In 2017 I met the retired gangster Eddie Richardson in the French House public house on Dean Street. Our meeting was on the back of a clash between Richardson and Freddie Foreman. Eddie is 82, and the occasion of the fist fight with the 84-year-old Foreman was the funeral of Great Train Robber Tommy Wisbey, aged 86. What prompted the confrontation is not clear but it might have had something to do with Eddie dismissing the Krays as not being in his league. Of course Eddie was the perfect gentleman with me. That's how it goes with "hard men". He told me he was concentrating on his art. He had learnt to paint in prison. With his friend Liz, who was accompanying him, he was proposing to make a True Crime series for TV. Liz, a TV producer, sat in on the interview, interjecting reminders of Eddie’s past, saying things like: “He was big time. You must remember that. He was the boss.”
It was late afternoon in the French when I arrived. The bar was as I remembered it with nicotine-painted ceiling and copies of signed photographs of punters from the past. Early-evening drinking was well under way with the added excitement of a photo shoot having just taken place in the upstairs bar. All the “Soho Faces” were having their portraits done. Leslie Lewis, the French’s landlady, is writing a history of the pub. So everyone was feeling very conspicuous, a feeling I don’t enjoy. When the tall, stooping figure of a Sixties gangster walked in, the buzz intensified. Eddie was smartly dressed and had the tremor of Parkinson’s about him. Following the gaze of those around him, I had the impression of being in the presence of royalty.
We were led to a quiet corner of the upstairs saloon. The interview started. I pressed for details, for stories, for reflection, for anything other than “it was different in them days”. But Eddie preferred to dwell on the treatment he received at the old nightspots – how they bowed when they opened the door for him, how they ushered him to his seat; how Shirley Bassey waved from the stage. I wanted to enjoy these stories, to believe in his vision of the past. I wanted to like him and Liz, and I did. Liz was generous and kind, Eddie was polite and helpful. I tried to forget the stories of fingers that were nailed to table tops. But I couldn’t.
“I was round and about in the Sixties and Seventies. Soho changed in the Seventies but it changes all the time.
Before the Seventies Albert Dimes had a betting shop in Frith Street, opposite Ronnie Scott’s. It’s now a restaurant called Little Italy. Albert was a friend. It was like the League of Nations in Albert’s. If someone had an argument – a Greek or a Maltese say, they went to Albert and asked him what he thought. He’d sort out all the problems in his shop. Soho was like a village. There were chocolate makers, gunsmiths. There was the institute for destitute women. That was on Dean Street. Now you’ve got a restaurant there. I was into the fruit machines. When I came out of prison, it was about ‘75. The Eagle has Landed was on at Leicester Square theatre. Maltese Frank and Bernie Silver ran the West End. They pumped a lot of money into West End Central police station. They had the complete run of this area – pornography, in particular. If you tried to open a book shop in Soho, the police would come and raid you, nick all your stock and give it to one of the other shops. I wanted to run film clubs in Soho. I saw Frank and Silver first. I didn’t want to have conflict with the police and everyone else. ‘No problem,’ Frank said. They weren’t interested in film clubs. So we took them over. We had Atlantic machines all over Soho and a 24-hour service. Our offices were on Tottenham Court Road.”
When I asked Eddie how he “took them over” I hoped to elicit some emotion from him, an instant’s regret, a flash of excitement or remorse. He gave me a matter-of-fact description. Liz reclined complacently on her banquette beside him, cosseting her G and T, sending out little snuffles of agreement and censure.
“You had to have control of the touts on the street. They sent people to the different clubs. That meant we had to shut down all the other clubs. So we raided them, took their equipment and film stock. That’s how it was in them days. We took their film stock and used them for our own clubs. The touts then sent us the customers.”
And that was it. The rest was celebrating a past that I could not get enthusiastic about. Luckily, Soho George, currently to be found prowling the unsquare mile, had something interesting to say.
“There were lots of doors in Soho that you didn’t want to open. Strange doors. You didn’t know where they went. Once I was doing a photographic project on Soho with an artist. She had a studio on Dean Street, right at the end where the Pizza Express is, on the ground floor. It was next to where they are digging a hole for Crossrail. She showed me out one day and there was another door next to hers.
I said, ‘Where does that door go’
She said, ‘It doesn’t go anywhere.’
I said, ‘What’s behind it’
She said, ‘Nothing.’ She opened the door and it was just an empty cylinder. A passage that went nowhere. It was literally a place that went nowhere.”