Early on a Thursday morning in the depths of the Buckinghamshire countryside, the Travelling Post Office train en route to London Euston stopped at a red signal. The engineer and train driver Jack Mills were overpowered, with Mills being clubbed by one of the fifteen robbers attacking the train. The carriage holding the valuable packages was manoeuvred to a near by bridge and the bags of money removed. In less than twenty minutes, a hundred and twenty bags were transferred to a waiting truck and the gang escaped with over two and a half million pounds. This was the Great Train Robbery, which would enter legend as one of the classic heists of the 20th century.
In the ensuing hunt, but none of it would have been possible if it hadn’t been for a key informant. A man known only as The Ulsterman, a post office worker, gave the vital information regarding the train and the route and received an equal share of the loot. The police were unable to trace him thug they did manage to seize part of the gang and he has always remained an intriguing unknown in the case of the infamous robbery. Chris Long’s The Great British Train Robbery sets about revealing the identity of the Ulsterman via a series of interviews with train robber Gordon Goody in his home in Spain. Goody is a compelling interviewee, a gentleman robber of sorts, harking back to the kind of nostalgia that makes the Krays into the cuddly chums of Barbara Windsor and the like. Sadly, Long is fully taken in.
Goody’s narrates and even gets an attractive actor, Harry Macqueen, to play him as a young man, as he slouches around the haunts of his youth wearing expensive suits and letting us in on the inside knowledge. Along with these re-enactments and an abundance of stock footage from the swinging sixties, the film also has an investigative angle as it hires a pair of private investigators to follow Goody’s leads and track down the real man. Unfortunately, this part is utterly devoid of tension or interest. We see no investigation as such but rather a film producer being told the results of the investigations, as pieces of paper are passed around. There’s also a sense that the film is trying to acquire false tension as dead end is reached, but as the whole documentary is predicated on a reveal the delay feels forced. The glamorisation of this epoch has been going on for some time through the activities and legends perpetuated by the men themselves most notably Ronnie Biggs (who Gordon evidently despises) and his Costa del Crime getaway to the 1988 Phil Collins vehicle Buster, which endeavoured to make the whole lark into a lovable caper.
Likewise, Long and his colleagues have swallowed the myth hook, line and sinker and go all gooey eyed when it comes to Gordon. This lack of critical distance isn’t just distasteful given the violence these men meted out – Gordon’s eyes twinkle a little as he talks about giving someone or other a clump with his Spanish acquaintance (read ‘club’) – but it also makes for a less interesting enquiry. For instance, the Ulsterman they discover didn’t show any signs of wealth, didn’t leave a will and lived a life of inconspicuous consumption which begs the question where did his substantial cut of the money go? The filmmakers behind The Great British Train Robbery offer Gordon the theory that the Ulsterman donated his money to the Catholic Church to which Gordon readily agrees. Had Long and his pals been a bit less mushy they might have spotted another theory. Perhaps Gordon kept the money himself, stole from the Ulsterman, leaving him with nothing but a gnawing guilt. As Gordon himself would say, “I was a nice bloke, but I would rob from you.”