British gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray are back in the limelight, thanks to a new movie Legend about their rise to power. Local resident Tim Adler still feels wisps of their influence in the East End
Ronnie Kray was very small.
His dinner suit (rather vulgar with a braid collar) is the key exhibit in an exhibition about the infamous Kray brothers and the old East End to coincide with the release of Legend, the new Tom Hardy biopic of Ronnie and Reggie. Gazing down at Ronnie’s dinner jacket presented like a holy relic in a Perspex sarcophagus, I am unsure whether to drop down on one knee and cross myself. My wife, who has lived in the East End of London since the early Eighties, says that Ronnie Kray’s funeral in 1995 felt like a state occasion; even today, the Kray brothers are thought of locally with some affection — the streets round Bethnal Green were safe and the elderly looked after. Compared to today when you see stone-eyed toughs openly selling drugs in the street.
Legend of the East End is an exhibition of photographs by Don McCullin, Brian Duffy, Steven Berkoff and Jocelyn Bain Hogg showing the Kray brothers in their prime — the matter-of-factness of holding forth over dainty tea cups in shirt sleeves having just been released after 36 hours of questioning over the death of Jack “the Hat” McVitie.
This confluence of gangsterism, celebrity and politics came together in the early Sixties: in America, Frank Sinatra was close to Jack Kennedy and both men owed their careers partly to the Mafia. Gangster Willie Moretti shoved a gun down the throat of bandleader Tommy Dorsey to get Sinatra released from his contract, while Sinatra ferried cash to Meyer Lansky in Havana as tribute. Sam Giancana helped make sure Kennedy won the 1960 US election by swinging the key state of Illinois. Meanwhile in sleepy England, the Krays were rubbing shoulders with Lord Boothby and film stars such as Diana Dors and Barbara Windsor.
Ronnie and Reggie loved celebrity and would have probably gone to the premiere of Legend themselves. Back in 1963 they appear in cameos at the end of Sparrows Can’t Sing, Barbara Windsor’s first film. So convinced were they that royalty was going to attend the premiere near their nightclub in Mile End that they strung a banner across the old ABC cinema, “The Kentucky Club welcomes Princess Margaret to the East End.”
The exhibition shows an East End that has nearly vanished — you still get a slight shiver walking past 178 Vallance Road — known as “Fort Vallance” — where the homicidal psychopaths planned their operations.
I only moved to the East End a couple of years ago, and Mrs Adler jokes that I still have to go up before the immigration committee. One of my first invitations was to a friend’s birthday party, where a few old girls who had lived under the reign of the Kray brothers had also been invited. One of them stood up to sing in true East End fashion. Listening to her faint, high-pitched sentimental song was profoundly moving — a glimpse of an East End which has all but disappeared. I felt privileged to be a witness.
Legend of the East End runs until September 11 at 135 Bethnal Green Road, E2 7DG. Admission is free.
*Full disclosure: as a Daily Telegraph journalist, I have worked on the advertising campaign for Legend