During his long and lucrative career as a celebrity gangster, Dave Courtney told (or more usually sold) countless self-glamorising stories of underworld derring-do.
For those who doubted their authenticity, one outlandish escapade remains long in the memory.
The scene is a mansion outside Amsterdam, to which our anti-hero — then in his muscle-bound prime — has been dispatched to close a big-money deal for his shady bosses in London.
Accompanied by a sidekick, his mission is to await a phone call telling him that two lorry-loads of stolen cigarettes have been delivered across the Channel, then hand over £500,000 in cash to the Dutch suppliers.
As the minutes tick by, Courtney later recalled, he wanders through the grounds and meets a beautiful, young English girl named Laura. Weeping, she tells him the mansion is also being used to make snuff and porn videos, in which she is an unwilling participant.
During his long and lucrative career as a celebrity gangster, Dave Courtney told (or more usually sold) countless self-glamorising stories of underworld derring-do
Of course, her revelations are greeted with disgust by the South London hardman. After all, he was an honourable old-school villain — or so he had us believe — much in the mould of his idols, Reggie Kray and his twin brother, Ronnie, whose funeral he organised.
Back in the mansion, things go very wrong. The phone rings… there are no cigarettes in the lorries… one of the double-crossing Dutchmen suddenly shoots Courtney’s partner dead. Now the smoking gun is trained on him.
Diving for cover and reaching for his trusty Smith & Wesson, Courtney fires first and kills his rival.
Fleeing — ‘down a corridor of naked women’ — he sees Laura again. Determined to rescue her from a life of vice, he bundles her into his car before screeching away to catch the Folkestone ferry.
If this breathless interlude sounds ludicrously fanciful — like the plot of one the sordid B-movies in which Courtney later appeared — then it probably was. For when he first told it, while publicising his autobiography in 1999, it chimed perfectly with the image he was at pains to project: that of a fearless tough guy with a tender streak.
The truth was very different. Though it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction where he is concerned, Courtney — who was found dead with gunshot wounds aged 64 at his home in South-East London on Sunday — was essentially a ruthless, if highly successful, street thug.
With his hooded eyes, broken nose and a forehead striated with scars, he may have looked like a comic-strip enforcer, but there was nothing amusing about the dark deeds he performed before hanging up his diamond-encrusted knuckle-duster to exploit the clamour for first-hand crime stories that took root in the mid-1990s.
Nor about the many lives ruined by his insatiable appetite for wealth and notoriety, not least that of his cage-fighting stepson, Genson, who fell into criminality (despite Courtney’s insistence that his six children wouldn’t follow his path) and was murdered, aged 23, by an uncle, over a £1,000 drug debt.
Courtney’s romanticised narrative was enhanced by his curious ability to cheat justice.
Courtney — who was found dead with gunshot wounds aged 64 at his home in South-East London on Sunday — was essentially a ruthless, if highly successful, street thug
With his hooded eyes, broken nose and a forehead striated with scars, he may have looked like a comic-strip enforcer, but there was nothing amusing about the dark deeds he performed before hanging up his diamond-encrusted knuckle-duster
In his book, Courtney portrayed his victim as a hitman, and claimed it was either kill or be killed
Jailed for three-and-a-half years, he emerged to become a bare-knuckle prize-fighter, unofficial debt collector and bouncer
Though he was convicted of a few offences in his early years (including attacking five Chinese waiters with a meat cleaver), he was acquitted at 19 of his trials.
This led some to suspect him of being a secret police informant; a claim that surfaced in court, in 2000, when he was found not guilty of planting cocaine on a woman.
To Courtney it was the worst possible insult. ‘I ain’t no grass,’ he snarled. However, among the many crimes he got away with were at least two murders, for in addition to the Amsterdam shoot-out he gunned down a man after they clashed in a London pub.
In his book, Courtney portrayed his victim as a hitman, and claimed it was either kill or be killed. The more likely story is that they’d rowed over the use of a juke-box.
At the time, the double-jeopardy law remained on the statute books and, told by the judge that he could never be retried for the same offence, he is said to have declared to reporters outside the court: ‘Yeah, course I done it.’
He first came to public notice at Ronnie Kray’s funeral in March 1995 (Pictured: Courtney outside the funeral parlour before the funeral of Ronnie Kray)
Courtney (pictured third from the right) attends Ronnie Kray’s funeral in 1995
His first encounters with underworld figures from crime families such as the Richardsons and Krays came when he trained at boxing gyms
Courtney attends the funeral of criminal Bruce Richard Reynolds – the mastermind behind the 1963 Great Train Robbery – in March 2013
In many ways, that mocking, five-word remark was the catalyst for his notoriety. For a BBC TV crew was then following him for a documentary, Bermondsey Boy, about the life of a South London debt collector, and the programme caused a wave of indignation.
So what led him into a life of crime? By his own account, it had nothing to do with his upbringing. ‘I wish I could blame coming from a deprived background — too much concrete, not enough love — but I can’t,’ he said, admitting he came from a family of ‘good people’.
By his summation, he was simply ‘born naughty’, and his descent ‘broke his parents’ heart’. Ironically, his mother was a store detective at Woolworths — one of his hunting-grounds when, still at primary school, he began shoplifting.
By 13, he was breaking into a toy warehouse, stealing from building sites and burgling homes. His first encounters with underworld figures from crime families such as the Richardsons and Krays came when he trained at boxing gyms.
The Krays had just been jailed for murder, but he was in awe of their legend. ‘They were treated like royalty and to us they were,’ he recalled. ‘I thought ‘I want that’. I saw the cars and the women, the power and all that came with it.’
Born in Bermondsey, south London, Courtney became infamous as a knuckle-duster wielding debt collector
By 13, he was breaking into a toy warehouse, stealing from building sites and burgling homes
Courtney, 64, lived in the home dubbed ‘Camelot Castle’ in a quiet South East London street
His graduation from theft to thuggery began on New Year’s Eve 1979. When he and his mates got into a fight with waiters at a Chinese restaurant, Courtney grabbed a machete from one of them and started slashing them ‘like Errol f***ing Flynn’.
Jailed for three-and-a-half years, he emerged to become a bare-knuckle prize-fighter, unofficial debt collector and bouncer, then built a business that supplied doormen to West End’s top nightclubs and pubs.
With his new-found wealth, he bought a former schoolhouse in his South-East London manor. He renamed it Camelot Castle and it became a shrine to his ego.
The gable-end featured a 40ft portrait of him dressed as a knight in armour. The interior was decorated with the tools of his trade: firearms (supposedly decommissioned), that diamond knuckle-duster; a mural featuring the Krays; and blown-up photographs of himself posing with well-known ‘faces’. A self-avowed patriot, he also flew the St George flag.
He first came to public notice at Ronnie Kray’s funeral in March 1995. Given that he had been a child during the twins’ heyday, his closeness to them is something of a mystery.
Dave Courtney at the Old Bailey after he was on trial for perverting the course of justice by allegedly planting drugs on an innocent woman
The interior of his London manor was decorated with the tools of his trade: firearms (supposedly decommissioned), that diamond knuckle-duster; a mural featuring the Krays; and blown-up photographs of himself posing with well-known ‘faces’
With his smooth patois and willingness to spill the unsavoury beans of his trade, he quickly became the media’s go-to gangster
However, he claims Reggie, whom he had been visiting in Maidstone jail, insisted he should take charge. It was, he said, his ‘greatest honour’, for ‘losing someone like Ronnie is like losing a monarch’.
Alongside 40 of his doormen, he stood sentry over Ronnie’s body as he ‘lay in state’ at Bethnal Green cemetery, then ensured order was maintained as a coach and six shire horses paraded the coffin through the East End.
Later, in all seriousness, Courtney compared the funeral with that of Winston Churchill.
Though his leading role in the ceremony brought him welcome publicity, it ruined his business. Set on bringing him down to size, he claimed, the Met circulated videos of the proceedings to nightclubs guarded by his doormen, tacitly warning that their premises would be closed down if they continued to employ any of Courtney’s bouncers.
He further claimed that the police had bugged his house and phones, and effectively closed his Woolwich pub by threatening to withdraw his licence.
He claimed that the police had bugged his house and phones, and effectively closed his Woolwich pub by threatening to withdraw his licence
Courtney was said to have been the inspiration for Vinnie Jones’ character on Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. (Pictured, Vinne Jones on the set of Lockstock, 1997)
By then, however, Courtney was forging a new career as an underworld celeb. It began in 1997, when a lads’ mag offered him a monthly column. With his smooth patois and willingness to spill the unsavoury beans of his trade, he quickly became the media’s go-to gangster. Courtney’s star rose when it emerged that Vinnie Jones had drawn on his grim methodology and menacing mannerisms for the role of Big Chris, in the hit 1998 movie Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.
It made him a cult hero, bringing low-life film roles and TV appearances. He also published six books, including his biography, the serialisation rights for which made him more than £100,000.
An incorrigible womaniser, he wed three times. Yet it was his marriage to Jenny Pinto, a rap singer whom he met when she performed at a leisure club he owned, that made headlines. At the outset, they were clearly besotted.
‘Dave can get someone bashed up, get you prostitutes, do debt-collecting and get rid of squatters, but as soon as I saw him I knew I could trust him. I told him he could mould me to whatever he wanted me to be,’ she remarked artlessly, soon after the relationship began.
With his new-found wealth, he bought a former schoolhouse in his South-East London manor, which he renamed Camelot Castle and it became a shrine to his ego
However, Courtney openly admitted cheating, boasting to a newspaper of his exploits with Brazilian prostitutes at Ronnie Biggs’s 70th birthday party in Rio, and by 2004 his allure had worn off.
He was charged with assaulting Jenny after he published details of her alleged lesbian affair with the ex-partner of an EastEnders star, a relationship Jenny denied.
Courtney insisted it was his wife who had attacked him, and, although the case dragged on for years, as usual, he was acquitted.
In later years, as people tired of hearing the same old-lag’s tales, Courtney’s fame waned.
Though he attempted to retain his air of importance, posting his encounters with various C-listers on social media, he cut a rather lonely and pathetic figure. The relic of a long-gone era.
By his summation, he was simply ‘born naughty’, and his descent ‘broke his parents’ heart’
According to his next-door neighbour, Sheila Wellcome, he was riddled with arthritis, affected so badly he could barely ‘roll a cigarette’.
His lifelong friend and lodger, Brendan McGirr, who found him dead on Sunday morning, says Courtney also had prostate cancer, and claimed he shot himself because he wanted to ‘go out rock ‘n’ roll style’.
Down the years, however, he made many enemies, and the Metropolitan Police say his ‘unexpected’ death is still being investigated.
Whatever the outcome, this shamelessly conceited crook has no doubt left instructions that he be given a suitably showy send-off.