Will the soundtrack of Neil Forsyth’s madly entertaining drama about the 1983 Brink’s-Mat robbery include, in the fullness of time, Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” (“You’re indestructible!”), or is it too cool for that? I fear it might be. In an early episode, after all, the notorious fence – and later, road-rage killer – Kenneth Noye struts along to the sound of New Order, a band that doesn’t wholly match his profile, one feels (wouldn’t he be a Phil Collins man?). Then again, Spandau’s single, released only three months before an armed gang made off with bullion worth £26m from the Heathrow International Trading Estate, may prove irresistible in the end. The irony! Indestructible as it undoubtedly is, gold can also be made to disappear. Here’s a fact. If you’ve bought gold jewellery in Britain since 1983, it very likely contains traces of the stuff that was nicked from the Brink’s-Mat warehouse.
Either way, The Gold is outstandingly enjoyable, even if I do think it’s dodgy to have a dangerous brute like Noye played by the gorgeous, charismatic Jack Lowden (Noye will be so flattered) and – even more dubious – forever making little Robin Hood-style speeches about social class. (Come on: I know Noye joined the Freemasons, the better to get to know coppers, bent or otherwise; I didn’t realise he’d been hanging out with Class War, too.) Forsyth has deftly combined fact and fiction, and by doing so delivers not only an exciting and sometimes quite funny caper, but also an account – an indictment, even – of the Thatcherite Eighties, when money spoke louder than almost anything. In The Gold, the word “protection” doesn’t pertain only to rackets and witnesses. Everyone wants the armour that can only truly be afforded by pots and pots of filthy cash.
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Forsyth’s interest lies not so much in the robbery as in its aftermath; in the race between the police, desperate to make arrests before the gold is sold on and the proceeds laundered, and the various criminals who’ve ended up with so much more than they bargained for. But his script is character-led, bulging with great parts for good actors. DCI Brian Boyce, who headed the police investigation, is played by Hugh Bonneville. Weirdly – I braced for hysterical laughter – his Lord Grantham-like deadpanning, here with added glottal stops, seems just right, probably because most of us have never heard a copper who didn’t sound utterly prosaic and plodding. Lowden is undoubtedly excellent as the cocky Noye, but I also like Tom Cullen’s rather more subtle performance as John Palmer, whose job it was to erase the gold’s serial numbers, and then to mix it with less pure stuff, so as to disguise it. (Palmer, later a major timeshare fraudster, was acquitted on a technicality. He was gunned down outside his house in Essex in 2015.) Many men have sheds at the bottom of their garden. He had – this is absolutely true – a smelting furnace at the end of his.
Of several fictional characters, the most significant is Edwyn Cooper, a crooked solicitor with a mattress-like pompadour, played with slick aplomb by Dominic Cooper. He has married so well that he weekends in a small stately home courtesy of his father-in-law. But, as he also grasps with both hands, times are changing. If he once longed for the imprimatur of his wife’s class (his south London background isn’t dissimilar to that of Noye), now he sees that money is the real thing. Noye has him opening Swiss bank accounts, and swiftly laundering the cash placed in them. He spends it enthusiastically on broken warehouses by the Thames, the spectre of the glass and steel of the future Docklands in his glinting, barrow-boy eyes.
Does gold have some special power, a potency far beyond that of the bank notes the gang expected to find at Brink’s-Mat? One day, as we know courtesy of the tabloids, some of these men will doubtless come to think of those heavy bars as having been cursed. But for now, however weighty, their lustre is imbued with the wild prospect of freedom; Rotherhithe, Essex and the fugitive county that is Kent will soon be as dots in their rear-view windows. When Palmer gazes down at his first ingot, it lights up his entire face, like a buttercup beneath a child’s chin.
BBC One,12 February, 9pm
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere