The second of my ITV Drama Press Pack interviews:
“If there was ever a story that typified that crime doesn’t pay, this would be it,” says Daniel Mays.
“It’s a controversial story. Ronnie Biggs divides opinion, even to this day. To some he represents a folk hero. But others said, ‘Lock him up and throw away the key.’
“My biggest challenge is to test people’s pre-conceived ideas of who he is. It’s such an incredible story and it merits being told.”
Danny plays the Great Train Robber from aged 28 to 44.
“Ronnie tests your opinion of him all the time. Sometimes you like him. Sometimes you don’t. The great thing about this drama is you really get a chance to play a character from late twenties to his forties, showing the audience how he evolves.
“Even having played him and done all the research, he is still very much an enigma to me. You can’t dispute the fact that he was a loving and devoted father and all of that. And yet at the same time he got involved in the Great Train Robbery.
“It was naive to think that he would get away with it. To attempt something of that magnitude was bound to have consequences. So as much as he built his family life, he was quite destructive in getting involved in the robbery in the first place.”
Danny explains that the drama focuses on the relationship between Charmian Powell, played by Sheridan Smith, and Ron, the man who was to make her Mrs Biggs.
“He was very much in and out of borstal and a petty crook to begin with. But there’s no doubt that he mellowed once he met Charmian, fell in love and had kids.
“Jeff Pope has written a brilliant script with a love story at its heart. That’s the thing I latched on to most. It was about Sheridan and I trusting one another to get that chemistry going. There was a huge responsibility on our shoulders, which we didn’t take lightly.
“Sheridan is one of the most naturally talented actors I’ve worked with and I think there are a lot of similarities between us. She puts an enormous amount of hard work and pressure on herself and she wants the piece to be incredibly memorable and strong.
“She’s done a lot of comedy in the past but I think she’s going to blow people away with the amazing performance she’s delivered as Charmian. Her talent shines through.
“It was a very demanding shoot. Every day, particularly for Sheridan, there’s this massive scene after massive scene. She was put through the emotional wringer day after day. I’ve nothing but admiration for the way she handled it.
“You try not to take the characters home and Ronnie Biggs wasn’t necessarily an intense character – there wasn’t any malice in him. But the circumstances he and Charmian found themselves in were very intense.
“That thing of being on the run, of constantly looking over your shoulder and the paranoia that would give you. It really did stay with me after I finished filming. I’ve just come back from holiday and I definitely needed two weeks away to try and get out of it. But as much as the filming was hard work, it was also incredibly enjoyable.”
How much did Danny know about Ronnie Biggs before he got the role?
“I knew about the Great Train Robbery. Also that image of Ron in Rio, sticking his fingers up to the Establishment. That he was this kind of fugitive celebrity. But this delves beneath the headlines.”
The real Charmian acted as a consultant to the production and saw in Danny a physical likeness to the young Ron.
“She kept saying that,” laughs Danny. “She said, ‘I would look round at you occasionally on set and you were him. You resembled him.’ Wearing blue contact lenses certainly helped.
“It was great having her there but sometimes strange. There’s one heart-breaking scene between Charmian and Ron where he knows he’s going to prison for 30 years. I looked up and the real Charmian was there at the monitor. I thought then that it must be an extraordinary thing to see her life played out like this. It must have been an incredibly emotional experience for her.
“Charmian is a fiercely intelligent woman. She’s a natural fighter and that’s the thing that will also come through in Sheridan’s performance. It was obviously a really cathartic experience for Charmian, to get her story out.”
Jeff Pope’s scripts put Ron’s role in the robbery into context but don’t absolve him of blame.
“There’s a real tragedy to it as well,” reflects Danny. “He got 30 years even though he never actually touched a mailbag. He brought the substitute driver in but at the time he couldn’t move the train. They were told to go and sit in the back of the van. So he didn’t unload any money.
“Of course they all took their cut but I think the prison sentence was excessive and there was no parole at the time. You wouldn’t get that for murder now.”
Danny points out that there is still confusion about Ron’s role.
“I went to my doctor’s before I started the job and he asked me who I was playing next. I told him and he said, ‘Oh right, yeah, he murdered someone, didn’t he?’ Many people have just got this completely wrong idea of what he did.”
Scenes of the Great Train Robbery were recreated on the East Lancashire Railway using a locomotive from the same batch of as the engine involved in the 1963 raid.
“Definitely one of the stand out moments was when the locomotive was sent down the track on the first take and all the guys are lined up, laying on our bellies, face down in the pitch black.
“They shouted ‘action’ and you could just feel this train coming. Before you even saw it come over the ridge you could feel the whole ground shaking underneath your body. The sense of anticipation in that take was unbelievable. It felt very close to how it must have felt at the time.”
