Contributed by Matt Donnelly
Last year ITV had one of their biggest drama successes in recent years with Appropriate Adult. It was the gripping story of how social worker Janet Leach became too involved in the case of Fred and Rose West. The two-part programme won almost unanimous critical praise and was awarded with BAFTAs for central cast members Dominic West, Emily Watson and Monica Dolan. This year ITV are hoping to repeat the success of that drama by drafting in Appropriate Adult executive producer Jeff Pope to write about the story of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs from the perspective of his wife. Pope has compared Mrs Biggs to Appropriate Adult in that they both look at events we know from unique viewpoints with Charmian baring similarities to the character of Janet in the Fred West drama. Pope has tried to make the piece as realistic as possible by bringing Charmian on board as a script advisor which probably meant that the dialogue is a lot more authentic.. As is always the case with these biopics we are told right from the off that some of the events that we see have been created purely for dramatic purpose while some of the names of the character shave also been changed.
A recurring motif throughout the piece is trains, as we obviously know that we are heading down that track – if you pardon the pun, with Ron (Daniel Mays) and Charmian (Sheridan Smith) first meeting on a train. Though he is a carpenter by trade he wears a suit on his commute to work in order to charm the ladies and this works with Charmian who rushes back from her dull job at a bank in order to meet him again on the train coming back. Charmian’s home life is incredibly stifling as her headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) constantly berates her. Charmian sees Ron as exciting as he introduces her to a colourful life full of bustling bars and jazz music so when her father forbids her from continuing their relationship she and Ron go on the road. As she is already under his spell he convinces her to rob from the bank in which she works before going on the road alongside one of Ron’s dodgy criminal mates Charlie (Iain McKee). Though Ron continues to charm Charmian he also displays a violent side when he slaps her for insulting Charlie who in turn doesn’t think his mate should’ve bought his bird on the road with them at all. When Charlie and Ron rob a local chemist the trio have to go on the run and are soon pursued by the police however Ron gives himself up in order to protect Charmian. All three find themselves up in court however, because she doesn’t have any prior convictions, Charmian is let off with a warning while Ron is sent down.
The second part of the drama starts with a train again as Charmian and her father travel home from court with her seemingly out of the woods as he has paid back the money she stole in order to avoid a scandal. It’s not long before Ron is back in Charmian’s life with the pair getting married, obviously without her father’s blessing, when she gets pregnant before moving into a cosy home together. While Charmian has another child Ron vows to turn his life around working as an odd-job man to provide for his new family and for a while they live in domestic bliss. Charmian is dismayed when she discovers that their rented house is going up for sale and that Ron cannot afford to put down the deposit in order for them to keeping living there. Desperate to do right by his family Ron visits his old associate Bruce Reynolds (Jay Simpson) who won’t just lend him the money but will inform him if he has any jobs coming up. Charmian is worried that Ron will return to his criminal ways however he informs her that both he and Bruce have turned over a new leaf now that they are both fathers. Eventually The Great Train Robbery scheme is underway with Ron drafting in former railway employee Peter (Ron Cook) to be their train driver before lying to Charmian that he’s going on a tree-felling job. Those who are hoping to see The Great Train Robbery will have to wait till next week though as the final scene of this episode only sees the beginning of the incident.
Personally I believe the fact that Pope worked with Charmian on the script had both positive and negative effects on the finished product. I think that if he had not had her input then some of the best lines of the programme may not have made their way into script, for example where Charmian’s father informs her not to wear make-up as you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, while she’s the only person who would be able to really explain how the love story between herself and Ron developed over time. At the same time though there seems to be a lot of information crammed into this first episode, which without adverts is just over an hour long, as it covers a six year period between the couples initial meeting in October of 1957 and the robbery itself which occurred in August of 1963. I feel that Charmian possibly wanted to include a lot of the moments that were personal to her but possibly weren’t that important to the overall story.
While the script may be slightly uneven what I did enjoy was the period detail employed throughout which I suppose is another area where Charmian’s help was invaluable. The very prim and proper train carriages of the 1950s are replaced by the very retro family houses of the 1960s. Charmian’s clothing also changes throughout the episode, as does her ginger bouffant, which helps the audience to identify how far the jump in time is between scenes. The set design also perfectly contrasts Charmain’s stilted life working and living in dark rooms before she meets Ron to an exciting life full of packed bars and country hotels when they finally get together.
While I’m aware that Sheridan Smith is all over the TV at the moment there is a reason for that as she has definitely matured as an actress and has made the transition from comedy to drama with ease. For long periods of time I completely forget I was watching Smith which is a testament to this actress making Charmian a completely believable and sympathetic character whose actions can be explained by the fact that she was head-over-heels in love with Ron. She is also convincing as Charmian grows in years becoming more confident and in the later scenes makes a believable wife and mother. Though it’s not much of a stretch for Daniel Mays to play a loveable rogue he is able to make Ronnie Biggs seem like a normal guy rather than the legendary robber that he is now best known as. While some may believe he masterminded the crime in Mrs Biggs it is clear that his involvement was due to the fact that he needed the money and it was the only way he could give Charmian the life that he thought she deserved. Of the supporting cast I enjoyed Adrian Scarborough’s turn as Charmian’s highly-strung father while Jay Simpson oozes charisma as robbery mastermind Bruce.
Mrs Biggs doesn’t have nearly the same amount of impact that Appropriate Adult did but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable in its own. The characters here are overall a lot more easy to like with Pope’s script even making you empathise with Ron to an extent as his later crimes are explained through a want to do right by his family. This first episode of Mrs Biggs had to get through a lot of story in a brief amount of time and I felt it suffered because of that though I did get the feeling that the best is yet to come. Overall though this is an enjoyable piece thanks mainly to the two brilliant central performances and the accurate period detail though ultimately I don’t think it will have quite as much success as Appropriate Adult did.