The Gold's Nicki Jennings isn't a real person – but her presence is vital
Charlotte Spencer plays the lone female detective hunting the Brink's-Mat robbers.
It only takes BBC drama The Gold seven minutes to bluntly remind Nicki Jennings – and its female viewers – that she's a woman in a man's world.
"Can you stick a detective on?" asks a male colleague when she answers the phone.
"You're speaking to one," she replies.
Nicki would be justified in giving him what for, but she chooses not to. In fact, there's no eye roll, heavy sigh or jaw clench. Nicki doesn't flinch an inch because it's expected. This is the way, as the Mandalorians would say. It's the early '80s and Nicki is the only female detective involved in the Brink's-Mat investigation.
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Unlike many of the names in the series, Nicki is a fictional character, but her presence is a prime example of how creative licence can be employed for maximum dramatic impact.
Her father was a prominent criminal in his younger, fitter days, his name still carrying weight in south London and beyond. If he hadn't been ground down by ill health, he'd undoubtedly still be wheeling and dealing, much to his daughter's despair.
The dichotomy between the life Nicki's father lived and the route she's taken imbues the drama with a unique tension.
With the net closing around the people involved in the conspiracy, they begin employing measures to ensure their survival, one of which is targeting police personnel in the hope that they will crumble.
Nicki is warned by a member of her team that the enemy will turn their attention to her dad and sure enough, faceless men begin appearing outside his home, watching and waiting. Unlike the corrupt officials within the force who bend for money, Nicki is not for turning. Those superficial temptations are of no interest to her, and they know it. But her dad is a different kettle of fish.
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Nicki appears largely unflappable throughout but he is her Achilles heel, as we see when she breaks down in her car after paying him a visit. By leaning on her emotion and sentimentality, there's always the possibility that she could loosen her grip on the case, in turn allowing them to tighten theirs.
Her father's criminal history also gives the drama additional emotional depth.
Nicki was raised with the sound of sirens blaring outside her bedroom window, the neon blue flooding her room as her father ducked and dived his way through life, an inconsistent presence in her childhood. Had her mindset skewed differently, she could have followed his lead, channeling her smarts and get-up-and-go into a life of crime, or at the very least developed an intense dislike and mistrust of the police.
But instead, it had the inverse affect on her.
"When I was young, lying in bed, I couldn't sleep 'till I heard the sirens," she tells her dad. "I'd hear one every night, sometimes near enough. Made me feel like there were other people in this world, other grown-ups that would keep me safe. I do this job so that kids like me feel safe."
The trajectory of her life rested on a metaphorical coin toss. It just so happened that this is the course she carved out for herself, but it could have been so different.
Many would have expected her to stay firmly within the lines, mirroring the likes of Jeannie Savage – "My mum looked like you, knackered from covering up for my old man" – or Kathleen Meacock, whose life entered into a state of limbo the day her husband Micky McAvoy was sentenced to 25 years behind bars.
Nicki could have done as her dad did, her dedication unwavering, partly rooted in misguided loyalty and partly the result of not knowing anything different. But the universe had another plan for her.
The role of Nicki also gives creator and writer Neil Forsyth further opportunity to explore how our environments shape us. While the authorities argued that John Palmer and Edwyn Cooper's role in the scheme was entirely motivated by greed, they would argue that the spectre of poverty looms perennially large when you grow up with nothing, the pair unable to shake deprivation's ironclad grip, even when surrounded by wealth.
For Nicki, her motivation to deviate from what many would have expected of her stems from a profound need to shield children from what she experienced when she was younger. Like John and Edwyn, the anxiety she suffered during her unsettled childhood has abated, but it continues to linger, imprinted on her.
Nicki Jennings is vital to the success of The Gold, giving viewers a perspective that we don't get from any of the other characters, both in terms of her background and also her role as a female detective. She isn't based on a real-life figure but Nicki is inspired by a number of women in the police at the time, who carried out invaluable work in especially demanding circumstances.
Her inclusion in this retelling of the Brink's-Mat robbery is a hat-tip to them and a stroke of storytelling genius from Forsyth.
The Gold is dominated by men, but it wouldn't be half as compelling without Nicki.
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All episodes of The Gold are available to stream on BBC iPlayer now. The Gold: The Real Story Behind Brink’s-Mat: Britain’s Biggest Heist by Neil Forsyth and Thomas Turner is available to buy now.
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