Adds Danny: “Charmian was completely unaware of what Ron was doing on the night of the robbery. He told her he was going tree felling. Then he turns up with this fortune in cash.
“She said, ‘It just reeked. It stank.” I thought, ‘That’s such a wonderful detail that we can use in the drama.”
Ron and some of the other gang members were arrested a month after the robbery and in 1964 given those 30 year prison sentences.
The next year he was free again after a dramatic escape from Wandsworth Prison in London, another event depicted in Mrs Biggs.
“We had to scale up rope ladders and there’s a great shot of me leaping over the wall. In actual fact, he was so full of adrenaline that he ran in the opposite direction to where the getaway car was. It’s a brilliant sequence.
“Then he was shipped around the East End, went to Bognor Regis and escaped to Paris where he had plastic surgery. He had a nose job and a facelift and it was incredibly painful for him. A lot of his share of the robbery money went on the operation, a change of identity and the tickets to Australia.
“For filming they were able to tape my two temples, pull it back with elastic and tie it underneath my hair. They also did a lot of work on my eyes. Then for the first scenes in Australia we kept the eye make up on but the facelift had gone by that point.”
Ron and Charmian tried to blend in like any other young English family embarking on a new adventure by emigrating to Australia in the 1960s.
“For the first scenes we shot in Australia we flew to Adelaide and then had a five hour drive into the Outback. Ron and Charmian are in a station wagon car with the young kids and they’re driving over this wide expanse. The sense of scale and colour was vastly different to the London scenes. The whole thing just opens up.
“They said their happiest time was when they first arrived in Australia because it was a new start. It was the family back together again. I’d never been to Australia – even today it takes so long to get there. Back in that time they must have thought, ‘No-one is ever going to catch us out here.’ But gradually it all started to close in on them.
“They started out living in Adelaide and then went to Melbourne. I think that sense of dread of someone finding out must have been, at times, unbearable for them. I don’t know how much they could fully relax. Charmian was the one who was always wary of mixing with people. Ron was the one who said, “Oh don’t worry about it. It’s all going to be fine.’”
Danny and Sheridan spent an evening at Charmian’s house in Australia where she showed them her archive of personal letters and scrapbooks.
“I found it really emotional and got quite upset reading the letters. Ron had written one to their youngest son when he was seven-years-old and simplified the handwriting so the kid could read it. It was a really beautiful letter from a father to his son saying how much he missed him and would always love him.
“Because of Ron’s actions, because of the robbery and how he behaved…to throw that all away is a terrible thing.”
As the police closed in on his location, Ron fled to Brazil, where at first he was still hiding from the authorities. He later received a letter from Charmian with the devastating news that their eldest son Nicky had been killed in a car accident.
“I think that’s the thing that tipped him over the edge. The fact that his son dies and he’s a ‘prisoner’ out in Rio. He starts to spiral out of control and sinks into drugs and booze. There’s this erosion in him. Those darker moments were really interesting to play.”
Danny had to age for the later scenes, especially when Ron was in Rio.
“I had to wear a hair piece and they started all the grey hair at a later stage. You do as much as you can to change him physically. Because at the start of the story he is such a man about town and so full of life.”
Ron’s attitude to his wife and family change when he sees them in Brazil.
“I talked to our director Paul Whittington a lot about that. When people go to prison it’s a survival technique. You have to cut all ties with your loved ones in order to survive and get through it.
“He was capable of doing that. He had hooded eyelids and could close off behind his eyes like he wasn’t even listening to you or you weren’t even in the room with him.”
Neither Danny or Sheridan met Ron.
“He’s had so many strokes that I don’t know how helpful that would have been. I think they were also worried that there would be some sort of influence on me as to how I would play him if I met him.
“The thing about Ronnie Biggs was that he was able to get the best out of most people and was an incredibly charismatic and likeable guy. He was a very astute human being, street smart and able to manipulate a situation.
“People think he’s going to be this cockney wide boy robber. He wasn’t that. He loved jazz and had a bit of sophistication about him.
“The conundrum about his involvement in the robbery is that he said he did it for his family, to give them the life he never had. That’s what he said at the time. But Charmian would say now, in hindsight, that he did it for himself. He did it for self-gain and his ego.
“It’s all dependent on who you want to believe. I think it would probably be the latter.”
Daniel’s credits include Public Enemies, Made In Dagenham, Ashes To Ashes, Outcasts and Treasure Island.
Five-part drama Mrs Biggs begins on ITV1 at 9pm on Wednesday September 5 with a 90-minute opening episode.
Mrs Biggs: Sheridan Smith Interview