The Great Train Robbery, BBC1, Luke Evans, Jim Broadbent, Neil Maskell, James Fox PREVIEW

Robbing the mail train. The Great Train Robbery BBC1
Rogue mail – the Great Train Robbery in action. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★

BBC1: Wednesday, 18 December, 8pm

Story: Part one is called ‘A Robber’s Tale’, and follows Bruce Reynolds and his gang as they plan and carry out the £2.6million robbery of a mail train. The second film, ‘A Copper’s Tale’, will be told from the viewpoint of DCS Tommy Butler and his elite squad of investigators.

ALONG WITH the assassination of President Kennedy and the pilot episode of Doctor Who, 1963 was famous for the Great Train Robbery, a startlingly audacious bit of blagging that shook Britain when the news of it came out in August that year.

For channel honchos at the Beeb, the attraction of dramatising it is obvious – it’s based on a true event (ITV are playing the same game with soon-to-be seen Lucan), and it’s got period clobber and old cars, a must every other drama these days.

Bruce Reynolds (LUKE EVANS) Great Train Robbery BBC1
Ambitious Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans)

For the writer Chris Chibnall, who also wrote this year’s major crime drama Broadchurch, he was fascinated by the crime as ‘piece of modern folklore’ and the attraction of exploring the ‘huge untold story’ of the Flying Squad officers who tracked the robbers – which he does in episode two.

ITV took an interesting take on the crime with Mrs Biggs last year, and Phil Collins played Buster Edwards in the 1988 film Buster, but considering how much newspaper ink the police, the escapes and escapades of this bunch of crooks generated, Chibnall and the BBC would seem to have plenty of untold story to explore.

Luke Evans is charismatic as Bruce Reynolds

And they tell it really well. It is tinged with nostalgia but also captures the element of class aggro

The gang celebrates its haul. The Great Train Robbery BBC1
We’re in the money!

involved, with gang leader Bruce Reynolds – the focus of the first of two 90-minute films – out to get rich while taking on the establishment.

The establishment definitely noticed, as Reynolds and his crew shocked themselves and the whole country with a then monstrous haul of £2.6million from the overnight mail train from Glasgow (equivalent to £41million today). The first film is full of a young generation of actors as the robbers, such as Neil Maskell, Jack Roth and Martin Compston, with Luke Evans outstanding as Reynolds.

Reynolds’ appetite for a big robbery is fuelled following the poor takings from a well-planned and stylishly filmed airport robbery. After getting a tip from a mysterious Ulsterman that the mail train is a sitting duck, with no police or guards protecting it, Reynolds is hooked on devising a heist.

‘It’s Her Majesty’s mail, mate,’ says Buster Edwards (Maskell). ‘Nobody would have the nerve – that’s how they see it.’

E-Types, Jags and beehives

Reynolds pulls together a 15-strong team with near military precision to halt the train and offload it.

DCS Butler (JIM BROADBENT) Great Train Robbery BBC1
In part 2 we meet DCS Butler (Jim Broadbent)

Good heist stories always have plenty of adrenaline and tension, and this one doesn’t fall short. But it also has some laugh-out moments.

Such as the scene in which Gordon Goody and Reynolds, trying to teach themselves how to drive a train – they will have to move the mail train once they’ve captured it – steal a train from a depot and then can’t find the brake. They finally leap from the speeding train into the snow, leaving the runaway engine to plough on into the night.

The period is sharply invoked here, with E-Types Jags and beehives and music from Nina Simone and Sinatra. It looks good and is a fascinating story, right up to the moment the gang in their farmhouse count the huge piles of used banknotes.

Jim Broadbent and Robert Glenister

The irony is that all it bought them was a life on the run (see what happened next to the robbers here: What Happened to the Great Train Robbers). As Reynolds says, ‘It’s too much.’

Great Train Robbery BBC1 The robbers. Gordon Goody (PAUL ANDERSON), Brian Field (DEL SYNOTT), Roy James (MARTIN COMPSTON), Buster Edwards (NEIL MASKELL), John Daly (JAMES BYE), Bruce Reynolds (LUKE EVANS), Charlie Wilson (JACK ROTH), Alf (BILL THOMAS), Roger Cordrey (NICHOLAS MURCHIE), Ronnie Biggs (JACK GORDON), Tommy Wisby (JORDAN LONG)
The gang’s all here – Bruce and his lads

An older generation of actors – with Jim Broadbent as DCS Tommy Butler, leading the likes of Robert Glenister, Tim Piggott Smith and James Fox – will steal the spotlight in the second part of the story, A Copper’s Tale, which should be particularly compelling, if Chris Chibnall is on the money, as it were.

