Nicola and Teena Collins: Lock, stock and two smoking sisters
A cafe in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. I'm talking to Nicola and Teena Collins in a quiet corner and wondering whether their father might be driving slowly past outside, his beady eyes fixed on my back.
Nicola and Teena are former models-turned-actresses.
They're slim, groomed and young, or young-ish (they will only say they're “about 30”). And they're the twin daughters of Les Falco, a “businessman” brought up in London's East End, whose tough friends really do speak like this:
“This is a knuckle duster. It's called an evil bitch. What we used to do with this one – you whack someone round his earhole and his earhole comes off, bosh!”
Or this: “I never used a gun. Tell a lie, I hit someone over the head with it and it went off. Ha ha ha! I shouldn't be laughing.”
Some people would call these men gangsters, but the term is overused these days, with every group of toddlers in hoodies staking a claim to it.
Falco's pals shun it. “Most of my friends were robbers, drug dealers, violent men,” says one. “But I don't use the word ‘gangster’, to be honest.”
The preferred terminology includes “unlicensed fighter”, “debt collector”, “enforcer”, though it would also be correct to describe some of Falco's pals, based on their criminal convictions, as armed robber, kidnapper and would-be murderer.
A few among them, I'm assured by a retired member of Scotland Yard's Flying Squad, once numbered among the hardest villains in London, responsible for appalling crimes.
He said of one gang member: “He was a very, very hard nut. When you spoke to him you knew that you daren't upset him. His very presence told you he was not to be messed with.”
And Falco? Well, his mates describe him as a “colonel” and a “man among the men”.
If there's one thing that gives me reassurance, sitting here with his daughters, it's that Falco knows what I'm doing. I haven't gone behind his back.
I asked to speak to him too, because he's the central figure in an award-winning new film, The End, made by Nicola and Teena.
But Falco doesn't talk to journalists. Nor do members of his… well, not gang, but circle of friends.
The following story, supplied by his friend Alan Mortlock, gives some idea why, from my point of view, that may be good news: “One night, me and my missus went into a pub. We was dressed up and there must have been 200 people in the pub.”
Someone approached him and spoke out of turn, whereupon a colleague intervened violently with a broken glass.
“Women were screaming. It was like a scene from a horror film. The geezer was running around like a chicken. Blood was spurting.”
My heart sank when I started watching the film – oh, no, I thought, an awful film about awful people doing awful things to each other.
But after watching the whole film I changed my mind. The men in the film prove to be more complicated than you might guess if you hadn't listened to them pouring their hearts out – not to a journalist but to a film-maker they trust.
It's certainly not the boastful tough-guy pageant I expected. “I cringe sometimes, at some of the things I've done,” says Falco at one point.
The bare-knuckle fighter Roy Shaw looks utterly crushed as he admits to wasting the years from 18 to 39 behind bars.
Two others turned to God: “The only reason I don't feel bitter is because… I found the Lord.”
It's been said that Hitler was nice to animals. Well, perhaps nobody, ever, has been all bad.
Take two of the East End's best-known gangsters. “Ronnie and Reggie Kray done a lot for underprivileged kids,” says one man in the film, who knew them well. “People don't mention that. They done a lot of good, they weren't all bad.”
“He learnt me a lot, Reg,” says another former Kray intimate.
“One thing he said to me, ‘What you always want to think of is empathy. Always look at the other person's point of view before you act. Stop and think. There's two sides to every argument.’”
Reggie Kray? Empathy? You live and learn.
“I wanted to make something really honest,” says Nicola, who wrote, filmed and directed The End, while Teena produced.
“I wanted the guys to tell their story. It is a piece of history, the cockney gangster. I wanted to show how they feel about the things they did, to really open up.
“I had never spoken to Dad about this side of his life. I said, ‘I want to do a film about you and your friends.’ He said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I always knew he was going to resist. But being daughters we could wrap him round our little fingers.”
And a good thing too. Because although the film lapses, occasionally, into genre stereotype, and the men do too (“You lookin’ at me?”), it offers a unique insider's take on the lost East End underworld – and hints that even the toughest men, if they have three daughters, soften in the end.
Les Falco and his friends were born and brought up in an East End that was badly damaged during the second world war. They were deprived children from a deprived area.
