Luke Evans stars in a new drama on the Great Train Robbery. On set in Yorkshire, he tells Tony Earnshaw why roles like Bruce Reynolds don’t come along every day.
It became known as the Great Train Robbery. And, perhaps more than any other infamous crime committed in living memory, it is the one most enshrouded in myth, legend and hearsay.
The bald facts are that on the night of Thursday, August 8, 1963 15 men robbed the Glasgow to London mail train by stopping it on a bridge at Ledburn in Buckinghamshire. They removed sack after sack of banknotes – more than 100 of them. In fact, they stole £2.6m – approximately £41m in today’s money. In doing so they made history for all the wrong reasons.
The year 1963 was marked with momentous happenings. Four cheeky Liverpudlians called John, Paul, George and Ringo enjoyed the first real taste of what was to become success on a global scale. In Britain television audiences were treated to a new sci-fi serial called Doctor Who. In America shots rang out and President John F Kennedy – and a libertarian dream of a 20th-century Camelot – died in Dallas, Texas.
Yet for ordinary folk the audacious assault on a Royal Mail train and the removal of a pile of money smacked of something akin to Robin Hood. As much as this was an old-fashioned robbery under arms, it also represented an all-out attack on the Establishment. And in the Sixties – a decade of seismic change across all strata of British society – it was this crime that shocked and astounded in equal measure.
Over the past half-century criminologists, cops and cons have jostled with one another to depict the definitive story of what happened that summer night. There was even a movie, Robbery, in 1968 with Stanley Baker as arch thief Paul Clifton.
It was a thinly disguised version of the Great Train Robbery albeit with the names changed. Now the story is being told for the first time with all the main players present. What’s more, there is not one film, but two.
In real life there were no film stars involved in what was first called the Cheddington mail van raid. Yet one of the ringleaders had the charisma and chutzpah to be a leading man. His name was Bruce Reynolds, and at 31 he was a career thief. In A Robber’s Tale he is played by the rising Welsh actor Luke Evans.
It is Evans who greets the Press at the abandoned Yew Tree Farm at Balne near Ferrybridge. The isolated site is doubling as Leatherslade Farm where Reynolds and his gang convened after the raid, and where the money was stashed. It is also the place where police found valuable clues after the gang had fled.
Harsh winter weather has played havoc with the film’s schedule. Today’s scenes – all exteriors in below zero temperatures – include the sequence in which a local farmer sees a convoy leaving the farm at night. Both producers and cast (wrapped up in thermals) talk up the film and its partner, portrayed from a police perspective, as being based on closed files. No embellishment.
At 34, Luke Evans is three years older than was Bruce Reynolds at the time of the crime. Hard to believe that such outrageous wrongdoing could have been masterminded by one so young. But then, says Evans, Reynolds was no ordinary criminal.
“Any leader of anything has to have a certain amount of charisma and you have to believe them,” says a blue boiler suit bedecked Evans during a snatched break in filming. “Certain people can do it and certain people can’t. Bruce always had it and he had it from a young age. During his teenage years he always observed the bigger boys around him doing the things he wanted to do. He always had these very clear aspirations of who he wanted to be and the life he wanted to live.”
Evans trots off a list of aspirations: money, cars, the ideal girl… “He just kept ticking the boxes until they were all done.”
He adds: “Bruce was a super-sharp dresser. He had his own tailors and all that stuff. Even the pictures of him in the south of France – everybody is pictured in short sleeves and he’s in this suit looking amazing, you know? Which is a great thing. He really lived the life. It was the whole package for Bruce, I think.”
It is easy, then, to fall into the trap of admiring Reynolds and his cronies – men like Gordon Goody, Charlie Wilson, Buster Edwards, Roy James and Ronnie Biggs, the small-timer who became the poster boy for the gang after fleeing to a sort of freedom in South America. Evans is quick to distance himself from any sense of hero worship.
