Mrs BiggsReview : Sheridan Smith and Danny Mays shine in this entertaining biopic about the notorious great train robber and his ever-loving wife
In my review of Accused last week I mentioned that Sheridan Smith will be appearing in a lot of dramas this autumn and none so prominent as her lead role in Mrs Biggs. The programme sees Smith play Charmian, the eventual wife of notorious Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, as we follow her from her humble beginnings as the daughter of a strict headmaster to the other half of a wanted criminal. Mrs Biggs is written by Jeff Pope with Charmian working as an advisor on the script in order for the events to seem as authentic as possible but despite this at the start of the programme we are told that some events have been invented or changed for dramatic purpose even though the drama itself is based on a true story.
The first episode of Mrs Biggs is almost based entirely around trains as we hear the whistle of a train and then the sound of it rattling along the track as we first see the young Charmian on her way to work when she catches the eye of Ronald Biggs. Though he is a tradesman Ron, played by the ever brilliant Daniel Mays, always dresses in a suit on the train in order to make the ladies think that he’s a lot more flash than he actually is. Charmian is charmed by Ron though as they go for drinks together he opens up to tell her about his criminal past and also what he really does for a living. When her stern father finds out about this he forbids her from seeing Ron however eventually she decides to side with her lover and runs away from home. Ron tells Charmian that they need money to go on the run and tells her to rob the bank that she works for so she does as he wishes and the two go away along with one of Biggs’ criminal associates to stay in a small hotel where they pose as a Doctor and his wife. It’s not long before Biggs returns to a life of crime as the trio rob a local chemist however when they are caught by the police Ron stays with Charmian and gives himself up when he realises that she’ll freeze to death if they stay hiding in a river. Charmian is given bail while Ron is arrested however they vow to stay together and when she visits him in prison she gives him a nice surprise.
We see another train when Charmian’s father, who paid back the money she stole, takes her back home but when Ron is released from prison the pair plan to marry informing her dad that she is now pregnant. Ron vows to turn his life around for Charmian becoming an odd job man and moving his family into a small rented house while she has their first child. While her mother and sister visit her father is adamant that everything is going to fail but the marriage continues to survive when Charmian has another child. The first blip in their marriage comes when the house that Charmian loves goes up for sale with Ron going to his old friend Bruce for the money which he refuses to give to him although he tells him he can work for it. Charmian is unhappy to see Ron hanging around with Bruce again but he assures her that everything’s on the level but as we know their meetings are an impetus for what Biggs is best known for and when he introduces Bruce to his client and former train-driver Peter their robbery scheme is underway.
I feel the fact that Charmian and Pope worked on the script together was in some ways a good thing as most of the
dialogue feels realistic especially the early scenes in which she attempts to stand up to her old-fashioned father. From what I watched I was able to understand that Charmian first fell for Ron because he was exciting but stayed with him because she felt she could change his ways which she almost did. The interplay between Ron and Charmian feels fairly natural as they sink into married life however the fact that he’s a former criminal still hangs over their head and you get a sense that she never really fully trusts him. The problem with Pope running everything past Charmian is that I expect there were parts of her story that he wanted to cut out but she wanted to keep as she felt that they were necessary to tell her tale. While this may or may not be the case to me it seemed that Pope had to cram plenty of plot into this first episode as we travel over six years in just over an hour covering everything from Charmian and Ron’s first meeting to the start of The Great Train Robbery itself. It’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy most of the piece it’s just that I felt I was being rushed from one important event to the next without any room to really process what I’d seen.
What I did really enjoy throughout was the period detail employed from the first look inside the train carriage to the very 1960s house that Charmian and Ron live in every effort has been made to have the sets change with the time in which the drama is set. I also liked how Pope made an effort to show us the difference between Charmian’s dreary life in a very stuffy bank and her dark family home to the lively world of jazz and whisky that Ron introduced her to which to me explains what attracted her to him in the first place. In the lead role I was blown away by how different Sheridan Smith looked and at times I forgot it was her on screen as she completely transformed herself into Charmian. Smith said she enjoyed wearing the outfits and various wigs throughout and they certainly help her to look the part because as the years go on her ginger bouffant changes in size and style. Smith makes you sympathise for Charmian throughout Mrs Biggs even when she steals money you know she’s doing it for love and you feel for her in the latter stages when Ron starts to lie in order to justify his time away committing the robbery. It may not be a stretch for Daniel Mays to play a cheeky criminal sort but he’s brilliant in the role as someone whose desperately trying to go straight but fate keeps drawing him back into the criminal lifestyle. I also enjoyed Adrian Scarborough’s performance as Charmian’s straight-laced father who delivered his lines perfectly especially when he informs his daughter that she shouldn’t wear make-up as you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
I think the amount of enjoyment you will get from Mrs Biggs depends on how much you already know about her husband and the whole Great Train Robbery itself. Personally I knew very little so I was interested in a lot that was happening throughout especially the revelation that Biggs was really just an accessory in the crime and was nowhere near one of the masterminds of the robbery despite him being the person most associated with the incident. If you’ve read all that has been written on the incident though, especially the interviews with Charmian when she was in Australia, I don’t think they’ll be much new information on show throughout Mrs Biggs. What this boils down to is an enjoyable yet over-crowded biopic with two fantastic central performances and a lot of fine period detail. I’m not quite sure if this story warranted five episodes but as long as the brilliant Miss Smith continues to shine in the lead role then I’ll certainly be watching.
What did you think to Mrs Biggs? Did you enjoy Sheridan Smith’s performance? Leave Your Comments Below.