As one of the robbers says, ‘We kicked the establishment up the arse.’ And the pressure to nab them after that was immense.

Cast: Luke Evans Bruce Reynolds, Neil Maskell Buster Edwards, Martin Compston Roy James, Paul Anderson Gordon Goody, Jack Roth Charlie Wilson; Jim Broadbent DCS Tommy Butler, Robert Glenister DI Frank Williams, Nick Moran DS Jack Slipper, Tim Piggott Smith DS Maurice Ray, James Wilby John Wheater, James Fox Henry Brooke

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Utopia, Channel 4, with Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, James Fox

Assassins Arby and Lee are chasing The Utopia Experiments. Pics: C4

Rating: ★★★★½

Channel 4: starts Tuesday, 15 January, 10pm

Story: When a small group of previously unconnected people, who have met on a forum, take possession of the original manuscript of a fabled graphic novel, they find themselves relentlessly pursued by a shadowy unit called The Network.

Utopia is about a mysterious graphic novel, and the thriller is off-kilter and slyly witty enough to have been based on a cult comic itself.

Instead, it’s the work of writer Dennis Kelly, best known for the sitcom Pulling and co-writing Matilda The Musical. His attempt at a conspiracy thriller could be one of the most distinctive and talked-about dramas of 2013.

Becky’s pub drink ends in a run for her life

The Utopia Experiments lead to violence and terror
A group of young, unconnected individuals – including an IT worker, a student, a conspiracy nut, an 11-year-old tearaway – meet on a forum and find themselves in possession of the manuscript of The Utopia Experiments, a legendary, mystifying graphic novel. Very quickly they are pitched into violence and terror.

Two nonchalant assassins are after that manuscript, and we meet them as they brutally wipe out the nerds and customers (including a child) at a comic shop. Arby and Lee, played by Neil Maskell and Paul Ready, are pretty disturbing, with Arby droningly and mysteriously asking each victim, ‘Where is Jessica Hyde?’

Wilson Wilson comes eye to eye with Lee

Alexandra Roach as Becky
The offbeat band on the run are beautifully cast, with Alexandra Roach as Becky the student, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the stroppy IT guy Ian, and Adeel Akhtar as the barmy Wilson Wilson. ‘I don’t drink tea,’ he tells a detective. ‘Caffeine was invented by the CIA.’

The group meet in a pub for the first time in the hope of encountering forum member Bejan, who claims to have the original artwork for the graphic novel. However, he gets a visit from Arby and Lee, and the manuscript is swiped by young hooligan Grant, another forum member.

Wilson Wilson tortured by Arby and Lee
All kinds of horrors are then visited on the forum members, with various trumped-up charges of sexual deviancy from the police hitting Becky and Ian, and Wilson having chili, sand and bleach rubbed into his eyes during a gleeful torture session by the deadly duo.

Meanwhile, civil servant Michael Dugdale is being blackmailed by a Russian-sounding hood over his getting a prostitute pregnant. After an intimidating meeting with two corporation honchos played by smiling, menacing Stephen Rea and James Fox, Dugdale hoodwinks his minister into buying a Russian flu vaccine on behalf of the government.

Danger boy – Grant has the manuscript

The Network
This is crux of the story, with themes of manufactured diseases and an alarming group called The Network, represented by Fox and Rea. Does The Utopia Experiments have coded messages about some vast conspiracy?

Utopia is stylishly shot like an indie film, with an atmospheric, chiming soundtrack. It also mixes moments of dread that will make some viewers flinch, with offbeat humour. There’s a disastrous sex scene, and Wilson Wilson is always a pleasure, even when blindly aiming a gun at his torturer.

Terrific cliffhanger
The schedules are littered with series that get off to a good start in setting up an intriguing story, only to descend into dross with each subsequent episode. Here’s hoping that Utopia, the first instalment of which concludes on a fine cliffhanger, keeps up the pace and surprise of this opener for the remaining five episodes. That will be a sight for sore eyes.

Cast: Paul Higgins Dugdale, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett Ian, Alexandra Roach Becky, Neil Maskell Arby, Fiona O’ Shaughnessy Jessica, Adeel Akhtar Wilson Wilson, Oliver Woollford Grant, Michael Smiley detective, Paul Ready Lee, plus James Fox, Stephen Rea

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