Screenwriter Brian Helgeland was the toast of Hollywood with an Oscar under his belt for L.A. Confidential when he first heard of East End gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray.
He was in the UK developing a movie about Led Zeppelin. As guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant argued, Helgeland began speaking to other people within the Zeppelin entourage. One man, a brusque Londoner, was missing a little finger. Eventually Helgeland asked how it had happened. The response: “The Krays had that.” He was later to learn that it wasn’t true.
“It turned out he had lost it in an accident as a kid. It was just fun to walk around saying it was the Krays. I thought it was very interesting that the very first story I ever heard about them was a lie. And that continued all down the line.”
It’s nearly 50 years since the Krays ruled London, running clubs and operating protection rackets. Their crimes are still within living memory but heavily obfuscated by the myth that has grown up around these identical twin brothers and their crime organisation, The Firm. They were both jailed for life in 1969, Ronnie for the shooting in 1966 of fellow gangster George Cornell and Reggie for stabbing to death another small-time villain, Jack “The Hat” McVitie, in 1967. The Krays themselves helped build the air of mystery that still surrounds them. And what people think is the truth is often very far from it. For his timeline Helgeland used the book The Profession of Violence by John Pearson. He also read “everything I could get my hands on”.
“You have to take everything with a grain of salt,” adds Helgeland. “They either helped old ladies across Bethnal Green Road or they were nailing people to the floor. So it was an exercise in trying to find the spirit of the truth.”
Helgeland decided to build his film around the fragile figure of Frances Shea, who was briefly married to Reggie Kray and whose alleged suicide – some sources claim Ronnie murdered her – pushed Reggie over the edge.
He spoke with several ex-Firm members including Chris Lambrianou and asked all of them about the long-forgotten Mrs Kray, who died in 1967 aged just 23.
Said Lambrianou: “Frances? She’s the reason why we all went to prison. When she died Reggie shut down and stopped sorting things out.” Prior to his wife’s death Reggie Kray operated a tight system where he would monitor who was speaking with the police, bribe juries to spike court cases and use corrupt police to kill troublesome investigations. After Frances died it all stopped.
“They could feel the police coming closer and closer and closer,” says Helgeland. “Reggie stopped caring about staying free. Then about a week before they were all arrested he roused and made some efforts but it was too late. It feels emotionally correct to me as a writer.”
The never-ending fascination with the Krays continues with the casting of Tom Hardy as both brothers. Having seen him in Warrior, Helgeland asked the 37-year-old actor to dinner and invited him to play Reggie, ostensibly the star of the film.
“From the time he sat down all he talked about was Ron. It was very obvious he wanted to play Ron and I was talking about Reggie. We both realised what the other one had in mind and at the end he said, ‘I’ll give you Reggie if you give me Ron.’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s a deal.’”
• Legend (18) is on nationwide release.