An immaculate Savile Row suit, black-rimmed glasses, angular features and a cigar casually balanced between two fingers: as the Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds in a new BBC two-part drama The Great Train Robbery, Welsh actor Luke Evans could have almost walked off the set of Mad Men.
That outlandishly smart gangster look has become so prevalent on our screens that it’s become a cliché. The beautifully art-directed nightclubs, the gleaming sports cars and the beautiful women are all part of what many perceive to be an inappropriately glamourised take on criminal life. But if the iconic 60s gangster has become a cliché, then it’s one Reynolds invented.
The robbery of the Glasgow to London Royal Mail train in August 1963 remains the most infamous British crime of the modern era. Such was the appetite for the story it became hard to separate myth from reality. But the facts are that Reynolds was the mastermind behind the robbery, leading a gang of 17 villains who stopped the train by tampering with signalling equipment, coshed the driver Jack Mills over the head, then stole the £2.6million on board. Most of his cohorts were arrested in the immediate aftermath but Reynolds spent six years on the run with his wife and son in Mexico, Canada and France.
I first met Reynolds in 2000. I was in my early 20s; he was just about to turn 70. I was working for a magazine and called him to suggest a story where he took me on a pub tour of underworld London – the sorts of places where Reynolds and his gang planned the robbery.
“We’ll need to hire a car,” he said over the phone. “I suggest you get hold of a classic S-Type Jaguar. That’s the sort we used for robberies and it’ll look the part in the pictures.” I scribbled down his instructions. “And you’ll want a photographer that can shoot us on the hoof but make things look a bit special.” It was immediately apparent how he became the de facto leader of the train robbers – there was a precision to his thinking and a natural authority in the way he articulated himself.
From the outset of his criminal career, he saw himself as a Raffles figure, as comfortable among the higher echelons of society as he was the criminal fraternity. He had grown up in poverty in the suburbs of south-west London but, like many of the generation who grew up after the war, he aspired to a life more exciting and free than the one endured by his parents.
When he was four years old his mother died, while giving birth to his sister. His father worked in a factory and as a porter – “It was the Depression and he did whatever work he could find,” said Reynolds. Until Bruce, there was no criminality among his family. Smart but too rebellious to succeed academically, he identified crime as the most viable route to the high life.
“I was motivated by fast cars, wine, women and song,” he told me. “They weren’t things ordinary working-class kids could expect out of life.”
His territory stretched from Belgravia to Mayfair (“If you’re a thief, you operate where the real money is”). Violence just didn’t fit in with Reynolds’s self-image: “Violence was inefficient,” he explained. “Gangsters make their money from intimidation and bullying. I was a thief so I preferred to rely on cunning. The threat of violence was often needed, of course. But I saw using it as a failure.”
This philosophy wasn’t shared by all of his fellow thieves. During an earlier robbery at Heathrow Airport in 1962 (depicted vividly at the beginning of A Robber’s Tale, the first part of The Great Train Robbery) Reynolds and his gang were said to have beaten security guards with sticks. It was something he regretted – but it wasn’t until he assumed the role of gang leader the following year that he could impose his own rules regarding violence. The train robbery was carried out on his insistence without any firearms (“Apart from anything else, firearm possession carried a much heavier sentence”). He implied the assault on train driver Jack Mills had been exaggerated by the authorities, even though Mills never fully recovered from his injuries.
We drove to the King’s Road where Bruce took me for coffee in the Picasso café. It was here, and at the nearby Chelsea Potter pub, that villains would mix with artists, pop stars and actors of 60s London.
“Michael Caine and Terence Stamp would be in here all the time,” he said. “Caine was the one I always wanted to play me in a movie. He has that working-class gentleman thing I like to think I embodied.” He became friends with the actor, who is said to have based his look as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (the glasses, suit and overcoat) on Reynolds.
When he was eventually captured by Detective Tommy Butler (played by Jim Broadbent in the second part of the drama), Reynolds was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He served just ten. On the high-security wing at Durham Prison, he shared space with villains like Ronnie Kray and Charlie Richardson. He suggested their status allowed them a lifestyle far removed from that of the ordinary lag.
“My wife hates me saying this, but those were some of the best times of my life,” he said. “I’d work out in the gym all day and by evening I’d be feeling like King Kong.” He claimed they’d “wind up back in someone’s cell smoking joints and eating pancakes, cooked on a Bunsen burner”.
By the time he was released in 1978, aged 47, he managed to rebuild his relationship with his wife Angela (they’d divorced while in prison). The stresses of a long life on the run had taken their toll and she’d spent time in hospital suffering from mental illness. Bruce devoted most of the last 30 years of his life to nursing her. He had managed to retain just enough of his money to tick over, living modestly in Croydon while nurturing a new career as writer and consultant on various films.
Reynolds died in Feburary aged 81, missing out on the chance to see this dramatisation of his biggest ever heist. But for a man whose life was defined by a robbery that became a national myth, the bright lights, sharp suits and thrilling action of A Robber’s Tale are no doubt exactly as he had always envisaged it.
The Great Train Robbery is on Wednesday and Thursday at 8:00pm on BBC1.