“I don’t think we should admire criminality, no. At the end of the day they broke the law. But it’s amazing that they got away with it and it did capture the heart of the nation [and] stuck two fingers up at everything that was going on in the country.
“There was a huge support in an under-the-table sort of way with people going ‘Go on, good on you!’ It’s what dreams are made of, running away with all that money. It seems unbelievable.”
Arguments have raged for 50 years over the gang’s methods. They were said to have been unarmed yet train driver Jack Mills was coshed so severely that many believe his ordeal contributed to his death in 1970.
Evans tends to avoid such controversies and prefers to focus on the historical elements of the piece. He recalls shooting a scene with Paul Anderson, playing fellow ringleader Gordon Goody.
“We were on a train doing a really exciting, very funny bit of the story. I looked at Paul and said ‘Can you believe this scene actually happened?’ It’s part of our history. And it’s 50 years ago. I went to LA just before I started this. I was on a set talking to Hollywood actors, all in film, and they had heard about it. They know about this story. It transcends time, nations and other races. It was a very famous moment.”
Halfway through his interview Evans is dragged away to finish a scene in which a suspicious local visits the farm and asks some awkward questions. When he returns, his army boots clomping through an icy room with peeling wallpaper and bare floorboards, he returns to the subject of Bruce Reynolds.
“In his book Bruce talked about how much he liked the planning part of the whole thing. Double guessing what the police would do, thinking about the contingency plans, having them all set up. In the film there’s a lot of that planning. There’s a blackboard, they set it all out, there’s diagrams and explaining. They’d question everything. You can imagine them doing it for hours and hours.
“They all enjoyed it but I think Bruce enjoyed it the most. Because he didn’t want to mess up. He wasn’t very good at failing. He wanted to be the best and the only way you’re the best is to be very thorough and in this business you had to be extremely thorough. Planning was a huge part of the excitement.”
Evans is smart enough to recognise that playing Reynolds separates him from the rest of the gang, just as Reynolds himself recognised that stealing such an immense amount of money meant more trouble than any one of them could grasp.
“It wasn’t supposed to be that amount of money,” agrees Evans. “It was a scary moment when all of that money was literally piled up in one room. The other boys were excited about it but there was a point where Bruce was thinking ‘This is all well and good but how are we going to get rid of this money? It’s too much.’
“Even then he was thinking ahead. He was always on the front foot.”
Evans has carved a promising career in movies. He was the dogged detective pursuing a killer through the teeming streets of 19th Raven, in which John Cusack played Edgar Allan Poe. And he worked with the late Paul Walker in Fast & Furious 6 after which he went on to play Bard the Bowman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Television is a new experience.
“TV has changed an awful lot in the last few years, drama especially. You see great things being produced now. I wanted to be part of it. This came along and I loved the script. I didn’t want to change a single word of it. It’s the perfect platform and the perfect role condensed into one film.
“There were a lot of fantastic characters in the real story. Hopefully we do them all justice. I feel very responsible, even more so now Bruce has passed on (Reynolds died in his sleep on February 28 this year, aged 81) that we do a good job and we make them all proud. And bring this story that captured the imagination of the nation all those years ago back to life on its 50th anniversary. It’s very exciting.”
But that’s the glamour of television. In real life most of the gang received prison sentences of between 20 and 30 years. Reynolds was caught in 1968, jailed in 1969 and released in 1979. In later life he confessed to living on handouts from other ageing crooks. Of the rest of the gang, several are still alive including an ailing Ronnie Biggs, now 84. And a lot of the cash was never recovered.
Was it worth it? Evans ponders the inevitable question. “If you had asked Bruce that question I don’t think he would have regretted anything,” he says. “If you’d asked any of the robbers you wouldn’t get a negative response from any of them. I don’t think they regret anything they did. Certainly Bruce would have done the same thing had he had the opportunity. I don’t think he would have changed his life. Deep down he was very proud of what he accomplished. He was a high-rolling criminal. And a very cool man.”
The Great Train Robbery is on BBC1, Wednesday, December 18 at 8pm.