For thirteen weeks in the summer months of 1969, Friday night ITV audiences were held gripped by a gritty, superbly scripted black & white British crime series from London Weekend Television which, today, is only a dim memory in the annals of cult TV. But thanks to Network Releasing and its latest raid on the vaults of the vintage television of yesteryear, “The Gold Robbers” is about to relive those former glories – at least among fans of classic sixties drama. This four-disc set is only available via the Network Releasing website, at www.Networkdvd.co.uk; but if you’ve enjoyed their two box sets of the excellent espionage series “Callan” earlier this year, then prepare yourself for something of equal quality and unparalleled distinction. The production values of late-sixties regionally produced network TV may creak to the modern viewer, but telly drama simply doesn’t come better than this -- whatever the era.
Inspired by the murky events surrounding the so-called Great Train Robbery of 1963 and the ensuing police investigation into that crime, “The Gold Robbers” was conceived, produced and party written by John Hawkesworth and tells the story of a highly organised £5.5 million gold heist and its consequences from the point of view of everybody involved or affected, from the lowliest small-time con artist all the way up to the highest echelons of big business and politics, as well as the men charged with investigating the crime.
A former art director in the British cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s, Hawkesworth moved into production and later began writing for the screen before eventually coming to TV during the middle sixties, where he made his name producing a wide range of well-known dramas headed by the hugely popular “Upstairs, Downstairs” and the Blitz drama “Danger: UXB”. “The Gold Robbers” displays the same committed approach to inventive plotting, diverse but interconnecting storylines and a deeply nuanced and involved level of characterisation, that made “Upstairs, Downstairs” so influential in the seventies. The casting is exemplary: headed by a magnificent Peter Vaughan as the incorruptible and dogged Detective Chief Superintendent Cradock, loyally assisted by his doughty Welsh sidekick Detective Superintendent Thomas (Atro Morris) -- the series’ guest stars over the weeks in which Cradock and his small team attempt to unravel the complexities of a meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated robbery, read like a who’s who of the British stage & screen from the sixties and seventies: George Cole, Peter Bowles, Roy Dotrice, Ian Hendry, Joss Ackland, Patrick Allen and Bernard Hepton, to name but a fraction of the participants. Even the less well-known names are well up to the mark.
The first episode begins with a fifteen minute filmed sequence in which the actual staging of the robbery is depicted in great detail, and shown to be a highly organised operation incorporating a wide spectrum of the criminal underworld. £5.5 million in gold bars -- constituting the entire gold reserve of a small African commonwealth nation being propped up by the British Government – has been flown into a small airport in Kent via Victa Airlines -- both owned by the asset-stripping business tycoon Richard Bolt (Richard Leech). After a timed diversion caused by a marksman blowing up the petrol tank of an adjacent parked car from a nearby cottage, a stolen British Rail van full of tooled up gang members deal with the police escort, one of them spraying blinding ammonia into their faces. A nearby radio van intercepts the police call-in frequencies to delay any backup, by impersonating the voice of the chief officer in charge; one of the security guards driving the security van into which the gold had already been deposited after leaving the plane is a plant, and speeds off with the fortune into a waiting air freighter arranged by the villains who have also chloroformed the air traffic controller and arranged their own air route out of the country. One Police officer manages to escape the net and sets out by motorbike to raise the alarm, but is felled by a trip-wire across the road and killed.
The gold bullion vanishes into thin air and the methodical, painstaking and determined investigation of Chief Superintendent Cradock begins.
Every episode begins by repeating some of that initial footage of the actual robbery, but focuses on one isolated aspect of it, usually concentrating on the point of view of a different participant each week whose been paid to accomplish a specific task during the heist – a series of links, then, in the chain that Cradock hopes will eventually lead him to be able to assemble the pieces that make the bigger picture. Each week, a few more details of the initial robbery are added that tell us just a bit more about how the robbers pulled off the audacious raid, while Cradock’s investigation concentrates on trying to find evidence to link his suspect to the events of that day. The whole series appears to have been meticulously planned out from start to finish, the thirteen pieces fitting together to bring more and more coherence with every episode. Quite often, the viewer is slightly ahead of Cradock and his team since we get to see the links form as apparently minor characters turn out to assume greater importance and play a bigger role down the line as the series reaches its conclusion. But aside from the continuing investigation and the mystery of the shadowy Mr Big behind the whole raid, there is also a human drama played out with each episode, invariably focusing on one of the more minor players in the robbery -- usually some small-time criminal whose been paid a relatively trivial amount from the haul -- since these are the most likely contenders to eventually give Cradock the break in the case he will need in order to proceed.
Almost inadvertently then, and without compromising the suspense or the mystery value in each instalment’s week-by-week development of the story behind the raid, the series also builds up a far-reaching social portrait of Britain in the late sixties: the web of connections, those involved or affected in some way, extends right across the class spectrum, from petty working class con men like Barry Porter (George Cole) -- paid to delay any back up by intercepting police radio messages -- or the taciturn and cuckolded marksman Freddy Lamb (Roy Dotrice) -- desperately trying to cling on to his big spending, adulterous wife -- to the anonymous, middle class/middle management accountant Oscroft (Bernard Hepton), who hides the sums being divvied out to pay the raiders from his client’s business funds with book-cooking sleight of hand, but finds his home life increasingly under strain.
