50 years ago this year, in 1963, Britain saw what is possibly still its most audacious crime; a gang of robbers stopped a London bound Royal Mail train and netted a record haul of 2.6 million pounds (estimated, as the film tells us, at 41 million in today's money) The team behind it became the countries most wanted criminals on the run, they were front page news - folkloric outlaws cocking a snook to the establishment or cowards with coshes, depending on your point of view.
This week saw the BBC broadcast over two nights of Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall's two part film The Great Train Robbery. It's the week before Christmas, and Santa's has sure come early with this glossy offering!
The beauty of Chibnall's film is that he not only neatly split it into two, the first film (shown yesterday, the day that robber Ronnie Biggs passed away aged 84, ironically) 'The Robbers Tale' focused on Bruce Reynolds played by Luke Evans and the rest of the team planning, prepping and undertaking the robbery with the inevitable fall out at the climax, which took us neatly into the second film (broadcast tonight) 'The Coppers Tale' which saw Jim Broadbent's top cop Tom Butler investigate the crime and lead Flying Squad's hunt for the crooks. But more, Chibnall knows that the best way to approach each story is to find the similarities; namely, that each man had to create his own team and rely on them to achieve the dream and the success that was required. The purpose of each man may have been the exact opposite but the aims were the same and I think there is some truth in the old cliche that that period in particular saw a mutual respect between the thief and the thief takers. Indeed, in a previous job I had cause to meet a professional armed robber and professional really was the key word as he explained to me that what he did was his job, a career he had chosen to take for better or worse. Much of that code, of doing a job and being aware of the consequences of the next man doing their job that may bring you down is prevalent here.
At the heart of each film is the dual leading men; Luke Evans and Jim Broadbent. Both are the very definition of men on a mission, determined and focused in their endeavours. For Reynolds (Evans) the team was what the criminal life was all about and Chibnall allows us to glimpse his motivations in one crucial scene with his wife where he explains he never felt like he belonged anywhere or with anyone until he formed his firm. For Butler (Broadbent) however, team work was much more of a double edged sword. A practical operative who didn't suffer fools, he pushed his men to the very limit confident he could get them to achieve results. But he never allowed himself to belong with them, he kept his life in compartments - living with his ageing, infirm mother, seeing his girlfriend sporadically and never socialising with his work colleagues, he kept everything at arm's length.
Evans, surely next in line to take on the 007 role when Daniel Craig departs, is a solid, smouldering and precise centre throughout, displaying a certain kind of working class class of self made sophistication that makes one wonder if there really was anything in the suggestion that Michael Caine based his Harry Palmer look on the then elusive criminal. Indeed, Reynolds himself (who passed away earlier this year) made no secret of the fact he always wanted Caine to play him in a film of his life. well, I think he got the next best thing here and the right man for the job in this day and age. The first film is a classy glossy and stylish heist movie littered with choice jazz score, moments of comedy and high drama and a gallery of crooks portrayed by Paul Anderson, Martin Compston, Neil Maskell and Jack Roth - Tim's son, and what a star in the making he is, looking the spit of his father.
Broadbent is equally solid in the second part, but it's a more dogged and perhaps more involving affair. Gone is the wish fulfillment escapism of the heist as the audience is confronted with the sheer hard work of piecing the evidence, clues and leads together with a plethora of frustrations along the way. It's more easily identifiable to a viewer and the humour is sharp (with one great laugh out loud moment between Broadbent and John Salthouse) whilst the dramatic highs and lows as the squad chip away are just as tangible. Again the supporting cast is splendid, including Robert Glenister as Broadbent's deputy, Nick Moran as the infamous Slipper of the Yard (who would go on to make it his mission to extradite Biggs from Brazil - not seen here) Tom Chambers, Tim Piggot Smith, John Salthouse and George Costigan.
Beautifully shot in and around Yorkshire (I spotted my favourite holiday spot, Filey, standing in for Torquay in one key scene) with the perfect period detail of the 1960s in the costumes and decor, The Great Train Robbery is a glamourous ride that conveys perhaps the strongest representation of the crime of the century whose repercussions can still be felt to this day.