“There was three families in this house,” says Falco in the film. “We shared two rooms. If me, mum or dad wanted to use the phone we had to ask the woman downstairs.”
People who had nothing went out to rob and steal. Falco was no exception.
“I thought of meself as a Robin Hood. And everyone else thought I was a robbin’ bastard,” he jokes. He says he was first arrested, for robbery at Stratford Co-op, aged 10.
He met many of the other men in the film at St Bonaventure's, a Roman Catholic grammar school where lessons included boxing, because every child was expected to defend himself.
“If I went in crying to my mum, and said so-and-so had hit me, she'd give me a thump and say, ‘You get out there. If you can't hit ‘em, kick ‘em, if you can't kick ‘em, hit ‘em with a f***ing brick.’ Part of the East End at the time was about fighting. You had to keep your hand up, as it were, and if you didn't then you got shit on.”
This is not to say that everybody represented a threat. On the contrary, there was great neighbourliness.
“If you was in trouble in the East End there was always someone who would help you. You could run into anyone's house and run out the back.”
Despite this undoubted benefit, Falco and his wife, Susan – a former dancer – decided when their daughters were young (the twins have an elder sister, Maxine) to move to more genteel districts at the Essex end of the Central Line.
“We had a beautiful life, with cows, a big garden, a swimming pool,” Nicola remembers. “Dad used to say you don't get the lifestyle in the East End that you can have here. But obviously his motive for moving us was it was less dangerous.”
The film says nothing about how the move was paid for, nor whether it reflected a change in London's criminal culture in the mid-1980s.
As the Flying Squad became more adept at tracking down armed robbers, and electronic money transfers replaced old-fashioned cash deliveries, gangsters moved into a more lucrative field: drug trafficking.
And the old faces came under intense challenges in their own areas from outsiders.
Many of Falco's East End friends moved out to Essex around the same time, and the families spent a lot of time together.
“We went out for dinner with them,” says Nicola. “They were always around, and we knew they would do anything for us. We just saw them as lovely funny guys, like uncles.”
Unknown to the twins, some of these “uncles” continued to commit serious crimes in the years when Nicola and Teena were growing up.
One, Danny Woollard, the former Kray intimate, was convicted in 1998 for his part in robbing a van containing jewellery and securities worth several million pounds.
Another, Victor Dark, was given 18 years in 1990 after taking part in a raid on a nightclub in which the owner suffered serious gunshot wounds, then hijacking a police car and two other cars, taking the drivers hostage.
Falco had been to prison twice, but took care to avoid it after the girls were little. “My girls, growing up, didn't really know a lot of the bad things I done,” he says.
“I always tried to keep them away from anything I been involved in.”
Mrs Falco, we assume, was better informed. Mrs Mortlock, certainly, didn't miss much.
“My wife's been there numerous times when the police have raided the house with guns drawn,” Mortlock recalls.
“There's been times when she's had to hide under the table when there's been terrible fights, with weapons.”
The film does not reveal precisely the type of crimes Falco committed. The twins say, astonishingly, that they don't know the exact details. But he does acknowledge, on camera, some involvement in “a few armed robberies”.
“Most of the violence I ever got involved with,” he says ever so reasonably in the film “was for monetary gain. If I was going to do a robbery and there was any violence, you would have to be getting money for it. Other than that, I couldn't see the sense.”
I couldn't ask Falco more about this, because he declines to talk to journalists, and this deprives me of any first-hand impressions of him.
But he did consent to having his picture taken, so I asked Mark Read, the photographer, for his impressions of Falco.
“He was a really big man. Broad,” Read said. “Beautiful blue suit, brand new shoes, grey hair slicked back, really sweet aftershave, a daughter on each arm. He looked you in the eye and shook your hand and talked in a soft voice like a gangster from central casting.”
I ask the twins how long they remained unaware of their father's criminal activities.
“He never brought us into this side of his life,” says Nicola, “and we had the sense not to question. It was really unspoken. It's hard to explain. We had such a great family life we didn't want to rock the boat. We thought he was just a businessman.”
What kind of business? “Well, we obviously never thought he was a lawyer… He had many businesses.”
They wondered if he might be a jewellery dealer, or a car trader. “He was always out working. He was obviously very successful.”
Successful enough, when the twins were young, to show his affection by buying whatever they wanted.
