The Great Train Robbery

Chris Chibnall's thrilling new drama for BBC One

Interview with Jim Broadbent

Category: BBC One; Drama

What attracted you to taking on the role of Tommy Butler in The Great Train Robbery?

I remembered the great train robbery very well – I think I was 13 at the time and in fact I’d seen Roy James, the getaway driver, racing in a racing car - so I had sort of identified with him and the whole train robbery at a young age. It was a story I had followed more or less for its duration, and years later I actually saw Roy James and Charlie Wilson, two of the robbers, back in court when I was researching to play a barrister in a film directed by Stephen Frears called The Hit. They were back in court to do with some VAT bullion fraud and when I went into the Old Bailey there was no one else in the viewing gallery apart from me - and then I looked down and saw six of them in the dock including those two chaps. So it had always been part of my background in some strange way, and when I read the scripts they were so good, I just loved the character of Tommy Butler – it’s a great opportunity to engage with.

What will viewers learn from watching this drama?

I thought I knew lots about the great train robbery but the research that Chris [Chibnall] has done is meticulous and very revealing. He has been very faithful to the known facts - it is not a hugely invented piece of fiction, I think it is very well researched and sticking to the facts as we know - and that is where the interest will lie for the audience. They think they know it but in fact there is so much more to the story.

Tommy Butler wasn’t a well known figure. The villains all were, but Tommy didn’t become a national figure that everyone knew about at all. It’s interesting that in the second film the audience will see the second side to the story.

What research did you do for the role?

I was presented with quite a lot of material that Chris and the production had pulled together. Then there were some photos of him and some bits of footage - arriving at airports, or leaving airports, or getting in a police car, and leaving the police station, and at the very last minute they found one interview that he had done and that was invaluable to see a clip of him being interviewed it was fascinating. You actually get a bit of the voice, a bit of his manner and his way of being. Otherwise it was all the documented research that was very interesting and invaluable but it was particularly great to see a bit of a TV interview he had done.

Was Tommy the hero of The Great Train Robbery?

I don’t know. It will be interesting to see because I think with the first film I’d imagine the audience will identify with the robbers, and in the second film they will begin to identify with the police who were after them. I think he’s quite an interesting man, Tommy Butler, and I think in a strange way a sympathetic character. The audience will want him to succeed. I hope so. That’s the right way.

How are we introduced to Tommy and his team in the story?

Tommy was a Senior Flying Squad Officer, and when the robbery occurred I guess he was the obvious choice to head up the team to capture them. He put his own team together and in the story one of his hobbies he enjoyed was going to see western films. Our story begins with him in a cinema watching an old black and white western, and then his driver comes in and tells him that he’s needed and then the story unfolds from there. In fairly classic form he sight-sees the scene of the crime and puts together a crack team of the detectives he wants to support him. The story unfolds, they work together and it’s a good police procedural in a way – the whole film – you see how it works. It’s very much a period piece, it has to be, it’s 50 years ago, so it’s fascinating from that point of view – how the world has changed.

How did you find working with the team?

They were fantastic – it really did feel like a team, and when you can achieve that you really do work together. There were quite a lot of scenes when everyone was involved at Scotland Yard. There’s a beautifully designed set and it was very easy to slot in the characters and relationships. It’s brilliantly well cast, and a great load of talented, enthusiastic and committed actors. It was a very enjoyable job.

Is it daunting to take on this real life figure?

I do like it – in some ways it’s a challenge and in some ways it’s a great help because you’ve got the research you can do, archive footage, documented material that you can look at and that can help you towards getting in character. But at the same time there is a certain responsibility to getting it right when it is not pure invention. I’ve done quite a lot of real people and I always like it. As long as I’m moderately well cast I enjoy the process when there is a real person involved.

Did you liaise much with writer Chris Chibnall during the filming process?

Not during the process but we had a good chat before we started filming. The day before we started filming we had a good couple of hours with him and James [Strong] the director, and Robert Glenister and myself. Any questions we had we were able to raise and he was fascinating. The whole way he’d gone about it I think was really good. I love the clarity of it. It is a very straightforward and engaging piece of drama.

What is your favourite part of the film?

Interrogation scenes are always nice to do in a way, particularly with a good script and good actors. It was fascinating how all the interrogations varied with different characters and that sort of really showed what good writing it was and how good the acting was. But I think one of the scenes I enjoyed most was in the Scotland Yard in the office with all the policeman there. There is one scene when I’m in Tommy Butler’s office at the end and all the rest of the team were squabbling over sandwiches and having a bit of a tea break – it was a brilliant little scene, and it felt so true, as it very well might have been. I just enjoyed watching them all work brilliantly. The atmosphere was dead right for a squad room at that time and in that period.

How did you find filming in Yorkshire?

It was great filming in Leeds. We were very lucky with the weather for this film. It was a tight schedule but I quite like that, when you are moving along very quickly - it’s a nice way of working. There were great locations chosen out and about – the railway, where the actual robbery had taken place – it was really good – great to be in Yorkshire.