This past summer I found myself riding shotgun as John—our closely-cropped and inexhaustibly talkative driver—piloted the chartered bus through the motorized throng clogging the streets of the Whitechapel neighborhood in east London. Having just finished detailing for me a comprehensive history of the London underground system (don’t get me started on the cut-and-cover method), John turned to point out some of the more remarkable landmarks as we crawled through traffic. We had just passed an impressive bronze bust of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, when we came to the Blind Beggar pub. “That’s where Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell,” he told me.
Luckily, I didn’t have to divulge my ignorance in order for John to continue. In between signal changes and roundabouts, he recounted the story of the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie—a pair of thugs who ran protection rackets and other nefarious enterprises out of east London during the ‘60s. More remarkable, however, is that both brothers were apparently bisexual. In fact, Ronnie apparently killed Cornell in retaliation for being called a “poof” (a British slur for homosexual).
Bisexual twin gangsters roaming Jack the Ripper’s old neighborhood during the swinging ‘60s? Why hadn’t I heard of the Krays before? John put it down to an applied myopia stemming from my American imperialistic narcissism. It was hard for me to argue. Still, after watching The Krays: Geordie Connection, I found myself as uninformed as ever. Rather than delving into the multitude of cultural ramifications posed by twin, bisexual crime lords, the film instead is satisfied merely to offer up a hodgepodge of disconnected video clips and photographs of the Krays as gangsters, convicts, and, eventually, D-list celebrities trying to squeeze every last pound out of their former notoriety.
Our guide through this stumbling narrative is one Steve Wraith, the Krays’ sub-titular “Geordie connection”. The aptly named Wraith appears most frequently in a black-on-black suit, his shaven white skull floating menacingly above it. His connection, it turns out, began when Steve, then a Newcastle doorman (a “Geordie” is a Newcastle resident) earning a living tossing drunks out of pubs, wrote the Kray twins a fan letter. To his admitted surprise, they responded, and thus began an acquaintance which forms the basis of a book written by Wraith (which shares this film’s title), as well as this DVD, Kray t-shirts, and we might suppose a good number of other money-making schemes designed to turn the Krays’ dark history into a profitable venture for Wraith and associates.
As Dave Courtney—a sometime East End gangster turned shady boxing promoter—puts it, the film is doing the work of “celebrity-izing” the Krays’ gangster past. These words, uttered through Courtney’s gleaming white smile and half-chewed cigar, offer us arguably the most insightful moment in the film’s nearly two and half hours of footage and extras. In short, this film is nothing more than a celebration of the life lived by the twins and the terror and awe they inspired, along with a third brother Charlie, during their criminal reign. Very little attention is paid to their actual crimes, other than to rue their luck in being caught or to play up their importance as icons of the London underworld, and even less consideration is given to their victims. How did the Krays come to power? What sort of legal (or illegal) opposition did they face? Have there been other twin criminals in history? How did their sexuality influence their notoriety? None of these questions begged by the Krays’ life and times are even remotely addressed by the film.
Instead, we’re treated to a wealth of Kray memorabilia collected by Wraith, from scribbled notes to home videos to, tellingly, recorded phone messages left by the twins and Charlie on Wraith’s phone. Given that all three brothers were dead by the end of 2000, Wraith’s preservation of such mementos can at best be appreciated as historical preservation but probably more accurately reflects his intentions all along: to capitalize on the Krays’ gangster status for his own financial gain. Why else keep recordings of their phone messages, many of which seem to be polite returns of Wraith’s own phone messages? And why preserve the dashed off notes sent from the various prisons inhabited by the Krays toward the end of their life? It’s clear that the bulk of their gangster adventures—shaking down local business owners for protection money, drug running, even nailing a poor unfortunate named Jack “The Hat” McVitie to a basement floor with knives before stabbing him to death—were over and done with before Wraith came into the Krays’ lives. He’s there as a fan, and we’re made to follow in his, uh, ‘appreciative’ footprints.
