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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Exile starring John Simm PREVIEW

Tom (John Simm) and the barmaid, Mandy (Claire Goose). Pics: BBC

Rating ★★★★½

BBC1 Sunday, 1 May, 9pm

John Simm is one of the most interesting and watchable actors on British television. He must also be one of the sharpest judges of scripts, because whether he picks something popular, such as Doctor Who or Life on Mars, or something punchier, State of Play or Mad Dogs, the 40-year-old is always believable but popular with it.

Here he teams up with Paul Abbott again (State of Play‘s writer) for a terrific noir thriller about a guy in crisis who ends up returning home and investigating his past.

Tom Ronstadt is an unpleasant swine. He’s a London journalist on a lads’ mag who ‘implodes’, loses the glam job that he’s come to despise and gets dumped by his girlfriend, taking his leave of her by whacking her in the face.

Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent
In turmoil, he returns to his northern hometown for the first time in 18 years. His sister, Nancy (a heartfelt performance by Olivia Colman), has been left looking after their father, Alzheimer-sufferer Sam, a former news journalist, played by Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent.

It was Sam’s savage attack on Tom, whom he’d caught rifling through his papers, that sent the young man into exile down south. What had Tom come close to discovering? The question nags him, and while Nancy urges him to forget the past, but the wound hurts too much, and Tom starts digging.

At first Jim Broadbent seems to have a thankless role to play, stripping off at inappropriate times, barely able to hold a conversation, shouting, occasionally violent. But he is, of course, the key to the story, if only Tom can pierce his mental fog, and Sam becomes a tantalising presence, offering moments of lucidity, even retaining the ability to play the piano with feeling while his brain’s on auto-pilot.

The part that made John Simm’s career
The core of the story is this painful father-son relationship, and behind Tom’s anger is his feeling that they were once a happy family. He remembers a time when there were no rows, no outbursts. ‘What changed?’ he asks the unresponsive Sam.

Danny Brocklehurst, the writer, has produced a drama that is strong and character-focused throughout (Paul Abbott, who effectively made John Simm’s career with the part he wrote for him in Cracker, is the creator of Exile). Even the secondary characters have heart. Mike (Shaun Dooley), the school best mate Tom left behind and with whose barmaid wife Tom sleeps without realising whom she is married to, is a sad, believable figure.

Often, character is revealed  in the little things, such as the way Tom despises the trashy hatchet journalist he became, in comparison to the campaigning newsman that Sam was. The only bum note here is the lavish lifestyle magazine writing seems to have provided for Tom – minimalist designer flat, expensive sports car – that will have most journalists rolling on the carpet.

The Metzler mystery
And then there is the nagging mystery, centring around the name Metzler, which Tom had seen all those years ago just before his father’s assault. Metzler (Timothy West), a business man, is now the leader of the council.

A strong year for crime dramas – there are four excellent series launching in the first week of May alone (Vera, Exile, The Shadow Line, Case Sensitive) – but Exile is definitely one that will lodge in the memory.

Sam (Jim Broadbent) and Tom

Cast: John Simm Tom Ronstadt, Jim Broadbent Sam Ronstadt, Olivia Colman Nancy, Claire Goose Mandy, Shaun Dooley Mike, Timothy West Metzler
Writer Danny Brocklehurst, creator Paul Abbott

• crime zapper •

• Two of Britain’s most watchable actors, John Simm and Jim Broadbent, have just started filming a new psychological thriller called Exile, created by Paul Abbott and written by Danny Brocklehurst (The Street, Sorted and Clocking Off). The drama, which is being filmed in Manchester, will unfold in three hour-long episodes and follows Tom (Simm) as he returns to his hometown to delve into the truth of events that occurred between him and his father, Sam (Broadbent). Tom is a journalist whose life and career are in ruins, and his once formidable father has Alzheimer’s, and is being cared for by Tom’s sister, Nancy (Olivia Coleman). Trying to prod his father’s failing memory, Tom wants to unearth what really happened 18 years before, only to uncover a devastating crime. The cracking cast is boosted by Shaun Dooley, Timothy West and Claire Goose. Paul Abbott has written some of the boldest and spikiest dramas on UK TV in recent years, including Shameless, State of Play and Touching Evil, and Exile promises to be a must-see drama. Abbott says, ‘Creating the series came from looking at the effect events have on families – and how that changes lives forever. Working with John [Simm] again is always a pleasure, he does seem to have turned into a muse of mine, and I’m delighted that we have the calibre of Jim [Broadbent] alongside him.’ Simm, who before appearing in the recent hit Life on Mars was excellent in State of Play, says, ‘Danny’s written a great script, it’s a wonderful cast, and I can’t wait to start work.’ Exile will go out on BBC1 next year.

• If you hate Mondays, Radio 4‘s Charles Paris mystery Murder in the Title should raise a grin. Bill Nighy returns as the waster actor-cum-sleuth. This is a lively and fun four-parter, and Nighy is appealingly reckless as the out-of-work thesp easily distracted by women and booze. When a small role in a terrible play in Rugland comes his way, his ‘semi-ex-wife’ Frances virtually boots him out of the door. Soon nasty accidents befall cast and crew, and ‘unprofessional’ Charles falls foul of the various pompous has-beens in the ensemble, before he is nearly stabbed through a canvas screen… Written by Jeremy Front from the novel by Simon Brett, Murder in the Title is on Monday, 22 Nov, at 11.30am. Or catch it on iPlayer.

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