For a story based around a good old-fashioned armed robbery, chock-a-block with the kind of London gangsters who actually get called ‘villains’ without the slightest irony, there’s little action in The Gold beyond the heist itself – which is itself truncated to pretty well the minimum required. Even the odd foot-chase lands weirdly.
That’s because the real story here isn’t a matter of gunfights, or Mexican standoffs, or even really the heist itself, but what comes afterwards. Having stolen a world record quantity of gold bullion, you cannot simply stroll down to The Dodgy Merchant, Esq. and exchange it for cash. The stakes are clear, present, and pretty high from the start, and having created this tension it never fully unravels.
For this reason, The Gold doesn’t need extensive car chases, or any scenes of the criminals and policemen hurling bars of gold at each other. Even fairly quiet moments of are-they-going-to-catch-them, are-they-going-to-get-caught don’t require a lot of bells and whistles to bear real narrative weight.
The usual hardboiled fiction about a massive gold heist would not, under any circumstances, shunt the robbers themselves off to the side – but The Gold is not fiction, making it clear from the off that these are true events and speculating that anyone who has bought gold jewellery in the British Isles after 1983 is likely culpable in their own little way. So, from the off, it’s impressive that the show has assembled these events into a recognisable narrative.
This, as the show itself eventually has to admit, is why it can’t just have the criminals but needs to temper it with those investigating them as well. Although it’s never completely baffling, the complexity of shifting all that gold, which quickly gets into the fishy financial dealings on which Britain was founded, is the kind of thing it does help to have narrated.
The Mullder-and-Scully pair of main detectives end up a little lightly drawn, especially Emun Elliot’s character – although that’s more forgivable if you imagine he’s just building on his excellent role as a PI in 2019’s Guilt. In fiction, this would be a bigger negative than it is here, where the main event is clearly the crime rather than the punishment. We know someone’s investigating all this, so may as well make it these guys.
Besides, on this side of the law the clear MVP is Hugh Bonneville’s unit commander. It’s the kind of older-copper role David Morrissey ends up lumbered with a bit too often, but whereas Morrissey lends himself to having some dark secret or other written on his face, Bonneville is immediately believable as the kind of guy who’s a bit too straight-up for his superiors to ever quite trust. He’s like a teddy bear (which is, after all, still a bear) with powers of arrest.
Even beyond these bigger beasts, though, no character ends up completely scanted. Pretty much anyone with a line of their own is drawn, even if briefly, convincingly. Some of this must be down to the casting, James Nelson-Joyce simply works as a career criminal here for the same reasons that he fit that bill in The Outlaws and Time and The Responder – but perhaps it’s also a matter of the story gelling with being based on real people, rather than having to struggle around that. The flaws and foibles on display are human, all too human.
It would be hard to talk about The Gold without invoking the phrase ‘the wheels of justice grind slowly’. This, after all, is why they can get the actual heist out of the way so quickly. Getting away with it in the moment is one thing. Continuing to get away with it, with having millions of pounds of gold you shouldn’t have, is not just a matter of running away before anyone sees your face.
Inevitably, this ends up delving into the less sexy details of how crime works, but it’s that very unsexiness that lends The Gold the crucial verisimilitude. Its smoking-in-the-office 1980s environs may be lovingly rendered, but don’t seem quite so real as the even pace of events, the way they unfold, never stumbling as it tries to work in some stylistic flourish.
There’s a vein of class politics running through it, with many of the spivs who handle the gold insisting that this is the only way for ‘people like them’ to get ahead – a slightly lame assertion when you get a look at their massive houses and realise Wat Tyler they ain’t. Still, the fact that the real events on which The Gold is based happened in 1983, the first full flush of free-marketeering Thatcherism, of making lots of money and hanging the consequences, is one of those grand cosmic coincidences that is if anything too useful thematically.
However, it’s pretty clear that – despite the nature of stealing gold – it’s not just about the money. There’s a decent roll-call of British criminal aristocracy mentioned throughout, from Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs to the Kray twins, and it’s hard to imagine the conspirators of The Gold didn’t have half an eye on joining that pantheon. Which, one suspects, a prestige BBC adaptation of their lives will help with a lot.
Much like David Simon’s docu-drama We Own This City, another true story of events so alarming the televising doesn’t even need to add much alarm itself, The Gold has moments when it could seem heavy-handed if they weren’t true. Here it’s the wholesale destruction of the mythical idea that you can expect honour amongst thieves, an idea that real thieves are curiously sceptical of.
Of course people turn on each other when the heat’s on, that’s simply what happens. The clearest illustration of this, though, is when one of the more charming, cheeky-chappiest of the criminals eventually lets loose with an exclamation so concisely vulgar that if you’re anything like me, it’ll make you laugh aloud – but it also shows loud and clear that really, this is not a nice man.
The Gold simultaneously has all the hallmarks of the British crime drama, while at the same time managing to not even need a lot of the usual tricks of the trade. In adapting a true story faithfully, the only real latitude afforded to you is how you tell that story, and that is where The Gold really shines.
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The BBC’s turned out some very good docu-dramas in recent years, and The Gold is up there with the best of them. The way it tells the story doesn’t just have the ring of truth to it, it has the necklace, earrings, and bangles as well.
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