To this end, Wraith guides a tour through the streets of Newcastle, where the Krays apparently once had a foothold, pointing out hotels where the brothers stayed and catching up with old friends from his doorman days. We’re also taken through the pubs of east and north London, as Wraith includes his own video footage of parties and events attended by Charlie Kray (the last of the brothers to face incarceration), presumably to emphasize Wraith’s own connection to these pillars of the underworld. The more footage we see, however, the clearer it becomes that Wraith is simply a hanger-on, one who manages to separate himself from the other hangers-on only through his penchant for documentation.
Far more remarkable than Wraith’s “Geordie connection” to the Krays, is the emergence of the brothers’ celebrity in the wake of their criminal enterprises. Without a visible mafia to call its own, England instead turns to regard the Krays as a kind of tri-partite John Gotti—dapper socialites whose lurid popularity supersedes the crimes of which they are accused. In fact, it is precisely these crimes that makes Wraith (and the rest of us) interested in such a collection of semi-literate street thugs in the first place. Their outlaw status endows them with a rare kind of celebrity reserved for misbehaved actors and unstable rock stars.
Occasionally, this celebrity is put to good use. Or so it would appear. Wraith includes footage of a charity auction, held for a burn victim in Newcastle, in which Kray memorabilia (signed boxing gloves, photos, etc.) is auctioned off for the ostensible benefit of the young man who suffered the injuries. This is but one of many auctions organized by the Krays, however, and it becomes increasingly unclear as to who is actually awarded the proceeds. In fact, in one recorded conversation, Wraith and Charlie Kray can be heard trying to patch up a dispute about how the money made from this kind of “charity” work is being divided amongst the organizers. Little comment is made by the film about the sham. Ah well, we’re left to assume, ripping off their own charity auctions only cements the Krays’ reputation as hardened criminals.
In the end, after all, it’s hardened criminals we’re paying for, not charity works. Just ask Guy Ritchie, whose London underworld films Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch won him fame and fortune long before he became known as Madonna’s husband. In essence, the Krays and their crew provide the real life inspiration for the hardcase capers that Ritchie’s films showcase. Why else would Alan Ford, the actor who played the murderous Brick Top in Snatch, be invited to the Blind Beggar in honor of Wraith’s book release party? Ritchie’s work in these films simply further stylizes the already glamorized criminality of the Krays and their ilk.
Unfortunately for the viewer of The Krays: Geordie Connection, Ritchie’s cinematic style is nowhere to be seen. Rather, the film’s technical presentation is nearly comical in its amateurism. Fading dramatically to a negative view or, worse, a sickly sepia tone, a handheld camera struggles to hold Wraith in frame as a generic techno beat or ominous synthesizer drones away in the background. At times, the camera’s settings are so screwy that Wraith’s face disappears into the background of his ultra-white noggin. All the while he’s attempting to reveal inside information on the twins’ dark dealings, the viewer is squinting at the washed out, overexposed mess that plays out on the screen. Most hilariously, the film’s narrative suddenly comes a complete halt at several points to offer and extreme close-up of Wraith furrowing his brow and reminding us that we’re watching “The Krays: Geordie connection!”
Somehow, the DVD extras are even worse, offering the same disjointed and underproduced footage, but this time without the benefit of any voice-over. For those Kray fans, though, looking for another 30 minutes of random, home movie footage of Reggie’s funeral, the extras provide it. Other than that, and the first 45 seconds of Steve Wraith’s career as a boxing promoter (in which his fighter drops the mismatched tomato can he’s paired up against without breaking a sweat), the additions to the feature are merely leftover pieces of comment-less video footage that somehow failed to make it past the editor’s desk. Given the mess that the feature is, though, these throwaways from a throwaway are barely worth scrolling through the menu.
This criminally vulgar presentation must be what the producers mean when they stamp the DVD cover with the seal, “Filmed in Gangstervision”. Truly, none but the most avid fans (like Wraith) will be able to find value in the film. The production and its narrator attempt to showcase the kind of slick gangsterism that won the Krays notoriety in the first place, but fail utterly to recapture such an attraction, or to comment meaningfully upon its development. Instead, we get an outsider holding a video camera up the window of a pub where everything must have gone down once, a long time ago. Instead of getting a closer look in, however, the film just reminds us how far Wraith, and the rest of us, are removed from the dangerous party going on inside.