Why 'true crime' is a hard job to pull off
'THE BANK JOB' is the latest in a long line of films about a real crime, but don't expect its version of the Baker Street robbery to be too accurate - if gangster movies just stuck to the plain facts, not many would be made, writes Duncan Campbell.
The young radio enthusiast sitting by his equipment in Wimpole Street in London's West End one weekend in September 1971 pricked up his ears. Robert Rowlands was tuned in to a group of men and a woman talking about what appeared to be a major bank robbery in which they were, improbably, engaged as they spoke.
"We have all got 300 grand to cut up when we come back in the morning," said one voice. Another, apparently that of the robbers' look-out man, complained that he was tired. "My eyes are like organ stops, mate," he said.
What was under way was the robbery of the Baker Street branch of Lloyds bank and Rowlands had a front row seat to what was unfolding. Now more than 35 years after the event, a film, The Bank Job, starring Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows, apparently recreates this legendary crime.
If you believe The Bank Job's publicity material, "millions and millions of pounds" were stolen, but "none of it was recovered. Nobody was ever arrested. The robbery made headlines for a few days and then disappeared - the result of a government D-Notice, gagging the press". Apart from the fact that four of the gang were jailed in 1973 for a total of 48 years, the £231,000 was recovered, there never was a D-Notice [ British censorship tool that prohibits publication of related information] and there was loads of coverage of the case in the press, this is all true.
What is also true is that the gang had taken over a neighbouring handbag shop, tunnelled their way through the dividing walls and broken into the bank's safety deposit boxes.
Their look-out man, using a walkie-talkie - like Rowlands, something from a pre-mobile phone era - was perched on the roof of the building opposite, ready to alert the robbers if the police appeared at the bank's entrance. That much remains intact in the film, scripted by Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement. It is also true that Rowlands tried his best to contact the police to tell them what was happening but seems to have found it hard to convince them. When uniformed officers eventually arrived, according to Rowlands, "they were grinning. It was like a scene from a Peter Sellers film".
It is not giving away too much of The Bank Job's plot to say that there is a suggestion that there were compromising photos of Princess Margaret in one of the safety deposit boxes and that they were a motive for the robbery, but that - along with a sub-plot about the late black activist Michael X and MI5 - remains highly speculative, to say the least.
Clement says much of the information for the screenplay came from a freelance US-based journalist, who had said he used to drink with some of the gang involved. "We had to use quite a lot of poetic licence," says Clement, "because we didn't meet any of the criminals. We remembered the robbery and were immediately intrigued."
He says some of the information they were given turned out not to be quite accurate and, having since learned a little more about how the intelligence services really operate, he would like to have had a chance to do one further draft. While some of the characters were based on real people, others were works of imagination. "It is a work of fiction," he says.
Still, if films about true crimes stuck to just the truth, not many would be made. The Bank Jobis the latest in a long line of British films that, sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously, try to capture the essence of an actual crime or a real criminal.
WHAT IS PROBABLY the first film in the genre, The Life of Charles Peace, lasts about 11 minutes and was made in 1905. It tells the story of the eponymous Peace, a burglar and murderer who was executed in 1879. Nothing like a noose to bring a story to a tight conclusion. That became a common theme and when hanging was abolished in 1965, it closed one major trap-door of the true crime genre.
Another strand of British true crime film has concentrated on famous crimes ( Buster, based on the great train robbery) and some, but not all, of the best-known criminals (The Krays). He Who Rides a Tiger, the 1965 film directed by Charles Crichton and starring Tom Bell and Judi Dench, told the story of cat burglar Peter Scott.
Scott, now retired and living in north London and, incidentally, one of those interviewed by the police in connection with the Baker Street robbery, says no one should expect too accurate a reflection of reality on screen. "What they tend to do is put every extreme event in your life in an hour and a half of film," he says. "There is little room for accurate reminiscences. I could have told them that I had stolen the crown jewels and no one would have disagreed."
Scott says Richard Attenborough's portrayal of Pinkie in the film of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock(based partly on the racecourse gangs of the day) remains one of the most realistic portrayals of a criminal. One of the better known films of the 1960s, The Criminal, directed by Joseph Losey, mixed fact and fiction but was based on a real gangster, Albert Dimes, played by Stanley Baker.
Baker and Dimes, an Italian-Scottish ex-borstal boy, were friends and played for the Soho Rangers football team, along with "Mad" Frankie Fraser. There is now also a feature film planned on Fraser, for which a screenwriter will certainly not be short of material.
The Hit, directed in 1984 by Stephen Frears from a Peter Prince script and with terrific performances from Terence Stamp, Tim Roth and John Hurt, is a work of fiction, but contains one true scene. When supergrass Bertie Smalls, who died recently, gave evidence against his former bank-robbing colleagues, they all sang: "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when" to him as he left the witness box. Prince, who was working at the time as a solicitor's clerk, was not in court for the singing, but heard about it and realised it would make a magical piece of drama.
One of those singing robbers, Bobby King, who died a few years ago, had his own views on how the British film industry dealt with crime.
"We saw ourselves as gangsters and we loved going to gangster films and reading about the big robberies," he said. "We watched American films because we thought British gangster films were crap, and they always were - Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker as cockney villains! Cagney and George Raft were our heroes. And really good westerns, Th e Wild Bunch, these ageing villains robbing trains, we loved that."
MORE RECENT FILMS demanded higher levels of authenticity. Face, directed by Antonia Bird and written by Ronan Bennett, was based on a raid on a security depot in the 1990s in which the gang had modified a truck and driven it through the wall. Julian, the character played by Phil Davies, carried his shotgun on a dog leash over his shoulder for convenience, as it left his hands free. This was the favoured method of a bank robber called Joe Collins, now dead. Before filming began, the actors playing the gang met retired robbers to find out about the mechanics of a robbery. Bobby King, who eventually played a security guard in the film, said one of the cast, Ray Winstone, made a more convincing robber than he ever had.
Don Boyd, who made the Liverpool gangland film, My Kingdom, loosely based on King Lear, wanted it to be as authentic as possible.
"I knew that without a lifeline to Liverpool's underworld, my film was dead in the water," says Boyd, who had researched the film in detail before Richard Harris came on board in the main part. "I rented an apartment in the Liverpool suburb of Crosby and put the word out very proudly and very publicly that Richard Harris had agreed to play the main character. When this fact filtered through, my old contacts and friendships slowly began to be renewed. Just before we began shooting, Harris and the cast were able to check out the haunts frequented by the kind of characters they were playing." Again, some of the real-life villains played extras in the film.
The vogue in "shut it, you slaaaag" crime films, which began in the 1990s, with shaven-headed men barking at each other over sawn-off shotguns, appears to have passed.
For every Sexy Beastand Gangster Number One- two of the recent best - there have been half a dozen pretty dire offerings, which serve to prove how difficult it is to navigate the choppy waters between The Ladykillersand Essex Boys. The Bank Jobis the latest to try to see if they can pull this off and get away with it. ... - (Guardian service)
The Bank Jobis on general release
"They . . . put every extreme event in your life in an hour and a half of film. There is little room for accurate reminiscences