He also protected them. When the twins were seven years old, they were hauled to the front of the class by their head teacher. “He said, ‘Hands up who likes the twins?’ We were both crying and hyperventilating,” says Teena.
They told their parents what had happened. “Dad didn't say much. But he hugged me and said it would never happen again. He said he would sort it out. The next morning, the headmaster was a nervous wreck. He couldn't get his words out. He had no puff. He couldn't clean his glasses. I wondered, what did Dad do?
“When you went to him with a problem he had an expression that never changes – he doesn't get emotional.” How does she account for that? “He's seen a lot worse, I suppose.”
At other times he could be a joker. “He can't be serious, not with us,” says Teena. “Once, we went downstairs at Christmas after we'd moved house and there were no presents.
“We were young and believed in Santa. Dad said he'd forgotten to tell Santa we'd moved. I don't think he realised it would upset us so much.
“That joke really backfired. We were all crying. We said, ‘I hate you, Daddy.’”
Though he swore a great deal himself, Falco wouldn't allow the girls to do the same.
“He'd say, ‘Do what I say, not what I do,’” says Teena. “And it worked. We have never stolen anything in our lives.” In many families where parents are strict about swearing, and teach children to respect their elders, you might expect them to teach respect for the police. I suppose that was not quite the case in your house…
Both women fall about with laughter. Teena attempts a reply: “It's true that he… I have always feared the police.” She pauses, changes tack. “I have respect for them. These guys [in the film] hate petty crime, mugging and raping old ladies. My dad can't get his head around that.”
“He did live a violent life,” Nicola adds, “but that stuff upsets him.”
By their teens they were beginning to suspect that something was not entirely normal about their father and his friends. “As we grew older,” says Nicola, “we found out from other people. You hear people talk. It's hard to explain how you find out. There was a definite fear of my father – from parents and the kids in my class. When we started having boyfriends they all seemed to know who he was. They were petrified.”
With good reason. “He can be a bit judgemental,” she continues. “He thinks all men are dogs, trying to screw us over.”
(Hoping the twins won't notice, I turn to look through the window of the cafe. Mercifully, there's still no sign of their protective father.)
For holidays, the family would take a place in Portugal with plenty of privacy. “Dad liked to get a villa where we could be around the pool in our bikinis,” says Teena. “I don't think I've ever seen Dad on a beach,” says Nicola.
“It would make him awkward to see us in bikinis with all those people looking. His blood pressure would shoot up.”
This being the case, it seems odd that he allowed them to become models. They were spotted in Romford, aged 15.
“Someone came up to us,” recalls Teena, “and said, have we thought of modelling? The woman said, go and see this agency, IMG, and my mum investigated and asked if that was something we really wanted to do. We said, why not? And we went to see them and decided to give it a go. We were always tomboys, so it took a bit of adjustment – all the hair and make-up.”
They worked for Vogue, Elle and Stella McCartney, among others. “Dad drove everyone nuts showing them our magazines,” says Teena.
Next, they were spotted by Guy Ritchie, who asked them to appear in his film Snatch.
Nicola had been a keen photographer since her teens and a film buff, and after doing Ritchie's film the twins moved to Los Angeles and found work behind the camera on music videos and other films.
Then Nicola decided to make her own film.
“It really was a sudden idea. It came to me after watching a series of gangster films. After all, I grew up around these guys.”
One of her father's friends, Mickey Taheny - who has since died – really got behind the idea. He called the others, told them they had to do the film for the girls.
Which they did, eventually, though one man backed out of being filmed three times.
Did she show the film to its protagonists before its release? Even a family friend wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of Victor Dark or Roy Shaw.
“It's funny, there was such trust that none of them said they wanted to see it,” says Nicola. “They all just said, ‘Good luck, and anything you need we're behind you.’”
She makes it all sound so easy. Wasn't it shocking for her to interview her twinkly “uncles” and hear all those ghastly, violent stories?
Apparently not. “My worry was whether I had got it all on film,” says Nicola. “Was the light right, and the sound? I didn't absorb everything they were saying until we were editing. And even then, to be honest, a part of me was happy that I had good stuff that people would want to watch.”
In other words, the awful stories were key.
“I had to start the film off making the viewer think, ‘Oh dear, they're violent,’ and then turn it around – rather than showing the guys as teddy bears right from the beginning.”
