On first impressions, the opening episode of this two-part dramatization of Britain’s most infamous crime has all the hallmarks of a gripping crime caper. It comes complete with a fast pace, quick dialogue, fake moustaches and a sizzling Jazz soundtrack that perfectly encapsulates the 60s setting. Unfortunately, such promise of greatness gradually diminishes, paving the way for nothing more than an average drama about real life cops and robbers that does little to enhance our knowledge of those behind the raid of the Glasgow/Euston train or indeed of the men who brought them to justice.
The public’s opinion towards those who committed the robbery has always been mixed. Of course, many dismiss the crime itself as the despicable act it was, which caused lifelong trauma for train driver Jack Mills and cost the state vast amounts of added expense. Yet many of the robbers, including Bruce Reynolds and Ronnie Biggs, have enjoyed a sort-of celebrity status over the years since the robbery, their gumption at pulling off one of the greatest heists in England’s history affording them a legendary reputation. It’s this inescapable mixture of opinions that leaves Chris Chibnall’s reenactment feeling wildly unbalanced.
There’s a fun, boisterous air to the opening episode, as we watch Reynolds & co. plan and carry out the robbery, which is both disarming and frustrating. Seeing this band of thieves cheering as they realize the extent of their haul is unwisely built as a moment of celebration, with Chibnall refusing to pass judgment; presenting many in the firm as nothing more than Jack the Lads. This inability to really explore the minds of those behind the robbery means that, despite fine performances from Luke Evens and Paul Anderson in particular, ‘A Robber’s Tale’ feels slightly redundant. Those who hold the robbers in either contempt or esteem are unlikely to have their thoughts changed by what they see, while those new to The Great Train Robbery are unlikely to grasp the gravity of the crime committed due to the episode’s surprisingly light tone.
In contrast to the fast, breezy tone of ‘A Robber’s Tale’, Chibnall’s second part, which focuses on the investigation led by Tommy Butler, burns much slower. Like the first part, however, it also feels disappointingly unsatisfying. Jim Broadbent starts by bringing some much-needed gravitas to proceedings as Tommy Butler, which eventually becomes monotonous the more times he is seen walking stoically towards camera, his ferociously dyed eyebrows stuck in a permanent frown that borders on parody by the end. Like the first part, there’s just not enough material here to truly immerse yourself in and with its one too many montages of 1960s style forensics, the whole thing begins to feel like a dated version of CSI without the hook of not knowing who committed the crime.
The problem ultimately comes down to a lack of muscular material, meaning that while you may be entertained, you are never truly gripped by what you are watching. Despite a lot of potential, both episodes are never able to offer the excitement and intrigue such a story promises and sadly, that’s the real crime here.
The Great Train Robbery is out on DVD now.