The ITV series is based on the life of Charmian Biggs, wife of the notorious Ronald Biggs, one of the Great Train Robbers of 1963.
The Biggs family later spent a number of years living in Australia (including Ronnie famously working as a carpenter for Channel Nine, Melbourne). Charmian still lives in Melbourne and was a consultant on this series.
ITV has produced this 5 part series with Australia’s December Media, and the Seven Network is a partner. It hasn’t done that on an international drama since The Pacific.
An opening title card indicates “Some scenes have been included or altered for dramatic purposes and in some cases names have been changed.” This is pretty standard in bio-pics nowadays, but it does make it difficult to work out which parts are truthful and which are embellished or fabricated.
The young Charmian (Sheridan Smith) is a respectable girl, daughter of a school principal and holding down a good office job when she meets the charismatic Ronnie (Daniel Mays). Attracted to the young redhead, Ronnie charms her in lilting scenes that belie a darker persona that will later emerge. Against her father’s advice she pursues a romance with this most English of cads.
The gullible Charmian even goes as far as stealing from her employer for Ronnie and the two head off on the run, with Ronnie’s mate Mike (Tom Brooke). But three proves to be a crowd and the police are on their tail. It’s after being caught that Charmian displays skills in blackmail and deception that seem a little too wise for one with such an innocent upbringing.
The first episode is more love story than heist, and attempts to demonstrate that circumstance pushed Biggs to the point of joining in the Great Train Robbery. Charmian is painted as a young mother and wife standing by her man despite his inability to stay on the straight and narrow.
But it is the performance of Sheridan Smith that helps lift this beyond being a run-of-the-mill story, rarely resorting to emotional outbursts and giving Charmian inner strength. Yesterday she was nominated for a BAFTA Award and it isn’t hard to see why.
As the series rolls on, Charmian will presumably become more resilient, given we already know her headline-grabbing husband fled to Brazil and lived with a nightclub performer. While a woman would probably never stick with her man through such adversity, society expected much more of women during the 1950s and 60s.
ITV uses fashion and music to capture the era with authenticity.
I’m looking forward to seeing scenes filmed in Adelaide and Melbourne where Biggs kept dodging police. Those scenes will include Denise Roberts, Libby Tanner, Tim Draxl, Freya Stafford, Trudy Hellier and Alison Bell.
And while you’ll make up your own mind about which scenes are too soapy to ever be true, it’s rather fascinating to think that the life of Mrs Biggs may be far more interesting than Mr Biggs ever was.
Mrs Biggs premieres 9:30pm Sunday on Seven.