tue 20/02/2024

The Great Train Robbery - a Robber's Tale, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

The Great Train Robbery - a Robber's Tale, BBC One

The Great Train Robbery - a Robber's Tale, BBC One

Handsomely mounted drama, but you may have heard most of it before

Luke Evans as criminal mastermind Bruce Reynolds, raising the consciousness of the light-fingered communityRobert Viglasky

We've already been casting a revisionary eye over Lord Lucan, the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination and the Profumo affair. Last year Sheridan Smith portrayed Mrs Ronnie Biggs for ITV, but what took them so long to get around to the Great Train Robbery itself? Just hours too long for the real Ronnie Biggs, as it happened.

Scripted by Chris Chibnall, a man basking in bankability following his bustin' hit series Broadchurch for ITV, this two-part voyage round the GTR is stylish, well cast and easy to watch, but adds nothing much to the existing information-mountain about the crime. You'd get more bang for your buck by digging out the 1967 movie Robbery, a thinly disguised version of the GTR story directed by Peter Bullitt Yates, while the depiction of the robbery itself doesn't differ greatly from the way they did it in Buster, the 1988 movie starring Phil Collins as train-robber Buster Edwards (nemesis awaits, pictured below).

This retelling has a bit of fun with cool Avengers-style mood music and Sixties-evoking split-screen graphics, though this leaves you wondering just how seriously you're supposed take it. In addition, Chibnall has introduced a slightly grating overlay of retrospective political awareness, with robbery mastermind Bruce Reynolds seemingly possessing a clairvoyant gift for anticipating the kind of sociological post-rationalisation later patented by John McVicar. In his more ponderous moments, Bruce isn't a mere career criminal but a man on a class war crusade, raising the consciousness of the light-fingered community.

Robbing the Royal Mail train en route from Glasgow to Euston isn't just a heist, it's "one in the eye for all the old duffers running this country." When the police raise a mighty hue and cry in the aftermath of the robbery, and he hears that Tommy Butler has set up a special Flying Squad task force to hunt the raiders, Bruce declares that "we kicked the Establishment up the arse, mate. The Establishment didn't like it" (the Establishment didn't, of course, and the police and judiciary later had to admit that the original heavy sentences handed down to the robbers were excessive.)

But Bruce's street-fighting-man bravado doesn't quite square with his dismay when he discovers that instead of the million quid they anticipated stealing, they've netted a colossal £2.6m. "It wasn't supposed to be the crime of the bleedin' century!" he protests, as though the Flying Squad would have sent them on their way with a jocular clip round the ear if they'd only stolen a modest £1m.

Nonetheless, Luke Evans's portrayal of Reynolds is strong enough to make him the natural centre of gravity of the gang. He keeps the thuggish inclinations of some of his underlings in check with his gift for meticulous planning and clarity of thought, and it's not entirely his fault if the rug is pulled out from under them when the weak links in the chain fail to accomplish their assigned tasks (like burning down the gang's rural hideout, which was disastrously left intact with telltale fingerprints for the constabulary to find). 

There's flavoursome support from Neil Maskell as Buster Edwards, Martin Compston as getaway driver Roy James and Jack Roth as Charlie Wilson (Compston and Maskell pictured above), and the thespometer will be cranked into the red in tonight's part two when Jim Broadbent steps up as DCS Butler alongside Robert Glenister's DI Frank Williams. Better come quietly lads, the party's over.

  • The Great Train Robbery - a Copper's Tale, Thursday 8pm BBC One
Robbing the Royal Mail train isn't just a heist, it's 'one in the eye for all the old duffers running this country'


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters