Having hated, absolutely loathed, Jeff Pope's Lucan for ITV, I was amazed to find I loved Chris Chibnall's Great Train Robbery on BBC1. Why such polarity? Both were paths well-trodden over the years, both had similar casts, both hinged on deeply unpleasant people. Both were two-parters. Well, the former was by-the-numbers, made the mistake of trying to find something empathetic in its principal character, who at the end of the day was the pampered, pompous descendent of a Crimean War loony, and had absolutely nothing to say.
Chibnall, on the other hand, divided his narrative cleanly in two. 'A Robber's Tale' was followed by 'A Copper's Tale'. We had a cameo appearance of the second-in-command policeman (Frank Williams, played by Robert Glenister) at the beginning of part one, and a coming-together of the main copper and main robber at the end of part two. Note that it's robber and copper singular, Bruce Reynolds and Tommy Butler, not the story of the gang or the squad. Thus we could have fully-developed character studies - the ambitious Reynolds, the jaded Butler at the top of his profession but unable to let go until he's caught the last of the gang - which in turn good actors could be hired, both of whom gave eye-opening performances. You'd expect that, of course, from Jim Broadbent as DCS Butler, whose drooping eyes told us volumes, but I had never come across Luke Evans (Reynolds) before. Apparently he's primarily a film actor; this may be his first TV lead. Anyway, I can't wait to see more of him. Evans dominated his 'tale' every bit as completely as Broadbent dominated his, and when they came together at the end Evans held his own.
It was this two-handed scene which exemplified the main difference between The Great Train Robbery and the woeful Lucan. There was nothing new for either writer to say about the crimes themselves but Chibnall had a great deal to say about the frenzy created by the train caper.At the end of the day all that was stolen was money on its way to be destroyed. Yes, train driver Mills was bashed over the head with needless brutality - but he was fit enough to drive the train a few minutes later. The real reason for the frenzy was that the robbery was seen as an attack on the ruling class - a bunch of chippy South Londoners interfering with Her Majesty's Mail. The ludicrous sentences doled out - 25 and 30 years for robbery, which even now (a far more punitive era, only draws a 14 year maximum - were denounced as ludicrous at the time and, as Chibnall's protagonists discussed in the culminating scene, in themselves led to the inexorable rise of gun crime in Britain. If a tea-leaf can be sentenced to serve longer than a murderer or a rapist for a robbery armed only with coshes, why risk leaving witnesses alive?
Brilliant. The BBC Drama Department has had a good year overall, and these two films were as good as any.