What’s the best way to tell a true story? Television loves a drama with a “following is inspired by real events” caption to cover any embellishments added to the bare facts, but it also loves a true-crime documentary about felonies so outrageous their narratives don’t need a boost.
Occasionally, television gets so excited about a particular case it does a drama and a documentary about it, and sometimes the documentary wins. Last year, you could safely swerve The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe on ITV in favour of the same channel’s punchier The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe: The Real Story. Right now, iPlayer’s evocative four-part documentary Secrets of the Chippendales Murders means you needn’t bother with the gaudy re-enactments of Welcome to Chippendales on Disney+. Following the brilliant recent drama series The Gold, however, is an impossible task for The Gold: The Inside Story.
This one-off documentary has just a single hour to revisit the theft of three tonnes of gold in the Brink’s-Mat robbery of 1983, and the police’s semi-successful attempt to secure convictions before the criminals could melt down the gold and launder the proceeds. The Gold had six episodes to dig into the crime’s individual motivations and wider social significance, which it did with a disarming mix of tender empathy and withering contempt, as interested in the villains as it was the law enforcers.
Look at the case from almost any angle, and The Gold already provides the inside story on it, so a factual programme called The Gold: The Inside Story is in trouble from the start. What it does have in its favour is the opportunity to show us real versions of places and people that a drama has to simulate, and it gets off to a strong start: there is footage of the staff at the Heathrow depot where the raid happened, taking police through their security set-up, including inside man Anthony Black making his hilarious assertion that he didn’t see anything because he was standing in a corner facing the wall at the time.
After that, it becomes clear that there is only so much specifically relevant archive film in existence. We do see shots of the house where, during a failed stakeout, DC John Fordham was stabbed to death by criminal conspiracy ringleader Kenneth Noye; we get a quick look at the outside of the Bristol jewellers through which much of the money and gold was funnelled. But those images are subtly bulked out with stock footage from the time, including delightful clips of news bulletins read by Sue Lawley and Jan Leeming. Occasionally, drastic measures are required: evidently the nation’s film libraries drew a blank on “gold Rolls-Royce with smelting equipment protruding from the boot loses its police tail by swerving suddenly down a country lane”, so computer animation is used for that instead.
What about the other people involved? The police officers who hunted the Brink’s-Mat robbers are interviewed, but with several of the drama’s coppers being fictional creations, the only interest is in meeting the real DCS Brian Boyce, played by Hugh Bonneville as an apparently stiff establishment type who in fact sees and despises his corrupt superiors. The documentary doesn’t repeat the drama’s explicit suggestion that the hidden hand of Freemasonry compromised the investigation, and Boyce himself comes across as a looser, more mercurial figure than the clipped, seething Bonneville version – he almost bears a twinkle. Is the real man more interesting? There isn’t much time to find out – cramming the story into a single hour means the documentary can’t even attempt that sort of insight.
The Gold: The Inside Story works better as an appendix to the drama, confirming or mildly correcting memorable moments from Neil Forsyth’s script. Yes, Noye did wish cancer upon the jury when he was sent down. Yes, the girlfriend of one of the robbers did have dogs called Brinks and Mat guarding her suspiciously nice new house. And yes, gold smelter John Palmer did talk in the reedy, pathetic, slightly spaced-out voice used by Tom Cullen when he played him – if anything, Cullen toned him down – and he did make reference to the “Mat’s Brink” raid in a hopeless attempt to show his ignorance, but he didn’t do that in the dock: it was in a TV interview with Kate Adie.
In its final moments, The Gold: The Inside Story dips into how Brink’s-Mat money fuelled the central London property development boom and – via a somewhat circuitous route involving the US drugs trade – rave culture. There’s a whole series’ worth of intrigue there, but we skate over it: the Brink’s Mat story has too many unbelievable elements for one documentary to cope with.
• The Gold: The Inside Story was on BBC One and is on iPlayer