In any other film-maker, to refuse to challenge the gangsters over what they did would be unforgivable.
I'm not sure that it's acceptable even when the film-makers are family, or friends of the family – far less to agree with one of the interviewees, laughing, that it's a “good idea” to keep a list of old enemies to kill at once in the event of being diagnosed with terminal illness.
But at a human level I can understand why they find it easier not to probe deeply about some things.
“Dad was in prison before we were born,” says Teena. “I haven't asked him what that was like. It's something that I don't feel any part of. And he sees it that way too. It's his past. Just like he would not ask me the ins and outs of a date.”
Well, he might if he were making a film about it.
She changes tack. “They had moral codes, they protected women and children, and they were very respectful to their elders. I get the impression that they feel they were the good guys.
“When they spoke about prison you can see the regret in their faces. Some of them have got scars. They've been hurt too. It's sad. You could see that they might not have done it again, if they'd been born into a different environment.
“They grew up very rough, very poor. It was survival. None of us have been brought up that way; how could we understand it? I did ballet!”
Nicola interrupts. “It's not that I was too scared to sit there and argue,” she says. “I feel safer around these guys than walking round the streets of London. And it's not that they couldn't have justified what they did. They would have done. But then they would have become defensive and closed up.”
At screenings, people have asked the twins if they're glamorising violence.
“I'm sick of hearing that,” says Teena. “I don't see my dad as a thug. I see him as a wise, intelligent and classy man. And I don't like violence. A lot of movies these days are too violent.
“You see more violence in reality shows. In our film, they speak of violence but we don't show any. The point of this film is to show a different side.
“These guys have always been seen as ‘characters’. Nic really wanted to see them as human beings.”
The other thing people want to know at screenings is whether the girls have their own regrets. “People want to hear that we struggled,” says Nicola.
“How difficult it was for us as children, what awful lives we led – to say that we were screwed up. It's the opposite. I wouldn't have had it any other way.”
So there you have it: crime does pay, and it needn't have any bad effect on your kids. And the bonus is that happy kids can help to put you on the straight and narrow.
“My kids have made me a better person,” says Falco in the film. “More caring.”
“We turned him into a vegetarian,” Nicola explains. “We were both animal activists, and I'd been a veggie for years. I was campaigning to ban fox-hunting, and one day he said, ‘What is all this crap?’ I explained, and he became a vegetarian.”
If this were not remarkable enough – and a passing observation that Falco recycles assiduously – Teena offers a story that goes much further to undermine his image.
I fear that, by repeating it, I may destroy his tough reputation altogether.
“The thing that changed his life was his cat,” Teena begins. “I had a white persian cat called Baby – very girlie. The vet said that she had a heart murmur. I thought she was going to die. I couldn't take her home because I had another cat that kept attacking her.
“My mum was in Australia at the time, so I went to see Dad and said he had to look after it for me. He had no interest in animals at the time and he kept calling me and saying, what's the matter, is it hungry?
I said, just stroke it.
“He called me the next morning and I thought it would be, ‘Come and get this effing cat!’ But instead he said he had let it sleep on his bed and woken up to find it was looking at him.
“Then he said it was scratching the sofa. I said, ‘Don't let it do that!’ But he said, ‘It's alright.’”
Falco decided to keep the cat, and from that point onwards he refused to leave the creature.
“He didn't trust anyone else with her. He would not leave the country.”
“He became the softest man on the planet,” laughs Nicola. “He was like Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers. He still cries about that cat. When it was put to sleep, he was on his knees.”
Still today, the self-styled former “robbin’ bastard” takes the cat's ashes with him everywhere. He takes them downstairs in the morning to put them in pride of place, and back upstairs at night.
“He says that cat taught him about tolerance, and love, and so on,” says Teena, in what could be the most elaborate attempt ever made to convince the authorities that a former criminal has reformed, but may inadvertently cause others to conclude that Falco can't have been as bad as all that in the first place.
“He'd never kill a spider now,” says Teena.
A version of this story appeared in The Sunday Times
One of the greatest lessons I learned in journalism came from the rock star Gene Simmons, of KISS.
(It had nothing to do with make up.)
Looking back, I can see that the lesson really only began to sink in after Mr Simmons took me hostage by locking me in a windowless space, and telling me to keep the noise down. Keep reading…