‘What sentimental tosh!’ Why must the BBC portray sociopathic Brink’s-mat gangsters as nothing more than rogues in new drama The Gold, asks CHRISTOPHER STEVENS
The chief reporter of the Western Daily Press, my colleague Mervyn Hancock, was a big bloke in every sense — hugely experienced, loud, 6ft 3in and confidently good-humoured.
But an encounter with John ‘Goldfinger’ Palmer, now a leading character in BBC1’s crime drama The Gold, left this towering man white-faced and shaken.
In the early 1990s, when I was working at Bristol’s morning newspaper, we heard that Palmer was running a timeshare scam, ripping off thousands of holidaymakers.
Merv went to investigate. He signed up for a presentation at a city hotel, where he watched a video promoting Palmer’s apartments in Playa de las Americas, Tenerife.
After being showered with promises of free holidays for life and annual profits, at the end of the sales film everyone in the conference room — most of them retired couples — discovered the catch.
Ruthless: John Palmer with wife Marnie in Tenerife
Tom Cullen plays Palmer as a doe-eyed softie in The Gold
The doors were locked and no one was going to be allowed out until they’d signed up.
Merv declared he was leaving. That’s when the scare tactics started. Customers were unable to leave, to use the toilets or even attend medical appointments, as they were pressured for six hours by Palmer’s slick sales team. Pens were thrust into their hands and they were forced to sign.
This was just the ugly beginning of a massive fraud which cheated clients of thousands of pounds. Many didn’t even get to holiday in their timeshare apartments.
When Mervyn finally returned to the office he was shaken, but boiling with anger at what the thugs were doing to innocent people.
That was the truth about John Palmer, the ruthless and illiterate gangster, who is now being portrayed by the BBC as a doe-eyed, cuddly wide-boy in the new series about the aftermath of the biggest armed heist in British history — the Brink’s-Mat gold bullion robbery in November 1983.
Tom Cullen is a good physical match for ‘Goldfinger’, so called because his scrap gold business Scadlynn, based in Bristol’s Bedminster district, bought up jewellery by the pound.
Melted down, these odds and ends of precious metal helped him disguise much of the three tons of extraordinarily pure gold, worth £26 million in 1983, from the robbery.
But Cullen’s Palmer is a Somerset softie, a wide-boy who finds himself out of his depth in the big league. Besotted with his needy wife Marnie (Stefanie Martini), he pushes his luck and keeps smelting the stolen gold. No one is more surprised than he is when he gets away with it.
Kenneth Noye, pictured shortly after the road rage killing of Stephen Cameron
In one tearful scene, Palmer tells Marnie how, as a boy, he was bitterly ashamed of his alcoholic, homeless father. Any crime is better than living as a beggar on the streets, he says.
What sentimental tosh. His murderous associate Kenneth Noye (played by Jack Lowden in the drama) made it plain in a book published last month that even he was terrified of John Palmer.
After Noye stabbed Stephen Cameron to death in a road rage attack on the M25 in May 1996, Palmer helped him flee to Tenerife — travelling part of the way on a private jet, owned by a Russian mafia oligarch.
In the Canaries, Noye saw some of the methods Palmer used to deter challenges to his power.
He ensured a reign of terror by encouraging his retinue of thugs to tank up on cocaine and whisky at the weekends, before descending on bars to start fights with locals and holidaymakers.
Jack Lowden portrays Noye in The Gold
On another occasion, one of his mistresses, a teenage girl, was invited to throw a party for her family and friends, where she was to be presented with the keys to her own glamorous vehicle. With great ceremony, she was blindfolded and everyone gathered round — before one of Palmer’s henchman wheeled in a dirty, broken-down moped . . . purely to humiliate her.
Guessing it was only a matter of time before he became a victim himself of Palmer’s malevolent spite, Noye decamped to Africa and spent the next two years on the run. Eventually, he was tracked down by the dogged police work of Detective Superintendent Nick Biddiss of the Kent force — who has lambasted The Gold’s generous portrayal of Noye.
‘The BBC’s portrait of Noye is out of order,’ Biddiss says. ‘He was a cunning, cold-blooded killer, but that doesn’t come across. The drama makes out that he was some sort of latter-day Robin Hood, a ladies’ man who wouldn’t hurt a soul — not the vicious, violent criminal he really was.’
The pretence that these evil men were simply working-class rogues is only part of the wholescale reinvention of facts in The Gold.
One scene early on, for instance, shows a wise old superintendent advising the Flying Squad detectives, DS Tony Brightwell and DC Nicki Jennings (played by Emun Elliott and Charlotte Spencer). He suggests Noye as a likely suspect for the first time.
The reality was much more colourful than that, according to a Sky News podcast released last year by veteran crime reporter Martin Brunt. In the police canteen, Brunt said, when officers were voicing their frustration at the case, a desk sergeant perked up his ears. He recognised some of those names — and he could take a good guess at who else was involved. But his information came at a price: a slap-up curry dinner washed down with gallons of lager in an Indian restaurant.
It wasn’t until the bhajis, the bhuna and all the poppadoms were eaten that the sergeant started talking: the Flying Squad needed to talk to Kenneth Noye.
Why that scene isn’t in the show is a mystery. But like many of his old colleagues, Roy Ramm, formerly commander of Specialist Operations at New Scotland Yard, regards the whole series as a disappointment, a succession of missed opportunities.
Ramm says: ‘The production feels cheap. It isn’t Happy Valley quality, that’s for sure. The Gold claims to be “inspired” by actual events, but the introduction of wholly invented characters is silly and occasionally offensive. The female officer, Nicki Jennings, is a fictional, baseless and unnecessary invention.
‘Using real characters and real events as part of the narrative,’ he adds, ‘makes it impossible for the viewer to distinguish between what was “inspired” and what actually “transpired”.’
Among the errors he identifies is the scene where armed robber Micky McAvoy, on remand in prison, is left unsupervised to have a covert phone conversation about the bullion with a felon on the outside. ‘It must have left viewers wondering about the competence of the officers who allowed it,’ Ramm says.
And senior Daily Mail journalist Neil Darbyshire, who covered the Brink’s-Mat case as a young crime reporter, takes issue with Hugh Bonneville’s portrayal of DCI Brian Boyce, who led the investigation. He says Boyce was a far more complex man than the show depicts. In particular, he was a talented jazz pianist, who was known to unwind by playing boogie-woogie piano in Soho clubs. Again, it’s a mystery why such vibrant material was omitted.
But the central complaint from every old hand is the same: Palmer and Noye were sociopathic monsters, not a couple of likely lads. They left a trail of devastated lives and showed no remorse.
Palmer was killed in a gangland execution in 2015, but Noye was released from prison after serving 20 years for the M25 murder.
‘Noye should still be inside,’ says Biddiss. ‘I am a wooden-box man. If you are convicted of murder and you are a professional criminal, you should never be released. It is difficult enough for police to catch such killers and collect the crucial evidence.
‘When that happens and they are convicted, then they should never come out — except in a wooden box.’
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