British Gangsters: Faces of the Underworld Interview

old man staring into camera

Six-part documentary series, British Gangsters: Faces of the Underworld, is being released on DVD in Australia for the first time. A look at the most infamous, influential men in the history of British crime, it’s an eye-opening account directly from the men themselves as they speak to fellow past-criminal and crime writer, Bernard O’Mahoney. To find out more about the making of the documentary, we speak to O’Mahoney about why he decided to make it and how he got such characters to talk openly and honestly about their notorious past.

Where did the idea for British Gangsters: Faces of the Underworld come from?
I write books and some of the people that I used to write about were getting elderly and you look for new stories and new characters. And it occurred to me that the old-style characters no longer exist – crime’s all about drugs these days! And the criminal careers are fairly short-lived and the stories are ghastly, whereas a lot of these old guys, when there was a community, they were hard men in their youth and it gave them a bit of power and control, so there’s a bit of a story to them and social history whereas with the modern criminal there’s no such thing. I wanted to try and capture that because these old guys are dying out now. There’s about seven or eight of the people who appeared in the program have died.

Can you tell us about some of the men that your feature?
In London, Freddie Foreman carried out murders for the Kray twins. Several members of the Kray twins form a gang – Lenny Hamilton, Billy Frost – then in Glasgow we’ve got people like Paul Ferris who was probably Scotland’s most notorious criminal. It’s pretty much a who’s who of crime in the 1950s.

freddie foreman british gangster

Is that when they were most prevalent?
Well, the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. There are some modern day guys in there, like Vic Dark, who was a prolific armed robber and kidnapped the police; Arran Coghlan, who you could argue isn’t a criminal because he’s stood trial for murder three times and been acquitted… There’s a lot in there from armed robbers to executioners.

How easy was it to arrange interviews with such infamous and influential names?
In my former life, I was a criminal myself; I was involved in the Essex Boys gang who met their demise in a Range Rover down a farm track. Y’know, there’s a lot of bitchiness – it’s not the testosterone-filled world you’d imagine. And if you get one, then the other ones will appear. If one turns it down, they’ll all turn it down. Once you get one or two big names, you actually get people asking to appear. They wanna be associated.

How was it all arranged and what’s the setup like?
Well, it is a crime series – a crime documentary – but I like to think of it more as social history. The London episode, they start talking about the ‘30s and ‘40s and why these people turned to crime because after the war there wasn’t a lot of stuff about, there were a lot of weapons and black markets. So they progressed into crime. It’s a lot more about social history and every individual is linked – there’s not one person that appears saying “this is my story” – each goes to the next and each episode is about a different city. The first starts up in London, goes to Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, and then there’s a general episode about the 1970s, during which most crime involved armed robberies because there was so much money switching about. Villains were looking at ways to invest it, and unfortunately for the UK, there was a new culture developing in the Balearic Islands which was dance and rave music, and so a lot of that money got invested into drugs. So drugs came into the UK cheap and it became a bit of a phenomenon, so it tells that story.

You’re no stranger to this sort of world, but was there anything that surprised about the stories they told or the way they told them?
I’m not a presenter – far from it! – but I’ve been interviewed myself by journalists and you kind of know what’s coming, and because of that, there’s always a plan when you’re a criminal. You get your story straight before you meet the journalist, so you’re waiting for certain questions to come and then you deliver your rehearsed answer. So, I wasn’t going to try and be a presenter, so we’d just sit the guy down and say, “tell me a story”. Some of them talk for three or four hours – and you could probably only use 10 minutes – but because they relaxed and they were talking to a former criminal rather than a journalist, they were a lot more honest. We got some absolute gems. A lot of people will criticise these sort of programs that they glamorise crime, but I defy anybody to watch this series and look me in the eye and say that it glamorises crime. It’s an advert for not getting involved in crime because I’ve never met a successful criminal who’s come out the other side with lots of money and happiness. What struck me was that all these high profile criminals always wanted was to commit a crime that provided them with enough money to start a straight business – which is absolutely ludicrous! But that’s what they’re craving for! They crave respectability and they want to live normal.

walter norval british gangster

What did you want it to say about the men you interviewing?
People say that the Krays never hurt women and children, but that’s nonsense because behind a murder is a wife, a mother, a son, a daughter, friends, family – it devastates a whole lot of people. And the person that’s eventually arrested, charged and convicted – his mother, his father, his wife, his children – they’re all affected. I’m totally against glamorising crime and there’s glamorise about serving 25 years in prison or going to your grave when you’re 25 years old. In fairness to everybody that appeared, not one of them attempted to do so, and it’s an advert to not commit crime, really.

Is that the message that you wanted to put across?
Whether you like it or not, people are interested in crime, and a lot of them don’t even realise they are. The most popular programs in the UK are of people being bumped off! Why have you got a PIN number on your credit card? It affects us all and people need to understand it. By understanding the people that commit it, it’s not a bad thing for anybody. This is why and how it happens.

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