Hatton Garden and the timeless allure of the artful dodger | Duncan Campbell | Opinion

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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. Coming down the line shortly will be Widows, directed by Steve McQueen and based on Lynda La Plante’s tale of the women who carry out the crime their late husbands had been planning. And doubtless Oceans 18, 19 and 20 and a half are already being scripted.

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.

The Hatton Garden burglars wisely carried out the crime over an Easter weekend, getting away with £14m in jewels, gold and cash.

The Hatton Garden burglars wisely carried out the crime over an Easter weekend, getting away with £14m in jewels, gold and cash. Photograph: Lauren Hurley/PA

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

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