The porousness of the classes during the sixties is one of the decade’s defining features; aristocrats and moneyed ‘beautiful people’ like Stephanie Conroy (Jenifer Hilary) -- a trendy magazine photographer – began to mix socially in the capital’s nightclubs with working class ‘rough’ like her jailbird husband Peter Conroy (Geoffrey Whitehead): a trendy, handsome but hopelessly recidivist individual who skips the country after being paid to drive the van carrying the gold bullion into the waiting air freighter. Further on up the class scale there’s the dashing, Eton educated Major Timothy Fry (a plum part for the gravel-voiced Patrick Allen, who never had a better role), a World War 2 veteran who turned mercenary after being paid to fight during the Biafra Secession; his men formed the heavy mob during the raid, and now he’s committed to helping one of them evade the heat and get his family out of the country before Cradock can find a pretext to nail him. In fact, World War 2 and its aftermath seem to cast a long shadow over the world of the late-sixties and, consequently, the participants and players who take part across the full scope of the drama: Josef Tyzack (Alfred Lynch), the Polish Industrial chemist who saw his whole village exterminated by the Nazis and developed a callous lack of empathy for human suffering as a result, becomes the man who sprays the ammonia during the raid; the chloroformed air traffic controller Derek Hartford (Joss Ackland) is an ex RAF pilot, disillusioned with the post-war consensus and looking to emigrate to Rhodesia, until UDI under the white racist regime of Ian Smith put paid to that idea!
As DCS Cradock unearths these bit part players in the robbery, he comes up against a wall of silence. No one will talk. It soon becomes clear that some powerful interests in the shady world of London gangland, principally nightclub mafia don George Nechros (Johnny Shannon) are deeply involved and are busy silencing anyone who looks like giving the police a lead. But Cradock is also getting pressure from above: the gold was being delivered to the Bank of England for safe keeping while the tottering African regime to whom it belonged dealt with a raging civil war. But all the gold had originally been supplied by the UK Government in the first place, in order to prop up the country’s UK friendly government – a fact it isn’t too keen on having publicly known. The airport and the airline transporting the bullion were both owned by a powerful business magnate, who also owns a National tabloid newspaper reporting on the story. Obviously partly based on Rupert Murdoch (and possibly another powerful and vocal newspaper magnate of the time, Cecil King) -- who’d recently bought The Sun and turned it into a tabloid in 1969 -- Richard Bolt takes a keen personal interest in Cradock’s investigation, a factor that might potentially putt him in a difficult position. If the ambiguous portrait that lies behind Leech’s performance was indeed based on Murdoch, then it’s ironic that a few years after this series was transmitted, the failing LWT had to be bailed out by the Australian tycoon himself!
A fraught relationship with his son (Nicholas Ball) and unseen estranged wife also get in the way of Cradock’s investigations, and when some of the shady interests behind the robbery (as well as jealous colleagues) get wind of his illicit (and failed) relationship with a divorced antiques dealer, they sense an opportunity to ruin him. Despite the reforms of the second term Wilson Government, attitudes to morality were still as crude in 1969, it seems, as they had been during the Macmillan years. Cradock’s attempts to use the recently popular tabloid newspapers to his own advantage also come with a heavy price attached when a sensation hungry reporter threatens to destabilise the DCS’s attempts to capture one of the raid’s key culprits as he makes for the Swiss border.
Aside from the deceptively upbeat jazzy lounge music theme that accompanies the title sequence and end credits both (as well as some of the repeated weekly footage of the robbery), each episode plays out in grainy black and white with no music at all – just direct, powerful performances, particularly from Vaughan as the no-nonsense Cradock and Richard Leech as the charming but potentially ruthless Richard Bolt. There is not one single weak episode among the baker’s dozen: the tough, realistic, pessimistic portrait of a corrupt late-60s Britain anticipates the downbeat qualities of ‘70s British cinema, particularly in films like “Get Carter”; there’s some surprisingly grim imagery in a few of the episodes (such as a scene where Cradock discovers a burned out van full of blackened, graphically scorched bodies), and even some topless female nudity -- still a rarity on television in the sixties. But, arguably, few big screen dramas would be able to find quite the same amount of room as this magnificent series does for such an inclusive, wide reaching examination of character, motive and class -- let alone the gripping enumeration of the connections between such apparently widely separated worlds and interests as those of Governmental and finance politics, big business, the gangland crime world and Swiss banking. An episode like “An Oddly Honest Man”, in which Cradock knows Ian Hendry’s character, the ex-gun runner Tom Goodwin, must have been the air freighter pilot who flew the gold out of the country, yet cannot find a way to prove it, is played so much more delicately and patiently -- but only because it has a full hour at its disposal, in which to carefully adumbrate and explore the nuances of the situation. The format of the series actually still seems incredibly modern. Any current drama structured along similar lines would almost certainly be seen as innovative and ground-breaking. The writing remains nuanced and socially relevant throughout and directors such as TV veterans Don Leaver and Bill Bains (old hands on “The Avengers” during its videotaped Teddington Studios days) do a fine job of making you forget the low production values of the era.
“The Gold Robbers” comes to DVD in an exclusive four-disc set which includes all thirteen episodes, plus the feature-length repeat version of episodes twelve and thirteen, joined together under a different title and included as a special extra feature. A gallery of full-colour production stills for every episode shows this gritty series could have had an entirely different look, thanks to some fairly colourful production design made evident in some of the photos. The DVD set is only available as an exclusive from www.Networkdvd.co.uk and comes very highly recommended.