‘The Great Train Robbery’: ‘A Copper’s Tale’ review

Shouldn’t Jim Broadbent have been classed as a National Treasure by now? Kept in The Tower of London with the Crown and whatnot, only to be released so that he can appear in top quality drama? Broadbent is, and always has been, the big birthday cake of drama – seeing him at once both excites and reassures. You know you’re in for something special.

And that’s what we get in A Copper’s Tale, as the Flying Squad are tasked with finding the Joe Rooks who we saw ‘alf-inch the bees an’ honey from the John Wayne. Bit of Cockney rhyming slang for you there, just to add colour to the lemon and lime (crime).

Broadbent plays DCS Butler as a dour crime-solving machine who runs on clues and Brylcreem. A creation sanded down into his present shape by years of catching scum, he emerges from a Western flick like the grizzled Sheriff striding out of the saloon, keen on justice. The hat he dramatically places on his head may as well be a white Stetson. Thirty seconds in, you’re in no doubt that Broadbent is in charge, both as character and as actor, and that everything’s going to be alright.

Last night’s A Robber’s Tale was an ensemble effort, and while A Copper’s Tale is also based around a group dynamic, it’s Broadbent who commands every movement. Everyone else becomes the frame around Butler’s irritation, which is quite a feat considering the cast includes commanding veterans such as Robert Glenister, Tim Piggott-Smith, and James Fox. We may as well just type ‘TALENT’ over and over in Caps Lock.

In the same way as we saw the robbery meticulously planned, so we see the robbery meticulously solved, with cutting-edge forensics, tea and cigarettes, shoe-leather, and good old-fashioned detective work. The investigation isn’t as glamorous as the crime, but is all the more entertaining for being so realistic. Police work is a grinding exercise in sculpting the criminals from the evidence. It’s all chipping away at the crime, working through the gang with slo-mo walking and slo-mo arrests. Okay, so not all the glamour is gone.

Criminals are caught, convictions are scored, but until all are nabbed Butler is, like a Pokemon collector, a man unsatisfied until he catches ’em all. And even when he finally collars Bruce Reynolds it feels like a Phyrric victory. The final confrontation between Butler and Reynolds ties both dramas together in a thematic bow. Both men love what they do: the buzz of being in charge, of the chase, of defying the odds. It’s a victory for one, a defeat for the other, and an end for both lives as one leaves for prison and the other for retirement.

As two stories end Chris Chibnall’s robbery diptych comes to a close in satisfying style, having managed the rare feat of recreating an historic crime and made it captivating viewing without unseemly celebration or onerous morality. A great tale worthy of 5 La-Di-Dahs (stars).

Aired at 8pm on Thursday 19 December 2013 on BBC One.

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