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In August of 1963 a gang of robbers spectacularly hit the overnight mail train from Glasgow to London in the United Kingdom in what was considered the crime of the century. Known to one and all as The Great Train Robbery, the story would keep the British public enthralled for well over 40 years and is the subject of the latest series from Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall

Split into two 90-minute parts, The Robber’s Tale and The Copper’s Tale, The Great Train Robbery first tells the story from the gang’s perspective up through the successful completion of the robbery and then follows up in the second installment with the emphasis on the police investigation of the crime. The series is available via Netflix streaming and comes highly recommended.

One of the joys of watching and writing about television is that every now and then you are privileged to see a star-making performance. Luke Evans absolutely shines in the role of Bruce Reynolds, the leader of the gang, and with upcoming roles in the reboots of The Crow and Dracula, we are about to see a lot more of this talented Welshman who first caught the attention of many in Fast and Furious 6. Here Evans dominates every scene he is in, which is an impressive trick when working with the likes of Academy Award winner Jim Broadbent, who plays DCS Tommy Butler.

The Robber’s Tale sets the tone well with the various members of the gang introduced into the gathering plot. Martin Compston, excellent in 2012’s Line of Duty, turns in another useful performance as Roy James and Jack Roth stands out as the violence-bubbling-under-the-surface Charlie Wilson. Chibnall’s screenplay also notes how little Ronnie Biggs, probably the most notorious of the robbers, actually had in the involvement of the crime. “We’re taking on the establishment,” notes Reynolds at one point and indeed they were with somewhat predictable results.

There’s a brilliant moment when Evans as Reynolds realizes just how much trouble they are in. “It’s too much” he says to the news that they have stolen over 2.6 million pounds, some 41 million in today’s terms.

A Copper’s Tale picks up the story four days after the robbery. The crime has caught the imagination of the British public in its audacity and there is already considerable political pressure placed on the police. DCS Butler is placed in charge of the investigation and pulls together a handpicked group of officers to track down the gang. To say Broadbent is good is something of a redundancy; the veteran actor always appears to be at the top of his game. Here he plays a fairly unlikeable workaholic who nonetheless is known for getting the job done. Robert Glenister and Tim Pigott-Smith are DI Frank Williams and DS Maurice Ray respectively and one of my few complaints about the show is that it would have been nice to see more of these actors, particularly Pigott-Smith.

Stylistically The Great Train Robbery is something of a mixed bag. The standard vehicles, clothes etc. all place the series in the early 60’s, but there’s little that marks it as special when it comes to representing the 60’s. This is in contrast to say Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel, which stands as something of a homage to the era. However it was nice to see the show nail the strange twilight that occurs during the English summer. London is approximately the same longitude as Calgary and there’s a peculiar dawn to sunrise light in the early hours, even at 4am, which the filmmakers correctly portrayed.

Chibnall picks his moments in the overall story of The Great Train Robbery. By the time Buster Edwards and Reynolds are ultimately apprehended, both Biggs and Wilson had escaped prison with the former starting his 36 years on the run and the notoriety that came with it. Ultimately as the titles indicate this is Robber’s Tale and a Copper’s Tale about Reynolds and Butler and so it make sense from a story standpoint that the escapades of Wilson and Biggs get no further coverage.

“It wasn’t supposed to be the crime of the bleeding century,” a frustrated Reynolds comments as the authorities swing into action. But it was and Chibnall does a nice job of framing that moment in history.

 

– Wallace Poulter