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

It wasn’t always called ‘The Great Train Robbery’, but history has a way of swaddling itself in mythology.

Back in 1963 it was known as ‘The Cheddington Mail Van Raid’. And in the same way as that title removes any notion of excitement and romanticism from the act, so Chris Chibnall’s A Robber’s Tale strips away the mythology that has crystallised around the greatest folkloric tale in British larceny and presents us with the facts (or as close to them) of what was a train robbery that time wrongly mythologised into something ‘Great’.

Firstly though, there’s a small issue to address. Blame Mad Men if you like, but TV lately seems obsessed with capturing the spirit of the 60s in as stylish a shorthand as it can; snapshotting the swingingest decade of the 20th century with sashaying buttocks upholstered in tailored tweed, smoky ‘whisky rocks’ rendezvous, or a few jazz notes, and A Robber’s Tale is no different.

In the opening BOAC heist, A Robber’s Tale is so suave that it comes across less like a seductive invite into an apocryphally cool period and more a slick Crimewatch re-enactment with a Nina Simone soundtrack. It’s saved from looking like a lesson in 60s Cool-A-Rama only by Broadchurch writer Chibnall punctuating the heist with amusing near-miss moments.

Fortunately the substance swiftly shines through the overwhelming style. Chibnall’s script looks at the gang without favour or criticism, largely leaving it to us to watch both sides of the story (A Copper’s Tale airs tomorrow) and draw our own conclusions.

Luke Evans, all spectacles and jawbone as ringleader Bruce Reynolds, commands a group of ‘Ooh, where’ve I seen him before?’ faces in his heist, including ‘him off Peaky Blinders‘ (Paul Anderson) and ‘that bloke what was in Line of Duty‘ (Martin Compston). It’s a great cast and together they grasp the jittery Cockney energy that comes before, during, and after the dramatic job of stealing over £41million in today’s money. Crime, it turns out, is 10% planning, 90% worrying about the planning.

By showing us the Ocean’s Elevensy organising in detail, and then the nerve-wracking execution of the robbery, Chibnall demonstrates the audaciousness of the crime, but crucially also that the gang’s greatest mistake is underestimating just how audacious their crime is. They have no intention of committing, as Reynolds puts it, ‘The crime of the bleedin’ century’: they’re just unlucky enough to be that lucky, and then not quite good enough to rid themselves of all the evidence of their success. Their ambition spirals out of control. They’re not criminal masterminds, they’re just criminals. Blokes with motivation.

That’s where Chibnall truly succeeds. Not just in creating a gripping reconstruction of an infamous crime, but in boiling the myth back down to the all too human actions and truths at the centre of it. No matter how ‘Great’ history labels it, there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. As depictions go though, this is as close as it gets.

Aired at 8pm on Wednesday 18 December 2013 on BBC One.

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