In one of those eerie coincidences that could lead the more cynical among us to question the extremes the BBC are willing to go to for a bit of publicity; Ronnie Biggs the most famous surviving member of The Great Train Robbery passed away hours before, A Robber’s Tale, the first of the BBC’s two part series (imaginatively named) The Great Train Robbery aired. Before long half the nation were eulogising Biggs as a British folk hero while the other half were decrying the BBC’s news coverage for a man they viewed as a thug and a disgrace. Why is it then that we seem obsessed with a crime that this year is half a century old? Why does the robbery of £2 million (the equivalent of £46 million today) from an overnight, Glasgow to London, Royal Mail train continue to captivate us? Give yourself three hours to enjoy the BBC’s excellent two-parter and I guarantee it will all become clear.
A Robber’s Tale plays out like Ocean’s Eleven, only Clooney and Pitt have been swiped and replaced by a gang of South London’s finest geezers. It’s got all the wit and excitement of a Hollywood crime caper grounded by just a dab of social realism. It’s impossible to make anything set in the 1960’s these days without it oozing class, as slim-fit suits and a soundtrack of Nina Simone and Gershwin can ensure that even a gang of cockneys coshing unsuspecting security guards can look as slick as Don Draper lighting up another lucky stripe.
With a cast led superbly by Luke Evans as Malcolm Reynolds, bespectacled mastermind and leader of the gang, you’ll find it difficult not to be won over. The script captures perfectly the dynamics of a gang of working class boys, the banter never seeming forced or unnatural. At times they seem more like a group of cheeky chappies in the schoolyard than a gang of thieves. The show doesn’t choose to shy away from their capability for violence though, the beatings they inflicted upon train driver Jack Mills ensured he would never work again, and these scenes aren’t ignored. However, such is the skill of both cast and crew that in the show’s climax, a scene so suspenseful Hitchcock would be proud to put his name to it, you’ll actually find yourself on the edge of your seat rooting for our heroes. Or is that villains?
By contrast, A Copper’s Tale following the efforts of DCS Tommy Butler (Jim Broadbent) and the flying squad to bring the Reynolds firm to justice runs out of steam. Condensing a pain-staking six year investigation into an hour and a half does nothing for the rhythm of the piece, nor does a seemingly gratuitous use of slow-motion shots of Butler walking down corridors. As is to be expected, it’s a wonderful performance by Broadbent portraying a relentless workaholic who will stop at nothing to bring the culprits to justice, but it’s almost impossible to bring yourself onto his side. The show is at pains to contrast the camaraderie and warmth of the criminals with the cold isolation of the men on the other side of the thin blue line. Each police victory seems a loss to the audience until the show’s excellent final set-piece, where a conversation between Reynolds and Butler in the glamorous location of a Torquay chippy, (a long way from the swanky nightclubs Reynolds used to haunt) plays out as a tragedy rather than a triumph. One man who has been broken by six years of running is confronted by a man destroyed by six years of chasing, each beyond the other’s understanding.
“It wasn’t meant to be the crime of the century” moans Reynolds, so why does it still capture our imaginations? Why is the BBC seemingly glamourising a pack of thieves? It’s a matter of class. The show expertly creates a world divided by the thinnest of lines, the haves and the have nots. While Eliza Doolittle croons through Gerswhin’s ‘Summertime’ to a London nightclub full of the upper classes, one line must cut through the Reynolds gang like a knife, “Your daddy’s rich and your ma is good looking”. “We’re better than them, they were born into this, but we earned it” Reynolds consoles himself with this but there’s no escaping that this is a society in which your entire future is likely to be defined by the class you’re born into. It was never about the money for Reynolds, it was about getting one over on an establishment that had kept him down for so long. This is why the show excels because it explores so tenderly and honestly the motivations of a man that could so easily be misjudged as pure greed. That’s why many across this nation, Mark E Smith among them will be raising a glass to the likes of Biggs and Reynolds. To them they’re not just crooks, they’re working class heroes, as one police chief puts it “Modern day Robin Hoods.”
The BBC have managed to craft a television event of superb quality, captivating and challenging they’ve produced something that manages to explore one of the inescapable questions at the core of British life; how do you get ahead in a nation where you’re still defined by your class, where you’re from and how you speak ?
You can still watch the two part extravaganza on BBC iPlayer now
Photo: Property of bbc.co.uk