Metropolitan Police/Handout via Reuters

The great Hatton Garden heist: why are we so fascinated by crime capers?

Over the Easter weekend of 2015, the “largest burglary in English legal history” was committed. This jewellery heist in which a criminal gang drilled through a 50cm-thick concrete wall and broke into 73 security boxes in London’s diamond district stealing £14m in bullion, jewels and cash has captured the public imagination.

There has already been speculation on social media sites on who might play the protagonists in what is widely seen as the inevitable “caper movie” that will surely be made about the crime – for which eight men and a woman have either been convicted or pleaded guilty.

Public fascination with crime and a love of rule breakers has a long history. Instances date back as far as Robin Hood and stretch forwards in time to 20th-century villains such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Great Train Robbers – and over the centuries their exploits have been celebrated and pored over in the media of the day, from ballads and broadsheet newspapers to big screen movie epics.

Rule breakers and ripping yarns

Romanticised crime and criminal exploits have even been enjoyed by royalty – when Colonel Blood stole the crown jewels from the Tower of London in 1671 his audacity caught the imagination of the country. Charles II was so amused when Blood declared to his face that the jewels were not worth £100,000 but only £6,000 that he pardoned the thief and even gave him land in Ireland.

Later we had the era of the highwaymen, who were cast as romantic heroes, the most famous of whom was Dick Turpin. Throwing himself off the scaffold at his hanging – making what was seen by many as a “good death” – has only added to his legend. And the age of the pirates threw up its share of dubious heroes whose exploits found their way into popular culture via books such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The reality, obviously, was quite different, but even brutes such as Edward Teach (Blackbeard) enjoyed popular fame and left behind them a fame that grew ever more unlikely with the passage of time.

To achieve criminal hero status it is essential to have a ripping yarn. According to historian Thomas Ohlgren your story needs to involve daring deeds, vile villains, adventurous chases, disguises, tricks, cunning and narrative suspense. These elements are crucial to achieving a successful crime caper which will be embraced by the public.

And there’s little doubt that the Hatton Garden Heist falls within the category of a “good tale”.

Police and thieves

Of course, whether you will make it into the pantheon of “glamorous” villains depends very much on the type of crime you commit. Drugs, child abuse, prostitution and people smuggling, for example, are not the stuff of which underground heroes are made, needless to say. But what is widely seen as the cunning, daring and planning that went into the Hatton Garden heist is considered by many as an “acceptable” crime for celebration.

The time period and place in which prospective criminal heroes live and in which crime capers occur are also important. In 21st-century Western society, some criminal behaviour is often seen as more acceptable than others, particularly, these days if it’s perceived as a victimless crime – or a Robin Hood-style criminal enterprise that strikes against the rich. Highwaymen, pirates and even the Great Train Robbers all targeted what was perceived – rightly or wrongly – as faceless or wealthy authorities, such as Spanish galleons with their haul of other people’s gold and the Post Office train carrying large sums of money that were insured.

John Collins, 74, Daniel Jones, 58, Terry Perkins, 67, and Brian Reader have all admitted their role in plotting the heist. Metropolitan Police / PA Wire/Press Association Images

The image of the actual criminal is also vital. Despite their propensity for violence, the Krays were known to be snappy dressers and mixed in 1960s London society. The Great Train robbers came across as being likely lads from south and east London, the type you might have seen in your local pub – and their image was eventually softened by movies such as Buster, starring likeable pop star Phil Collins (pop stars appear to make good criminals – Mick Jagger was cast as Australian outlaw Ned Kelly and the Kemp brothers from Spandau Ballet played the Krays in the successful biopic).

It remains to be seen whether the men behind the Hatton Garden Heist will gain celebrity status. But it’s clear that their caper is fascinating the public. Whether the public will take this group of elderly men to their hearts is debatable and may well depend on who is cast in the movie. But what’s beyond debate is the enduring appeal of the daring criminal challenging the establishment with criminal endeavour.

The Hatton Garden Heist is not the first story to capture public imagination. However it may turn out to be one of the last; fewer dramatic old-school heists and stick-em-ups tend to happen these days as huge, financially lucrative, crimes shift into the cyberworld. Although it’s hard to picture how a bunch of cyber geeks sitting in front of their laptops would beating the thrill of watching Michael Caine and his mates in a breakneck car chase through the streets of Turin.