The Great Train Robbery, BBC1 - TV review: Bruce and the boys clean up in a gripping tale that's back in the news

 

Oh, it was a great train robbery. The best. And what made it so good? The fact that the timing was absolutely spot-on. They're still at it too, with the death of Ronnie Biggs yesterday giving Chris Chibnall and Julian Jarrold's The Great Train Robbery (BBC1) a publicity boost worthy of old Brucie Reynolds himself.

The film itself set off like a locomotive. In fact, the direction of its first five or so minutes may be the best thing I've seen on telly all year. In it, three dapper men in suits strolled – tick-tock – into a BOAC building at Heathrow in order to steal sixty-odd grand. But the editing and direction was so rhythmic and stylish – lift opened, latch closed, tick-tock – that as a viewer you were tapping your feet in time to the action.

And then, suddenly, the rhythm changed and the suave men in suits launched into a Clockwork Orange-like battery on some security guards and Nina Simone started singing "Sinnerman". Glorious. And it wasn't until about five minutes in that anyone actually said anything.

"A Robber's Tale" is the first of a two-hander. We see the Great Train Robbery from the POV of Luke Evans' Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of a plan that would go down in criminal – indeed, British – lore. Tonight's second part, "A Copper's Tale", with Jim Broadbent as DCS Tommy Butler, will show us how Reynolds' mob were eventually fingered by the Flying Squad.

Evans played Reynolds as something like Jason Statham playing Don Draper. He was all geezerish charisma, rather than menace. It was a sympathetic reading of the man, who died earlier this year. I'm sure the blokes on the train who were attacked would take umbrage with the depiction of him as a gennulmun feef but, to be fair, he did look well cool in those specs.

And that was the point, really. It wasn't so much the amount of the money that the gang nicked (about £41m in 2013 money, or as Evans realises after the event – "too much"), but the audacity and complexity of the plan. It wasn't far from genius.

As Chibnall's script explained with a criminally exact execution, the gang got a tip-off about a train filled with loot, worked out how to change the signals to make it stop where they wanted, and how to unattach the carriage they needed and move it to where their getaway cars.

The whole scheme is manna to a dramatist, but Jarrold's direction of the heist sequence was Hitchcockian in its suspense-building. Any fool who's heard of Ronnie Biggs knew they were going to get away with it – for now at least – but by the time the gang's army trucks were on their way back to the farm, I was almost stood up.

I'm not even sure if the only let-down was a let-down or not. Much of the dialogue was spoken in London TV Gangsterese ("You gotta dream big, Chaz"; "We'll need to bring in muscle whatever happens in case things go boss-eyed" etc so on) but, hell, this wasn't social realism and it was a notch above Guy Ritchie, at any rate.

A special mention, too, must go to Tim Roth's son Jack who brought a bug-eyed, albeit cartoonish, menace to Charlie Wilson that was worthy of his father's work with Alan Clarke.

Tonight's second part was set up beautifully by the best scene here. As the gang counted their cash, they gathered round a police radio that buzzed, clicked and whirred before we heard an officer's voice: "Sarge, it's me. You're not going to believe this. They've only gone and stolen a train." I'll be bladdy watchin'.

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