Writer Neil Forsyth, director Aneil Karia and the cast of BBC heist drama The Gold reflect on dramatising the true story behind the 1983 Brink’s-Mat robbery, when six armed men stumbled upon gold bullion worth £26m.
It was dubbed the crime of the century. When six armed men burst into the Brink’s-Mat warehouse close to Heathrow Airport on November 26, 1983, they were expecting to find just over £3m worth of cash. But on arrival, they discovered a much larger haul – gold bullion worth £26m.
What started as a ‘typical’ armed robbery went on to become a seminal event in British criminal history, due to not only the scale of the theft but also its worldwide legacy. It is credited with giving rise to international money laundering and uniting blue- and white-collar criminals, leaving controversy and murder in its wake.
After writing a book about the crime, screenwriter Neil Forsyth (Guilt) has now penned The Gold, a six-part series for the BBC in the UK and streamer Paramount+ globally, looking at the robbery itself and its decades-long legacy.
Directed by Aneil Karia (The Long Goodbye) and Lawrence Gough (The Last Bus), it stars Hugh Bonneville alongside Jack Lowden, Dominic Cooper, Charlotte Spencer, Tom Cullen, Emun Elliott, Sean Harris, Ellora Torchia and Stefanie Martini. The series, which debuts this Sunday on BBC One, is produced by Tannadice Pictures and VIS.
Here, Bonneville, Lowden, Spencer, Karia and Forsyth discuss the background to the series, dramatising the true story and how they sought to recreate 1980s London.
Forsyth, whose book on the subject is titled The Gold: The Real Story Behind Brink’s-Mat, finds the robbery compelling because although it’s an infamous crime, not many people know the full story.
Forsyth: A lot of people will remember the robbery but I don’t think many people know what came next, which is quite liberating as a writer. If you’re working off real events, you can still create a television show and you’re not going to get letters from people saying a character’s driving the wrong car. You’re still creating something. There’s a lot of it, there’s a lot of story, which is quite rare, and there are a lot of things that happen. It’s a fascinating story in itself.
Some of the themes you come across [relate to the characters’] particular motivations, how they got involved and what they were looking to achieve. I also think social mobility is an interesting aspect because it was a theme of the 1980s and we examine that. It’s also about criminality in different forms.
Lead director Karia found The Gold to be an interesting challenge in the wake of his Oscar-winning live-action short film The Long Goodbye.
Karia: It’s a beautiful script, and tonally it seems to weave together quite a few things at the same time. It’s a stylish, sophisticated crime film, but it’s also got intimacy, which is quite an achievement in a script about a crime which is that epic in scale but still feels intimate and is told through the nuance of human characters and human stories.
Stuart Bentley [cinematographer], Lawrence Gough [second-block director] and I wanted to find a visual language that could weave a scale of epicness with something that felt grounded and authentic as well, but was first and foremost about people.
What I was very happy to see when I first read the scripts was that it tells the very intricate story of quite a complicated investigation, but it doesn’t feel relentlessly procedural. It feels like it’s about people and characters and humanity. We were trying to find a visual language that married the two. I like handheld and I like being naturalistic and intimate with the camera, but we wanted to be able to step back and feel this larger world at play as well.
In preparation to play Chief Superintendent Brian Boyce – who led the task force charged with catching the robbers and recovering the gold – Bonneville met his real-life counterpart.
Bonneville: Neil and I spent a fascinating couple of hours with the real Brian Boyce, who’s now retired, trying to get him to talk about his approach to policing, but also specifically about Brink’s-Mat. Neil’s really wrung all the juice out of the conversations that he had in research, because it’s all there in the script.
Being away from any ‘normal’ police environment was very important to Boyce and the investigation. They set up camp at a different place so they could be on their own – and woe betide anybody, certainly in Boyce’s case, who brought stuff in that shouldn’t be brought in or let any information out. It was a very tight unit.
Charlotte Spencer plays Nicki Jennings. Her character and Emun Elliott’s Tony Brightwell are the first officers at the scene of the crime and later join Boyce’s task force.
Spencer: She was based on three women involved in this who have been merged into one [character]. It’s so well written – what I love about it is it isn’t just that she’s a woman in the police in the 80s. Yes, she is and it’s great, but she was more worried about her background and the fact that her dad was a criminal. She says, ‘I don’t think we should only nick [arrest] people who speak like me.’ That accent is from my mum, who’s from Essex. You can thank her for the accent.
Meanwhile, Lowden stars as Kenneth Noye, a businessman with a criminal sideline who enlists gold merchant John Palmer to disguise the gold and sell it back into the market.
Lowden: Greed is universal and sort of classless. We see that in this country still. It’s one of the great unresolved things in this country – specifically accents and how they rule this country and perceptions of things. We’ve not had too many Northern prime ministers, and it’s incredible we still [place so much importance on certain accents]. I loved the script for the point it makes of that. Yes, it’s about this famous robbery that tends to be glamourised, but it makes very important social points through something that undoubtedly is unavoidably sexy. Robbery will forever have a sexiness attached to it as one of those things you shouldn’t do.
