They earn crores, are celebrities, yet steal things

What drives a person to comcelbrity thievesmit a crime? For the Great Train Robbers, it was greed. For the Krays, it was power. And for Antony Worrall Thompson, it was flambéing too many Christmas puddings.

Last week, the TV chef was arrested after shoplifting three onions and two pots of discounted coleslaw from a branch of Tesco in Henley-on-Thames. There were other items, too. Cheese, bread, a newspaper. Some wine. A sandwich. Worrall Thompson, who runs a gastropub in Oxfordshire, received a caution, and was quick to apologise for his behaviour. “Was it a cry for help? I have been under incredible stress… I didn’t have any time off over Christmas when these things happened. I flambéd every Christmas pudding personally.”

The 60-year-old, who once raged at producers on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! over the jungle rice rations, added that he did “so much for charity” and that he hoped “they will carry on letting me work with them”.

Was the chef painting himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, stealing discounted coleslaw from the rich to give to the poor?

No. “I do feel that I have to take responsibility for this,” he conceded, explaining that he would seek help from a psychoanalyst. “Yes, I’ve sobbed myself to sleep but now I have to make it up to the people who are disappointed in me. I feel very guilty and want to know why I’ve done this. This has all been so humiliating, but it’s a punishment I have to take on the chin.”

From this dramatic and emotional apology, one might think that Antony Worrall Thompson was the first person in the history of the world – or at the very least Tesco – to have shoplifted. Sadly, we know that he is not even the first “celebrity” to have shoplifted.

In October, Peaches Geldof was caught stuffing make-up into her handbag at a branch of Boots in central London. She had taken foundation, mascara, eyeliner and concealer worth £70 – about the same cost of the items Mr Worrall Thompson pilfered. As Tesco might themselves say, every little helps.

Winona Ryder is a rare celebrity, in that she shoplifted items of value – $5,500 worth of clothing from a department store in Beverly Hills. For this, she received 480 hours of community service. The actress Lindsay Lohan was made to work at a morgue in Los Angeles as part of her sentencing for shoplifting a $2,500 necklace. For the Hollywood A-list, it seems that something as prosaic as actually paying for items is below them. Too many goodie-bags and freebies, we must presume.

But the general rule of high-profile stealing seems to be that the cheaper the items, the better. Tom Campbell was forced to resign as an adviser to Boris Johnson when he openly admitted to shoplifting in an interview last year.

“If I ever go into a chain place for lunch, I always have to steal something… so they don’t make a profit out of me. I always steal the pudding or the soup or something,” he gaily confessed. “When you’re, like, 40, they don’t grab you or anything. They just say ‘Sir, I think you’ve made a mistake…’ Someone told me it’s so expensive to prosecute a shoplifter that all they ever do is say ‘Excuse me, sir.’ And I say, ‘Oh, God, I’m sorry. How did that get in my bag?’ That’s how I justify going into the chain [stores]. That’s the rule. If you go into a chain, you have to steal.”

Does the anarchic “property is theft” argument work when expoused by a middle-class adviser to a Tory politician? Perhaps not, but no matter. Figures released in 2007 said that around two million shoppers had admitted to stealing the odd “unknown item in bagging area” while at self-service tills in supermarkets.

When it was revealed last year that middle-class teenagers were fuelling a rise in thieving, Harry Kauffer, the founder of a charity Crisis Counselling for Alleged Shoplifters, announced that “a typical shoplifter used to be a drug addict. Now it’s girls from well-off families. Many of these are doing it for kicks. Today’s youngsters are often spoilt and arrogant and think they can get away with anything. Also, along with a surge in divorces, many do it as a cry for attention. And young girls are now more materialistic. They want to emulate celebrities and wear fashionable clothes.”

A charity, for shoplifters? How terribly right-on! Though perhaps we are in need of one. According to Checkpoint Systems’ Global Retail Theft Barometer, British retailers lost £2.15 billion to customer theft in the 12 months leading up to June of last year, the retailers losing on average 1.37p of every £1 they make. Quite clearly, we are turning into a nation of Antony Worrall Thompsons, and a nation of Antony Worrall Thompsons is one that needs help.

It is often said that shoplifting is a terribly middle-class crime, but it isn’t really. Lots of people do it – it’s just that it’s often labelled alternatively. Looting, for example. Or stealing.

Worrall Thompson got a caution for his “behaviour” (attempting to steal more than

£70-worth of goods on five different occasions); last summer, during the riots, a 23-year-old college student from south London received six months in prison for the “opportunistic” theft of a £3.50 case of bottled Lidl water.

The middle-class shoplifter, like Boris’s former adviser, thinks that by nicking the odd fruit salad from a multinational, they are sticking one up to the man, that they are setting their own “buy one get one free” rules. Their political statement is organic fruit and veg, posh cheese, or the odd bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape snuck into their jute Bag for Life at the self-service till. For that, a slap on the wrist. For the kid who nicked a pair of trainers during the riots, a different fate – and at least the kid had the vague motivation of living on a south London council estate rather than a four-bedroomed house in the Home Counties.

While researching her new book, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, the American academic Rachel Shteir found many middle class people “who admitted to me that they [shoplifted], then admitted to me that they would continue to do it. People who shoplift tend to do so not because they need to, but because they feel wronged in some way, be it psychologically or culturally, by the Government. And in those terms, as we all know, the middle-classes are prone to feeling the most wronged.”

Worrall Thompson spent £180 on three crates of champagne at the same time that he shoplifted £4 of goods. No wonder the staff at Tesco, who can earn as little as £6.45 an hour, hid cameras to film his behaviour.

“They were discreet,” said the chef, of the moment he was stopped last Friday. “They didn’t march me through the store or anything.” Still, one wouldn’t have blamed them if they had.