The Great Train Robbery: Great performances from Luke Evans and Jim Broadbent bolster Chris Chibnall’s crime saga

by | Dec 19, 2013 | All, Reviews

Telling a story from two different points-of-view is an interesting way to write a drama especially one that features strong characters. Over the past two nights, Chris Chibnall has presented The Great Train Robbery from the points-of-view of the man who supposedly masterminded the event, Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans), and the man whose job it was to catch the thieves, Tommy Butler (Jim Broadbent). By telling these two stories it appeared as if Chibnall wished to explore the parallels between a robbery and a police investigation as well as the similarities between Butler and Reynolds. 

Both men are presented as the leaders of their respective groups and command respect in very different ways. Reynolds is a friend to all of the men who are part of his group and is seen early on taking them out for a lavish meal. We learn that his delusions of grandeur have led him to a life of crime as he doesn’t see why people of privilege should get all of the benefits in life. Reynolds exudes confidence and therefore it’s easy to believe that all of these other strong personalities would follow what he says. Similarly Butler garners respect via his reputation alone, his nickname being ‘one day’ as that’s usually the period of time it takes him to get his mind. Unlike Reynolds, Butler keeps himself to himself and feels that he doesn’t need to socialise with his colleagues in order for them to respect him. At the heart of Butler’s personality is a sense of what’s right and wrong and his temper boils when he thinks that a number of the robbers have got away with what is essentially the Queen’s money. Indeed, both Reynolds and Butler get frustrated throughout their respective instalments as they realise that mistakes have been made during the robbery and the investigation. It’s a testament to Chibnall’s writing that he makes you care about two men who on the surface should both be unlikeable – one a career criminal and one a very disagreeable police detective. But he portrays both men as complex characters and so you get to understand their motives for behaving the way that they do. 

In the final showdown between Butler and Reynolds, the latter talks about how much he loves planning a job and that The Great Train Robbery itself wasn’t all about the money. I feel that these lines, so expertly crafted by Chibnall, could so easily be used to describe Butler’s operation especially as he’s been able to pick the officers he wants to work with. The joy of chasing ‘the big one’ is what both men seem to live for and that explains why Butler refuses to retire before he’s caught Reynolds once and for all. However, for me the planning of the crime in A Robber’s Tale hampered the narrative a little bit and forced Chibnall to have a number of scenes that were heavily expositional. It appeared to me as if Chibnall wanted to make both instalments as factually accurate as possible and therefore had to include every aspect of the plotting both good and bad. I know it’s going to be an unpopular opinion but I felt the way the actual robbery was executed slowed down the programme as a whole. While it was clear that Chibnall wanted a detailed dramatisation of the event, I personally felt that it dragged the whole episode down. A Copper’s Tale on the other hand didn’t have one major set piece take up any of its running time and therefore it flowed a lot better. There were also a number of expertly done set pieces that broke up the scenes of the police officers at the station planning their next move. If I were going to be overly critical of this second instalment then I would have to say that I didn’t really care for the small subplot involving Butler’s relationship with bus conductor Dorothy (Gwyneth Strong). 

Though Chibnall wrote the entire Great Train Robbery saga, each instalment had a different director. That means that, despite their narrative similarities, both parts had a different feel to them. Julian Jarrold, who most recently helmed Hitchcock biopic The Girl, directed A Robber’s Tale and made it feel like a slick crime thriller. The opening sequence alone made it feel like heist drama in the vein of something like Ocean’s Eleven while the jazz score helped to add to this mood. James Strong, who worked with Chibnall on Broadchurch, gave A Copper’s Tale much more of a bleaker feel. Strong presented Butler as something of a wild west lawman a portrayal that was strengthened in the very opening scene as we see the detective step out of a cinema. Both Strong and Jarrold were adept at directing the drama’s many set pieces with the latter having the task of recreating the robbery itself. But it’s the set pieces in A Copper’s Tale that stuck in my mind from the rooftop pursuit of Roy James (Martin Compston) to Butler’s journey around the abandoned farmhouse. The use of music throughout The Great Train Robbery was also skilfully done from the strains of ‘Sinnerman’ accompanying Reynolds and company on an earlier job to the closing ‘A Change Gonna Come’ after Butler has finally got his man. 

Obviously this wouldn’t be a review of The Great Train Robbery without mentioning the two leading actors, both of whom put in stellar turns. Welsh-born Luke Evans is totally believable as Londoner Bruce Reynolds and he oozes charisma throughout every scene. Evans perfectly captures the essence of what a 1960s crime boss should be but never turns Bruce into a caricature. Indeed, Evans is equally at home portraying Bruce’s more vulnerable side as he realises that his gang has stolen far too much money. Jim Broadbent is equally as great as Tommy Butler as he combines the detective’s dogged determination with his inability to fit into social situations. It’s the performances from both of these actors that make the drama work as well as it does and that make you care about two men who wouldn’t normally be that likeable. Despite Evans dominating A Robber’s Tale, there was time for several other actors to shine. Martin Compston was every inch the dashing villain as racing car driver Roy James while Jack Roth made Charlie Wilson seem like an incredibly threatening individual. Meanwhile, Robert Glenister was an essential part of A Copper’s Tale as he was almost the good cop to Broadbent’s pricklier Butler. The relationship between the two men was one of the most interesting things about the concluding instalment as we saw their friendship grow over a number of years. Finally, Nick Moran played to his strengths as the comical DS Jack Slipper who was forced to read out all of the false witness statements from the public following a press article on the suspected robbers. 

Overall, The Great Train Robbery was an entertaining three hours of television which aimed to tell the whole story of an event most of us thought we already knew. Though A Robber’s Tale was overlong and expositional it was more than bolstered by slick direction and a fabulous central performance. A Copper’s Tale perfectly complemented the first part of the saga and was a much better-paced drama than its predecessor. I have to say that by the final showdown between Reynolds and Butler, I felt that Chibnall had succeeded in both informing his audience about the train robbery while thoroughly entertaining them at the same time. 

Matt Donnelly

Matt Donnelly


Made in Staffordshire, Matt is the co-editor of the site and co-host of The Custard TV Podcast. Matt has been writing about TV for over fifteen years and has written for the site for almost a decade. He's just realised this makes him a lot older than he thought he was.


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