Having completed a huge amount of research into the Brink’s-Mat case, Forsyth’s biggest task was organising the story into a coherent six-part series.
Forsyth: I quite enjoy it. I find it easier than writing straight fiction, to be honest, without the blank page. It sounds simplistic but [my process is to ask] who are the most interesting characters here? What are the interesting things to happen? Is there a way to make it fit together using poetic licence and making sure there’s not too much story? Because otherwise the characters can be a bit thin. The story was quite clear to me from the start. There’s very clear definition of the criminals, the police and those in between, who are the most interesting. It was about finding how to put that together across the series.
Karia was drawn to the “attractive prospect” of recreating the 1980s, though he was determined to push away from any sense of the era’s kitsch aesthetic.
Karia: When you start getting deep into the 80s, it wasn’t really that dayglo shell-suit palette at all. Of course it had that, but the palette of the streets was pretty low key, and bleak at times. There was so much that was quite understated and stylish about it.
It was amazing working with people like Grace Snell, our costume designer, who went deep into the research. The costume unit had a real army behind it making original outfits. It was great to see – and the same with production design and make-up.
It was great to get into the real 80s rather than the pastiche one you often see, and to try to find the right palette that had a richness to it without being poppy and with a naturalism. That was really great to figure out with the HODs and Stuart, and beyond the shoot in the grading. The 80s is different from the shortcut version that often comes to mind. That was an interesting process.
Lowden spent a lot of time with Snell to create Noye’s expansive wardrobe, while he also “beefed up” for the role.
Lowden: I put on quite a lot of weight for it because I did think myself as a strange choice to play this part. But I wanted it so badly and thought he needed a bit more beef. I worked with a talented trainer who’s an ex-boxer from south London, and he kicked the living hell out of me for about three months. So that’s not just my work on screen – a lot of different people have built that person. Aesthetically, it helps in the way it looks but it’s also lovely to feel yourself and hold yourself in a different way. It means you act less.
Throughout the series, the word ‘villain’ is used in a variety of ways, as Forsyth says no one in the show is an “out and out criminal.”
Forsyth: They’ve got families and lives and aspirations. Criminality is a tool they use to try to achieve something. Why people do crimes is more interesting than the crimes they do. This is an unusual crime in that it goes across society; it starts very small and spreads across society and spreads internationally as the show goes on.
It’s interesting that it was such an influential crime. It changed crime and policing because everyone was out of their depth.
The robbers who stole the gold were out of their depth, they didn’t know what to do with it, so they went to Noye and Palmer, who knew how to smelt gold but didn’t know what to do with all the money that was generated. They went to Edwyn Cooper (Cooper) and Gordon Parry (Harris), and they knew how to launder money but certainly didn’t deal with criminals. Everyone was out of their depth and learning new skills. That’s changed crime. New relationships were forged between working-class and professional criminals, and it changed policing because they didn’t know how to chase the money launderers and investigate money laundering.
Spencer: People have to have a lot of gall to physically rob a bank. It doesn’t happen anymore. If anyone steals money, it’s done over the internet. It’s like a modern western – they were the last bank robbers, in a way.
Scenes in episode one show the intoxicating influence the gold has over several of the characters, which Karia says is key to understanding the characters’ motivations.
Karia: The gold plays a different role than cash does, because it’s got this ancient, mystic, intoxicating appeal to human beings. It is this magical substance that we relate to completely differently from other stolen goods. I enjoy that moment where Jack shows it to John and you can see the glint, which wasn’t actually augmented. That is just how gold works, with the gold on his face. The way Tom Cullen plays that moment, being completely entranced by it, it’s really special. With the composer Simon Goff, we worked to have a subtle sound that is minimal but comes in when the gold appears.
With credits on films such as Joker and TV series including Chernobyl, Goff worked with Karia to create a soundtrack that wasn’t a homage to the 80s but instead felt timeless and even contemporary.
Karia: You want it to feel relevant, exciting and modern despite the era it’s set in. That extended to composition as well. It’s also a sprawling story, and that’s what’s great about it. It’s quite different from the stories I’ve told, which have often been quite singular narratives about one person. This was really interesting, and music played an important part in creating cohesion through those narratives.
It’s quite lean in that the script and the show dip into people’s lives and come out as soon as you get what you need. For something moving at that pace through different narratives and characters, music becomes hugely important. We wanted to create a score that felt taut and had thriller elements in terms of genre, but something that felt timeless and beautiful in its own way. Then when it came to commercial tracks, I was keen that we earned those moments. Jack’s character is listening to New Order in the car at one point. And then at the end [of episode one], an Echo & the Bunnymen track comes in. But we didn’t want to blanket the show in the hits; we wanted to earn and enjoy those moments where music does come in.
tagged in: Aneil Karia, BBC, Charlotte Spencer, Dominic Cooper, Emun Elliott, Hugh Bonneville, Jack Lowden, Neil Forsyth, Paramount, Tannadice Pictures, The Gold, Tom Cullen, VIS