He was once described as Britain's most dangerous man, but is now living the quiet life in a stately home. One-time gangland figure and convicted killer Dennis Stafford breaks his silence to talk to Marjorie McIntyre.

ALMOST four decades since a North-East gangland murder trial caused a national sensation, Dennis Stafford, who served a life term for the killing, lives out his days in a North-East backwater.

It's all a far cry from the days when Stafford was a friend of the rich and famous, pictured in newspapers around the world and earning the dubious mantle of "Britain's most dangerous man".

But despite a history of decades in prison, dramatic breakouts and years on the run, the one-time gangland boss remains, at the age of 73, stylish, articulate and indomitable.

Living in Stanhope Castle, in Weardale, County Durham, Stafford is awaiting the outcome of another bid to have his conviction quashed for the 1967 murder of Angus Sibbett.

He has shunned publicity for many years and is looking forward to a fresh start, but today gives a first-time insight into one of the nation's most prolific and high-profile criminal careers.

It was Stafford, the stylish, charismatic crook, who featured so largely in the newspapers of post-war Britain, and who inspired the Michael Caine character in the film Get Carter.

He once numbered Shirley Bassey, Johnny Ray, Diana Dors, Russ Conway, Danny LaRue and US movie star Ava Gardner among his friends

His friendship with actress Jill Bennett led to her husband, playwright John Osborne, providing manuscripts of his life for Get Carter.

Stafford came from a well-off Jewish family in London. His father, Joe, was an on-course bookmaker who also owned a pub in Petticoat Lane, in the East End. His mother, Margaret, came from Irish Catholic stock and converted to the Jewish faith.

And while he was the apple of his father's eye, it was his mother who taught him his first hard lesson in life.

"I was ten years old and had set my heart on a new bike, so I worked all hours delivering newspapers and groceries and gave every penny I earned to my mother for safekeeping," he recalls.

He chose his bike and went to his mother for his savings, to be met with the heartbreaking question: "What money?"

When he protested, Margaret told her young son: "This should teach you that you can't trust anybody in this world."

It was a harsh lesson, but one he never forgot during his years in prison, time on the run and in his battle to clear his name.

Arriving in the world two months before, and two streets away from the Kray twins, it seems he was always destined to cross paths with the notorious brothers.

Their first meeting came at a Hackney dance hall when a group of men came in and started causing trouble, eventually assaulting a couple who had been sitting quietly.

As Stafford and his friend left, the mob turned on them and they decided to run for it. It turned out the agitators were the Krays, and Stafford and his friend were subpoenaed to give evidence against them.

"Because there were so many of them, we could not give any positive identification against them and they were cleared," he says. "The next time I met up with them was when we served seven years together at Parkhurst security block."

Stafford's first skirmish with the law had come during the war, when he was caught scrumping for apples to sell. He was fined ten shillings at Toynbee Hall Juvenile Court.

As he grew up and developed a sharp analytical brain, Stafford was likely to have made it to the top in whatever field he chose, but his get-rich-quick instincts inevitably led him to a life of crime.

He moved from one shady business venture to another and, after leaving home, was attracted to the nightlife of the affluent West End of London - a step that was to hold two drawbacks.

"It cost me more than I could earn legally and it introduced me to the serious side of crime," he remembers.

He was arrested for possession of a Luger handgun and was given a seven-year sentence, but escaped from Wormwood Scrubs and went on the run.

He moved to Newcastle and set up in business in the city's Pink Lane area, soon operating a booming but fraudulent business. Among his customers at the time, he says, was a chief constable's wife.

"We became very friendly and she even got me tickets for the annual Policeman's Ball," he says, "which I went to with a girlfriend."

However, his growing confidence led to his being recognised and he fled to Trinidad.

But a telegram from a girlfriend saying she couldn't live without him put police back on his trail and he was re-arrested and extradited to Britain in a blaze of publicity.

Back inside, Stafford was incarcerated at Dartmoor and, despite being on permanent 15-minute watch, he hatched and executed an escape plan with fellow inmate Bill Day.

Armed with a compass made from a bottle top, drawing pin and part of a razor blade, the two got out.

"We were being chased across the moor by guard dogs when we came to a wire fence," says Stafford. "Bill climbed over and fell 20ft down a sheer drop into a reservoir. I could see Bill in the water and he was shouting that he couldn't swim."

Stafford grabbed a lifebuoy on a stand next to the fence and also plunged into the pool.

"As I hit the water, the heavy cork ring came up and must have hit me under the chin," he says. "The next thing I can remember was waking up half in the water."

With police and warders scouring the moor, Stafford managed to dodge his pursuers and eventually found a safe haven with friends in Exeter. Day's body was found some time later, floating in the water.

His cat-and-mouse existence with the law eventually saw him turn himself in and he was given 415 days solitary confinement before being moved to Wakefield.

While at the West Yorkshire prison, he was given leave to wed Gateshead beauty queen Pat Smithson, but the marriage hit the rocks soon after his release, when she sold their story to tabloid newspapers.

Never long without a woman on his arm, Stafford soon met and fell in love with American jazz singer Selena Jones.

While he had been in prison, however, the Newcastle scene had changed. Underworld boss Vince Landa and his firm had taken a solid hold on the club circuit.

The new attractions of the North-East persuaded Stafford to head north again - this time in the company of Selena, with whom he set up home in Peterlee, County Durham.

Landa soon met his fellow Londoner and made him manager of his plush nightclub.

Casting envious eyes north, the Krays made a move for a slice of the action, only to be sent packing by regional police.

Newcastle was shocked by the growing crime wave and even more horrified when Sibbett, a small-time collector for Landa's empire of gaming machines, was shot dead in a car at South Hetton, County Durham.

Arrested and charged with the murder were Stafford and Landa's quiet and much lower-profile brother, Michael Luvaglio.

Imprisoned at Durham, Stafford soon became involved in a jail mutiny and was transferred to Parkhurst where he decided to devote his energies to clearing himself of the murder conviction.

Stafford and Luvaglio twice took their case to appeal but lost on both occasions. After 12 years, they were freed on licence, but Stafford breached the conditions of his release by leaving the country.

He bought a camper van and went to South Africa, this time in the company of Lorraine, a former Miss Variety Club of Great Britain beauty queen.

"Lorraine and I married and I found work with an engineering company, but my new wife soon became homesick and eventually we divorced."

A year later, he met and fell in love with Merle, who he married and settled down to his new life with. But while the association produced a son for Stafford, he was back to his old ways and became involved in a £12m gold coin heist.

After a spell at Wormwood Scrubs, he and Landa bought Stanhope Castle, but he lost his liberty again when he was jailed on suspicion of being involved in the forgery of travellers cheques.

A landmark legal ruling over human rights in 2002 led to the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, being stripped of his powers to decide the fate of convicted killers.

It was at this point, Stafford claims, that he realised he must turn his back on crime.

"I decided to devote my entire energies to clearing my name of the murder of Angus Sibbett," he said.

"The evidence presented at the murder trial had serious omissions and discrepancies and yet the appeals were lost."