launched the odd iconic status that the Krays ruthlessly developed, just as much as the stuff about their dear old mum and their absurd code of honour.

It is perhaps some consolation that this vicious circle of fame was the very motor which prompted the authorities to come down so hard against them, but not much consolation, because this in turn fed the awful, hungry, myths. They are all dead now, but this corrosive, seductive image lives on as powerful and strong as ever.

The person who best understood what made the Kray industry tick, and the Kray fascination blossom, remains John Pearson, whose book The Profession Of Violence summed up the two men as "criminal performers acting out the crazy drama of their lives". These disturbed sadists certainly got lost in their own fantasy. The astonishing thing is that they managed to drag so many people in there with them, across generations and in the face of every tenet of common sense and common decency.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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