Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

'Legend' Chronicles Lives Of London's Identical Twin Gangsters

STEPHEN MARCUS: Hello, everyone.



MARCUS: You're on the Gangster London Tour. This thing here...


We're walking through East London, where I lived until a few months ago. The actor Stephen Marcus is giving about 20 people a tour of this city's gritty, glamorous, bloody gangster past.

MARCUS: So that brings me to the infamous Kray twins. Here they are. Here they are - Ron and Reg.

SHAPIRO: He's holding up a famous portrait. Two men glower in black and white, ties neatly knotted. These were the twin princes of London's underworld - the Krays. That's spelled K-R-A-Y. Ron and Reggie ruled this city in the 1960s. As we walk through this neighborhood, a group of African drummers on the corner sings a Christian worship song.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Today, East London is a patchwork quilt of different cultures. But in the 1960s, it was a working-class, dirty part of Britain that people these days mythologize. And there's something unusual about the walking tour I'm on. Everyone in the crowd is British. These are not visitors from overseas. Claire Kemp has come to dig into her roots and learn more about her hometown's antiheroes

CLAIRE KEMP: Like, the whole culture was completely different - like, the music and, like, going out to the dances and stuff like that. It just seemed a lot more - don't know - British, if that makes sense.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As Character) London in the 1960s - everyone had a story about the Krays.

SHAPIRO: The new movie "Legend" tells the story of these two men, Ron and Reggie Kray. I wanted to dig into the truth behind the myth.

MARCUS: If you look across the road here, there is the location of the family's original home.

SHAPIRO: The Kray twins were judge, jury and, quite literally, executioner for this neighborhood. The way the myth goes, people say there was no random violence when the Krays ran the city. All of the violence was well thought out.

MARCUS: People wouldn't go to the police. They'd go to the Kray twins. They'd come to the twins and say, I'm having trouble with my noisy neighbor; can you help me out? And the Krays would go around an have a quiet word with the noisy neighbor. If the neighbor didn't stop being noisy, then they would have a more serious word.

SHAPIRO: Which might get messy. These men were to London what Al Capone was to Chicago - immaculately dressed, never a spot of blood on them. Reggie was the charismatic one - smooth, slick, glamorous. Ron was erratic, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He took more obvious pleasure in violence. And one other thing - in an era when homosexuality was illegal, Ron was unapologetically gay.


TOM HARDY: (As Ron Kray) I prefer boys - Italians - sometimes Greek, but I am not prejudiced.

SHAPIRO: The actor Tom Hardy plays both Kray twins in the new film. We'll hear from him in a minute - first, back to the walking tour. John Cooper lives south of London.

JOHN COOPER: If you speak to any cabbie anywhere in London, they've all got a story of how they met the Krays. And everyone's got a story. Most of them are lies.

SHAPIRO: But this woman insists all of her stories are true.

MAUREEN FLANIGAN: My name is Maureen Flanigan. I live in the East End. I've written my book "One Of The Family: 40 Years With The Krays." I was the mother's hairdresser but later became very, very close friend. I went out with the boys. Well, I call them the boys. You know, they were older than me.

SHAPIRO: I met Ms. Flanigan for a cup of tea at the Blind Beggar Pub. This is where the Krays killed a rival gang member on a crowded night. She says when Ron would walk into a bar like this, everyone would freeze.

FLANIGAN: And you saw grown men - I mean, really hard men - just look, put the glass down and wait. What mood is he in tonight? Let's look at his face. If he had a little smile, maybe, or if he had a couple of his young boys with him, then he was happy. If he wasn't and he had that menacing - people used to leave...

SHAPIRO: Really.

FLANIGAN: ...Just walk out of the pub.

SHAPIRO: At the same time, the twins ran with the world's biggest celebrities. They owned casinos and nightclubs. And Maureen Flanigan says the Krays were always consummate gentlemen to women.

FLANIGAN: No swearing in front of us, no bad behavior in front of us. That was all done outside.

SHAPIRO: Eventually, the tower collapsed. The twins were caught, tried and convicted. Their criminal network caved in on itself, and the men spent the rest of their lives behind bars. The twins' mother made a deathbed wish. She asked Ms. Flanigan to visit the boys in prison, so she did.

FLANIGAN: I really looked after them right to the end, and I visited them every month, sometimes every two weeks, took them what they wanted, like their silk ties and their tie pins.

SHAPIRO: The Krays died in prison more than 15 years ago. And half a century after their prime, they still come up in casual conversation. I wanted to know why the legend endures, so I asked a man who has spent a lot of the last year inhabiting the twins.

HARDY: There's a fascination that people have within gangster culture, and there's an iconography there which is specific to my country.

SHAPIRO: This is Tom Hardy, who gives an eye-popping performance in this double role. Both of the voices you're about to hear from the film are him.


HARDY: (As Ron Kray) A toast to my beautiful brother, home at last, like Agamemnon returned to Ithaca.

HARDY: (As Reggie Kray) What are you doing, Mate? What are you playing at?

HARDY: (As Ron Kray) I'm not playing at anything, am I? It's you. You come in here. You don't even say, hello, Ron. You're not even going to have a drink. You just bugger off. What's that about?

HARDY: (As Reggie Kray) All right. How about this? Hello, Ron. Cheers, Mate. [Expletive] you.

SHAPIRO: Hardy sees a sort of "Robin Hood" story in the tale of the Krays.

HARDY: It's a paradox - isn't it? - when you have people who are committing murders and racketeering and doing heinous things which are particularly abhorrent to any of us, that people would look back and think for everybody that, oh, they love their mom; and they were really nice people; and I never had a problem with them; and they're always well spoken; and they never swore; and they were immaculately dressed, and they were really lovely. But if they weren't kind to you, then you were on the other side of it, and that was another world. So it's a strange paradox.

SHAPIRO: So how do you, as an actor, approach these roles in a way that embraces both the monstrosity, the sadism and also the Robin Hood qualities, the love for the mother, the celebrity?

HARDY: My job, really, as an artist and an actor, is to try and grab as much as possible without, you know, either vilifying or glorifying the two in order to find a path of least resistance to literally throw up a character - or two characters, in this case - which you can spend an hour and a half, two hours.


HARDY: (As Reggie Kray) You don't mind if I pour myself a pint, yeah?

HARDY: (As Ron Kray) What is that?

RICHARD RIDDELL: (As Mike Jobber) Yeah, what do you think, poof? It's a tool.

HARDY: (As Ron Kray) No, it's not. It's a rolling pin. Who are you - Fanny Craddock? What are you going to do with that? You going to bake me a cake, going to sing me a song, watch me blow out me candles? I come here for a [expletive] shootout - right? - a proper shootout with some proper men.

You know, I mean, there are significant amount of people who absolutely hate the Krays and think, you know, why would you bother making a film about them? And to be fair, you know, that's a very legitimate question - a reason - you know, a reasoning. On the other hand, there's people who go, oh, they were amazing. You know, they're huge Krays fans for whatever reason that is. And again, that's no reason to make a film about them either, but there's something interesting about the fact that they're still stood the test of time as continuously popping up in popular culture and in the news. That means that we've clearly connected to them for some reason, and that's quite interesting.

SHAPIRO: At the notorious Blind Beggar Pub in East London, the owner told me business has increased since the movie "Legend" came out. Years after their death, Ron and Reggie Kray are not going away any time soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.