The Great Train Robbery: A Robber’s Tale review

The first of two BBC films on the Great Train Robbery is slick stuff, but does it provide enough light and shade?

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 A Robber’s Tale

The Great Train Robbery. With a name like that, it’s no wonder we enjoy retelling this story. Had the 1963 Cheddington Mail Van Raid not been rechristened with such a swashbuckling title, you can bet we wouldn’t be here now, watching the credits roll on another dramatized version of events.

Or more properly, half a dramatized version. The second film in this diptych, A Copper’s Tale, airs tomorrow night and tells the same story from the other side of the thin blue line. Writer Chris Chibnall (Broadchurch, Torchwood) has cleaved the narrative into two neat halves: cops and robbers. In many ways, it’s a swell trick, the novelty of which tilts the plot a few degrees on its axis and opens another window onto a familiar tale. Chibnall’s drama is the ‘deleted scenes’ version of the Great Train Robbery if you like, focusing on the planning and the pursuit instead of the more common loot and exotic exile side of things.

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The loot, incidentally, provides A Robber’s Tale with its most insightful moment. After the cash has been counted and the gang is leaping around as if their team’s just won the league, job mastermind Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans) looks upon his mighty works and despairs. “It’s too much” he tells himself quietly.

With a haul worth around £41 million today, he’s not wrong. The piles of cash look uncanny in that quantity, like the the Monopoly money in play in the next scene. In just three words “It’s too much” contains Reynolds’ moment of tragic recognition, the albatross the cash will become around the necks of the men who stole it, and any number of reflections on greed and need. It’s a wonderful line from Chibnall; as the film’s signalman florist says early on, “Anyone can be complicated. Simplicity, that’s hard.”

The film’s young cast are a talented bunch too, with Jack Roth (looking every inch his father’s son, as Charlie Wilson), Neil Maskell (Ronald ‘Buster’ Edwards), Nicholas Murchie (Roger Cordrey) and Paul Anderson (recognisable without his Peaky Blinders ‘tache, as Gordon Goody) all providing strong support for Luke Evans, who was compelling in the lead role of Reynolds. Tomorrow is the turn of the old guard, with Jim Broadbent and Tim Pigott-Smith entering the fray.

From the sexy symmetry of the first job’s bowler hats and balaclavas to the slinky sixties nightclub celebration that follows, A Robber’s Tale is styled as a heist caper. Director Julian Jarrold makes the story shimmer with retro glamour. Visually, handsome Evans is treated as a Humphrey Bogart figure, sitting and smoking, walking and smoking, leaning moodily against walls and smoking… the camera loving him all the while. That glamour in combination with the structural split between the two films, however, puts A Robber’s Tale on somewhat shaky moral ground.

Seen only from inside the criminal den, the film provides no challenge to the gang’s image of themselves as working class heroes, kicking “the establishment up the arse”. We’ll have to wait for tomorrow for the nuance to arrive, and to see the thieves portrayed as – in the famous words of DCI Butler – “cowards with coshes” instead of artists creating “a thing of beauty”. Unfair as it is to judge only part of a whole, this film’s makers have left themselves open to criticism by leaving an I.O.U in where the light and shade should be in this first half.

Telling a story based on real-life events, especially those in living memory (without wanting to imply callousness on their part, the BBC PR department must have been secretly thrilled that the date of Ronnie Biggs’ death coincided with that of tonight’s broadcast) leaves an extra responsibility at the feet of the storytellers. A Robber’s Tale is swish, well-made, well-acted viewing, but seen in isolation from tomorrow’s story, it could be viewed as a characteristically British romantic take on violence and armed robbery.

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That much was clear from the scene in which the gang members fantasised about their plans for their share of the plunder: “a lovely little house for mum”, a little club that wouldn’t let in any riff-raff, a round-the-world trip for the family… This jam tart-eating lot are lovable rogues, magnanimously dishing out ‘drinks’ to anyone inconvenienced by their fast-track to wealth. Reynolds might have warned injured train driver Jack Mills that “There’s some right bastards here tonight”, but we didn’t meet them. Not in this half of the story, at any rate.

Some moral chastisement did feature in tonight’s story, perhaps unexpectedly, from the soundtrack. The drumming piano line that pushed up against Gershwin’s dreamy Summertime throughout finally emerged at the end, with Nina Simone asking Bruce Reynolds (as he walked past an aptly placed poster for The Great Escape), “Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?”. Acapulco, wasn’t it Bruce? For a few years, anyway…

A Copper’s Tale airs on Thursday the 19th of December at 8pm on BBC One. 

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