There is a moment in Bonnie and Clyde, the new musical version opening at the King's Head later this month, when Bonnie and Clyde are reading about themselves in the newspapers. Bonnie, not satisfied with the way she is portrayed, slings the tabloid aside, remarking: "Let's take some more photos. Let's give them the shots we want them to see. We got a new camera. I'm gonna be in pictures after all. Told you I was gonna be in pictures."
Like much of the dialogue in the play, this was what Bonnie Parker really said back in 1934. A remark that is still, in various forms, heard again and again nearly a century later.
But Bonnie and Clyde were the true pioneers of this quest for glamour, taking the art form to its dangerous extreme. It is no surprise that descriptions of Bonnie and Clyde have become part of the American language, even lending themselves to the titles of many modern iconic feature films; such as True Romance, Public Enemy. There lives have even been turned into pop songs. They were the first celebrity criminals. Ultimately, they willingly traded their lives for a brief interlude of excitement and, more importantly, fame. The explosion of media in the late twenties and early thirties helped them become household names. The innovation of the wire services that meant photographs could be instantly transmitted to every newspaper in the nation. In the minds of the public they were cool, calculating and glamorous. The photos almost scandalous. What the public didn't realize, though, was how far from the truth this image was. Bonnie and Clyde were in reality quite inept. They were definitely not criminal masterminds. But they were aware that they could disregard this truth as much as the public could.
They knew they were being swept into notoriety, even mythology.
And this is intoxicating. And remains so to the present day. But this appetite for celebrity is constantly fed by the unstoppable machine that creates it. So perhaps we should be asking the question that if murderers and serial killers were not featured in popular culture, such as books and film and most importantly the press, would we still be so interested in them? And would they be so interested in their own actions? At the height of the I.R.A offensive against mainland Britain there were many high profile advocates of blanket media silence in the aftermath of each new attack. If nobody gets to hear about the bombings then they would stop. Modern day terrorists make absolutely sure that they are identified. Dead or alive.
What if Bonnie and Clyde had been alive today? They would have employed the top publicists and press agents in the land for sure. They would have become West End nightclub owners. They would have mixed with prominent entertainers; politicians even. They would have been photographed by David Bailey and interviewed on television. This might sound ludicrous, but this exactly mirrors our very own Kray Twins; who, despite being much feared in the 1960s became celebrities in their own right.
Al Capone used Damon Runyon as his press agent, Frank Sinatra was connected to 'the mob'. There has always been an attraction to the 'outlaw'. And the outlaw has always been attracted to celebrity. On a lighter note, even One Direction have admitted that they would probably turn to "a life of crime" if they were not famous. "We'd be criminals if we weren't popstars" they recently declared at a press conference. But herein lies the danger. Pop culture has the ability to make crime glamorous. And what is more dangerous, especially with the revolution in technology and computer games, it desensitizes us.
The County Sheriff responsible for ultimately tracking down and ambushing Bonnie and Clyde famously said of them: "They don't know that killing kills. But the press sure know that killing sells..."
Bonnie and Clyde's acts were truly horrific. And yet they are famous for it. They were serial killers. And yet they were celebrities. Who is to blame (if blame is the correct word) for this paradox? There isn't the time or space to explore this here and now, but one can be sure that, like the legends, that question will never go away.
Joe Evans is the composer and lyricist for Bonnie and Clyde which runs at The King's Head Theatre London from August 21 to September 21 www.kingsheadtheatre.comSuggest a correction