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The Great Train Robbery, BBC One

Did the BBC's The Great Train Robbery (BBC One, Wednesday/Thursday, 8pm) glamorise crime?

Of course it did. It showed a good-looking criminal smoking a cigar as a man was beaten over the head. It played Frank Sinatra over pictures of the gang throwing stolen money into the air. And it played slow-motion pictures of the men piling bags of loot into the getaway lorry, like it was something to linger over, like it was something rather wonderful, like crime is beautiful.

And there was no one better at perpetuating that illusion of the beautiful crime than the robbers themselves. They stopped the night train from Glasgow to Euston in 1963 because they were greedy, but over the years - in the papers, in the movies and in their own heads - the motive changed from cash to something more noble: fame, perhaps, or a desire, in the words of one of the robbers, to put one in eye of the old duffers who run this country.

Sadly, the BBC's version of events bought into this even as it assumed a lofty air of neutrality with one episode on the robbers and another on the cops. Right at the end of the cops episode, for example, Bruce Reynolds, the leader of the gang, told policeman Tommy Butler that the crime had never been about the money. "It's about the buzz, building the team and trusting other men with your life."

Reynolds may have really believed this, but it's much more likely he came to believe it once he was embraced by the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s and embraced it back.

Ronnie Biggs, who died this week, was also good at this: the pictures of him with cocktails and girls in bikinis made it all look like a working-class victory over the establishment, or perhaps even a victimless crime.

It wasn't, because the train driver was badly beaten, an incident which was given about 30 seconds of screen time. There was also, right at the start, talk of the stolen money being "surplus cash from Scottish banks"; in other words, banks can afford to lose it - a sentiment with which we are even more likely to sympathise now than then.

However, the fact Biggs died on the same day as the first episode of The Great Train Robbery meant much of the naivety of believing the robbers weren't just in it for the money was exposed.

The policemen who really hunted down the robbers went on TV to spell out how they saw it: the robbers were acting in their own interests and their own interests only.

So why did the BBC make this drama?

It's probably because there is a kind of fetish for the 1950s and 1960s right now, or it might be because Luke Evans, who played Reynolds, looks good in horn-rim glasses.

Whatever it was, the act of making The Great Train Robbery can only end up feeding the untruth, strengthening the myth and adding more glint and glitter to the shiny illusion of a squalid little crime from long ago.

Contextual targeting label: 
Burglary

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