Picture credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The curious decline of the charismatic criminal

What happened to a classic British institution?

Artillery Row

The carceral state has tightened its grip again. Charles “Charles Bronson” Salvador has been denied parole, with the cynics of the Parole Board suspecting that he poses a risk to the public. Why? Because of a decades-long history of violent assault, armed robbery, false imprisonment et cetera? What happened to forgiveness? What happened to faith? Doesn’t a man deserve a second chance another in a long series of chances?

Mr Bronson — with his moustache, memorable cockney tones and spectacular crimes — is one of many charismatic criminals who have appealed, on some subversive level, to the British public. Sure, we disapprove of their misdeeds. But in some sense they are also considered to have added to the colour of the nation.

There is also the mythos of the gentleman thug

Take the Kray twins. These organised criminals have featured in almost as many films as Superman. Even in the sixties, the brothers were appearing on television, cultivating their media image. Since the collapse of their entertainment and criminal empire, the Krays have become — to pinch the title of one of their biopics — legends. People love the idea of the city with two sides: the glamorous and idealistic life of swinging London and the grimy, grubby underworld of the gangsters. There is also the mythos of the gentleman thug: the man who could break all your fingers but still loves his mum (unlike all those other criminals who hate their mums).

Then there was Ronnie Biggs. The train robber and prison escapee had the face of a famous man — his features falling somewhere between those of Ian Fleming’s and a retired football player’s. Somehow, despite being a conspirator in an armed robbery that got a poor train driver beaten half to death, he benefited from the English love of the cheeky chappie. And what chappie could be cheekier than a man on the run from a thirty year prison sentence? Mr Biggs basked in his notoriety. He sold merchandise. He sang on a Sex Pistols song (“No One Is Innocent” was the title — though of course few people had robbed trains). He was interviewed about his crimes as if recounting tales from a showbiz career.

There was Howard Marks — a prolific dealer who ended up writing a successful memoir. “He was Britain’s most wanted man,” read the subtitle of Mr Nice, “He’s just spent seven years in America’s toughest penitentiary. You’ll like him.” Actually, even Peter Hitchens, who debated Marks on drug legalisation, ended up liking him. He said the former drug kingpin was a “civilized opponent, a gentleman and a principled defender of free speech”.

The Krays, Biggs and Marks are dead and Bronson is getting old. It seems like the age of the iconic career criminal has passed. Kids follow the “UK Drill” scene, where rappers talk about past and future violent crimes — often, sadly, ending up in jail or in a grave. But this is very much a subculture — the crimes and the music being direct and grim. Young people also gravitated towards Andrew Tate, who acted like a career criminal and called himself the “Top G” but is protesting his innocence now he has been arrested on charges of human trafficking (and perhaps with good reason — he has not been tried).

Perhaps the decline of this strange breed of men is to be welcomed. Of course, there was an unseemly element to their fame. One doubts their victims enjoyed hearing them be spoken about as if they were just roguish scamps. At times, indeed, the truth was darker than it looked (Ronnie Kray raped men as well as torturing and killing them). At times, it was more mundane (Ronnie Biggs was a low-level member of the gang that carried out the Great Train Robbery and you have to wonder how the actual ringleaders felt about his foreign antics).

But I wonder if the decline of this archetype says something rather sad about our imagination. A mythos strives in mystique — and mystique is where the imagination plays, between the facts and fantasies. Now, career criminals have no mystique because we can’t get away from the buggers. They are filming documentaries with Danny Dyer. They are writing books, and then more books, and then more books. The Kinahans are a genuinely dangerous Irish gang, but even feared fugitive Daniel Kinahan can’t stop being photographed with boxers and MMA stars, grinning like a stockbroker with a VIP ticket. We have had unhindered access to career criminals and it turns out that most of them are not much more than money-grubbing egotists after all.

Even more colourful examples of the gangster gimmick have been thriving overseas. Sammy “the Bull” Gravano was a legendary New York mobster who turned state’s evidence on the “Teflon Don” John Gotti. Now he has a podcast where he natters on about everything from God to Alec Baldwin. “Masa” is a balaclava-wearing Polish former gangster who informed on the infamous Pruszków mafia. Now he has his own workout book.

Hey, everyone has to make a living. But overexposure is fatal for mystique — and the age of content swallows all. Once, Louis Theroux would visit porn stars, pro wrestlers and bodybuilders for his Weird Weekends to offer people a strange glimpse into the obscure. Now, you can’t away from podcast clips detailing bodybuilders’ diets, pro wrestlers’ most frightening injuries and porn stars’ least favourite sexual positions. I feel like bin men have more mystique. I’m not entirely sure what goes into their job.

The decline of the iconic career criminal is not a big problem. But demystification is. We have lowered ourselves into a rapid stream of vicariotica that bears us off into an endless sea of content — placidly unmemorable and uninspiring. Legends of the future will be people who have somehow lurked in the shadows, avoiding the glare of a content-addled culture. 

Charles Bronson might deserve another chance at freedom (he has never killed or raped anyone after all). But he should perhaps think twice before starting a podcast.

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