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The Gold review – a 24-carat drama about one of the UK’s most shocking robberies

The 1983 Brink’s-Mat robbery was the largest score in British history – and now it’s been turned into a hugely entertaining BBC series. Prepare to enjoy some incredible retro sets

Jack Lowden as Kenneth Noye in The Gold. Photograph: Sally Mais/BBC/Tannadice Pictures

The British criminal underworld has a lore as rich as Arthurian legend, with its own errant knights (Jack the Hat, Ronnie and Reggie), daring adventures (the Great Train Robbery, the Hatton Garden heist) and storied quests (usually to the Costa del Crime and back again). It also has its own holy grail in the missing Brink’s-Mat millions. No fortune is more mythologised, more sought-after or more mysterious.

The Brink’s-Mat legend only grows in diverting retelling The Gold (BBC One), a six-part series from Neil Forsyth, creator and writer of Scottish crime series Guilt. It began in 1983 – as depicted in the opening scene – when six men in balaclavas burst into Brink’s-Mat secure storage facility near Heathrow airport. They intended to steal £1m in cash, but instead came away with about £26m of gold bullion (equivalent to £90m today). At the time, it was the largest score in British history.

From there, this cops-and-robbers tale branches out in multiple directions, as the self-identifying “villains” split up, go to ground and begin the complex task of laundering their haul. The police are in lukewarm pursuit throughout, under the command of DCI Brian Boyce (Hugh Bonneville), although, in fairness to the Scotland Yard’s finest, this is uncharted territory for all involved. One of the show’s more compelling themes is that money knows no master. Us mortals, even the financially literate and loaded ones, are only ever along for the ride.

And in The Gold, it’s an ever-enjoyable ride. This world of smoke-filled pubs and Freemason handshakes has been more credibly conjured in several British gangster films (the Bob Hoskins-starring 1980 classic, The Long Good Friday, springs to mind), but there are still pleasures aplenty to be found in the production design – the cars! The collars! The carpet swirls! – and an almost overstuffed ensemble cast.

Emun Elliott, Hugh Bonneville and Charlotte Spencer in The Gold. Photograph: Sally Mais/BBC/Tannadice Pictures

Jack Lowden, recently seen on the other side of the law in Slow Horses, nails the steely insouciance of career criminal Kenneth Noye (brave, since Noye is now out of prison and known to hold a grudge) and Dorothy Atkinson as cash mule Jeanie gives a delightful spin on the curtain-twitching suburban snob she perfected in the sitcom Mum. Charlotte Spencer is fascinating to watch as the squad’s lone female detective Jennings – though she feels a little underserved by a script that only fleetingly references 80s workplace sexism.

If there is to be a Jennings-led spin-off – and there should be – please can it see her investigate the continuing crimes of dodgy jeweller John “Goldfinger” Palmer (played with a lush West Country accent by Tom Cullen)? He delivers his “I know gold” speech from the Old Bailey dock with such self-deprecating charm, it’s impossible to believe he’s guilty. Even though we all saw him sweating over that smelter in a terrycloth robe, cig hanging from his mouth, just a few episodes earlier.

That’s one of the few truly justified speeches in a script with far too many – about three per main character in each episode by my count. There’s a valid point to be made about the oppressive nature of the English class system, but by the fourth or fifth time this same soapbox has been mounted, all impact is lost. Bonneville’s DCI Boyce is a particular offender in this regard, contributing to the false impression that he’s a holdover from the Dixon of Dock Green era of twee TV coppers, and not a real person at all. (In fact, the real Boyce had a distinguished career of standing up to police corruption in and around south London, including aiding Stephen Lawrence’s family in their long fight for justice.)

It’s also ironic when these TV detectives accuse one white-collared informant of sparing himself internal conflict, by keeping the brutal violence of these crimes at a mental remove. The same charge could be levelled at the series itself. The real story of Brink’s-Mat and its 30-year aftermath is so bloody and bullet-ridden it purportedly has its own curse, with at least six associated deaths to date. Yet in this show, even the pivotal 1985 killing of DC John Fordham happens entirely off-screen.

Still, it would be unfair to fault a consistently entertaining TV drama for falling short of the gritty and gobsmacking truth. The Gold is also partially redeemed by a finale that manages to cleverly wrap up loose narrative ends, while acknowledging that the full story is yet to be told – and likely never can be. Because, as Lowden’s Noye cooly observes: “You only hear about the people who get caught.”

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