Over the years there have been plenty of dramatisations of the event known as The Great Train Robbery, where a group of men stole money from a Royal Mail train in 1963. Most recently we’ve seen the event dramatised in Mrs Biggs, which told the event from the eyes of Ronnie Biggs and his wife Charmian. But, despite being one of the most notorious robbers, Biggs had very little to do with the operation at all aside from recruiting the train driver. In fact the mastermind of the whole operation was Bruce Reynolds but his role in the event hasn’t really been highlighted on screen. Now, in a two-part drama, writer Chris Chibnall has firmly put Reynolds at the centre of the action in the imaginatively titled The Great Train Robbery.
Of course most people will recognise Chibnall’s name after the success he’s had earlier this year with the outstanding Broadchurch. But before that he wrote the drama United for the BBC which focused on the tragic plane crash involving the majority of the Manchester United team. Ever since then Chibnall and the BBC have been looking for another factual-based drama to work on and The Great Train Robbery is that project. It’s clear from watching the piece that Chibnall has done his research thanks in part to a number of TV interviews that were conducted with the robbers following their release from prison. Another unique element of the programme is that Chibnall has told the story from the point-of-view of both the robbers and more interestingly the police whose job it was to stop them.
A Robber’s Tale, tells the more famous of the two stories as we see Reynolds’ gang come together and plan the robbery before the event itself takes place. Welsh-born film star Luke Evans takes the lead role of Australian-born Reynolds and actually handles the accent pretty well. Evans has heralded The Great Train Robbery as his first proper TV role and it’s really a testament to Chibnall’s script that he’s been able to recruit a big name actor who has appeared in such major films as The Raven and The Hobbit. Chibnall tells the story methodically employing a lot of humour by portraying some of the crooks as incredibly foolish. But at its heart is the robbery itself with Chibnall really making sure that the audience realises that this is the main event of the piece. However, A Robber’s Tale doesn’t end with the robbery itself and instead we see Reynolds’ doubts that he’ll be able to get away with the crime. The final section of A Robber’s Tale is what makes you realise that Reynolds and company could have got away with it if certain silly mistakes hadn’t been made.
A Copper’s Tale picks up where the first instalment left off and I personally found it to be the more gripping of the two films. This is partly to do with the fact that the story of how the gang was caught has never really been dramatised and party because it’s a lot less rigid than A Robber’s Tale. At the heart of A Copper’s Tale is Tommy Butler, a long-in-the-tooth DCS who is coming up to retirement. Butler becomes obsessed with catching all of those involved and recruits a team of officers he knows he can trust. Jim Broadbent is at his level best as Butler, a man who is hard to like but easy to respect. The drama is set over a number of years as the key figures in the robbery are gradually caught. But it’s Reynolds that remains that big fish that Butler needs to catch and he postpones his retirement in order to catch the crook he needs. As with A Robber’s Tale, this part is full of humour partly to do with Nick Moran’s turn as the jovial Jack Slipper. But for me this was the more intriguing and involving instalment which wraps up the story with an incredible final showdown.
I have to say that I would thoroughly recommend watching both parts of the The Great Train Robbery as they are well-written, well-acted and tell a side to an event that most of us already thought we knew everything about.
A Robber’s Tale airs Wednesday night at 8pm on BBC One while A Copper’s Tale airs at the same time on Thursday night.