Hat­ton Gar­den and the time­less al­lure of the art­ful dodger

Why do we cheer on movie crooks, asks the writer who helped in­spire King of Thieves

The Observer - - Comment & Analysis - Dun­can Camp­bell

Blame Dick­ens for Oliver Twist. Or Lionel Bart for putting him to mu­sic. Or John Gay for The Beg­gar’s Opera. Or Da­mon Run­yan for Guys and Dolls. Or Woody Guthrie for writ­ing The Un­wel­come Guest, about Dick Turpin and Black Bess. Or what­ever strolling bal­ladeer came up with the first lyrics about Robin Hood.

It was them, guv! They got us to feel a sneak­ing sym­pa­thy for all those art­ful dodgers who broke the laws and al­most got away with it.

This week­end, two films based on real-life at­tempts to steal mil­lions of pounds of valu­ables are in cin­e­mas across the coun­try. King of Thieves cov­ers the tale of the Hat­ton Gar­den bur­glary, in which £14m of jew­els, gold and money was stolen by a bunch of mainly el­derly ca­reer crim­i­nals over the Easter week­end in 2015. Amer­i­can An­i­mals ex­plores the botched rob­bery of valu­able books by a quar­tet of stu­dents in Ken­tucky in 2004.

In these two films – as in real life – the per­pe­tra­tors get caught and go straight to jail. One of the Hat­ton Gar­den crew died in his Bel­marsh cell in Fe­bru­ary and an­other suf­fered two strokes in jail. Crime doesn’t pay! But the fact that those films and oth­ers like it are made at all has raised the ques­tion as to why we are so fas­ci­nated by – and some­times for­giv­ing of – those who take other peo­ple’s stuff and whether such films “glam­or­ise” crime.

The main crit­i­cisms of King of Thieves for por­tray­ing the bur­glars as “lov­able rogues” came, un­der­stand­ably enough, from peo­ple in the jew­ellery trade in re­sponse to the trailer of the film. But the bleak re­al­ity, spelled out in some de­tail in both films, is that the thieves fell out, got nicked and ended up be­hind bars.

This may seem like a tech­ni­cal point, but Hat­ton Gar­den was a bur­glary, not a rob­bery. A rob­bery is where force or the threat of it is used against a per­son, while a bur­glary is where a prop­erty is en­tered il­le­gally. In one of France’s most no­to­ri­ous crimes, the theft of mil­lions of francs worth of gold and cash from the vaults of the Nice branch of the So­ciété Générale in 1976, the bur­glars left a cheeky note for the po­lice: “Sans arme, ni haine, ni vi­o­lence” (with­out weapon, with­out hate, with­out vi­o­lence).

The Hat­ton Gar­den bur­glars left no note but they did make the de­ci­sion, wisely per­haps in light of the state of their knees and hips, that they would carry out the crime over an Easter week­end when there would be no one around but a pass­ing fox and there would be no weapons. As the char­ac­ters note in the film, which was partly based on a Guardian ar­ti­cle I wrote, the dif­fer­ence be­tween a sen­tence for a bur­glary and a rob­bery is many years, which is of some im­por­tance if you don’t have many left. Had a guard been coshed or a passerby threat­ened, there would prob­a­bly have been no film.

We live in a world in which some chaps pocket mil­lions in bonuses for sim­ply do­ing their job and oth­ers squir­rel away un­earned dosh in money laun­dries around the world, as Oliver Bul­lough ex­plains in his new book, Money­land: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World. So there is per­haps a feel­ing that the peo­ple who carry out an ac­tual bur­glary in which no one is phys­i­cally hurt are at least tak­ing the risks that the klep­to­crats, City whizzes and cor­po­rate tax-dodgers would not.

Be­tween courts one and two in the Old Bai­ley, where rob­bers and bur­glars of­ten end up, is a statue of the prison re­former Elizabeth Fry and be­neath it a po­etic trib­ute to the “one who never turned her back” by Robert Brown­ing. Per­haps an­other Brown­ing quote is worth re­call­ing, from Bishop Blougram’s Apol­ogy: “Our in­ter­est’s on the dan­ger­ous edge of things. The hon­est thief, the ten­der mur­derer, the su­per­sti­tious athe­ist.” Smart crim­i­nals now in­volve them­selves in the much less filmic ac­tiv­i­ties of cy­ber­crime and don’t spend hol­i­day week­ends drilling their way into a vault. In the mean­time, rightly or wrongly, our in­ter­est in the dan­ger­ous edge of things will en­sure that the tales of art­ful or – more likely – art­less dodgers will ap­pear on our screens as long as films are made.

Dun­can Camp­bell is a for­mer crime correspondent of the Guardian

Ray Win­stone in King of Thieves.

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