1 9 8 6 (UK)
1 x 95 minute episode
The Great Train Robbery of 1963 has passed into legend as a nostalgic memory (especially for criminals and journalists) of a seemingly golden era when villains went about their business without guns and reporters fought each other for real, if occasionally dubious, exclusives.
On the night of 8 August 1963, between 14 and 17 masked men stopped a mail train on the main Glasgow to London line, unloaded 128 bags of money and made off with over £2½ million in used, untraceable banknotes.
It was the biggest robbery ever carried out in Britain, and even though the train driver was attacked and injured, it captured the public imagination with its overtones of Robin Hoodery. When the villains were brought to justice and some jailed for 30 years apiece, there were murmurings about the unfairness of it all.
A few years later, the legend found a hero. Ronnie Biggs escaped from Wandsworth prison to become the country’s most wanted man. In 1970 he resurfaced briefly in Australia, but before the authorities arrived, he had gone again.
What happened next is the subject of this BBC1 film, scripted by journalist Keith Waterhouse from a book of the same name by Anthony Delano.
The Daily Express, embroiled in a circulation war with the Daily Mail, needed a good tale. In 1974, a young staff reporter called Colin MacKenzie came up with one – a contact had put him in touch with Biggs, languishing broke in Brazil.
There followed a grandiose cloak-and-dagger operation involving the newspaper and Scotland Yard, which led to the arrest of Biggs in Rio de Janeiro and a world exclusive for the Express, raising its circulation by 800,000 copies in a day. But, as the international press corps arrived in Rio, Biggs went free because it emerged that he couldn’t be extradited from Brazil.
How all this came about is explored in Slip-Up, with Jeremy Kemp playing (“Slipper of the Yard”), who pursued the robber, Nicholas Le Prevost as MacKenzie, and Larry Lamb as Biggs. It reveals how obsessive competition drove the popular press into a riotous orgy of mutual backstabbing.
The whole thing had a touch of Ealing Comedy about it, and in the end, everyone got something out of the saga. Slipper survived the humiliation of returning home without his prisoner (though was allegedly nicknamed by his colleagues “Slip-up of the Yard”), the reporters got their stories and still thrive, and Ronnie Biggs got his freedom.
Broadcast of the £600,000 film – directed by James Cellan Jones and originally scheduled to air on 30 December 1986 – was delayed for nearly two years when the BBC shelved it following a threat of legal action from Slipper.
Cuts were made, and scenes were added that made it clear the English police knew there was no extradition treaty between Britain and Brazil before Slipper left London, and the title was changed to The Great Paperchase, switching the emphasis from the police to the press.
The film finally aired nearly two years later on BBC1 Friday 11 November 1988.
Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper
Nicholas Le Prevost