A notorious million-pound heist, a brazen escape from prison and a helter-skelter life on the run – Danny Mays chats about his role as Great Train Robber and fugitive Ronnie Biggs in ITV1’s drama Mrs Biggs (Wednesday)…
You play infamous Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs, in ITV1’s five-part drama, Mrs Biggs. How much did you know about him before filming?
“It’s weird because the only picture I had of him is fugitive Ronnie in Rio de Janeiro. So it’s been great to do the research and to try and bring him to life as a real human, because people have this preconceived idea of who he is. A lot of people think he actually killed someone, but that’s not true. There are a lot of untruths about him. I don’t think he’s a guy with any malice, I just think he was a chancer and that’s how I’ve tried to play him.”
This drama is from his first wife’s perspective. What do you think Charmian saw in him when they first met?
“Ronnie had bags of charisma and charm. He basically just swept Charmian off her feet. It’s been really enjoyable to play that side of him. But he did walk the line between hero and villain. Everyone seems to have an opinion on him. I hope this entertains people and challenges any preconceptions they might have of him.”
How would you describe this drama?
“First and foremost it’s a love story. It’s about Charmian and Ronnie Biggs’ marriage, played against the backdrop of The Great Train Robbery. The great thing is it’s Charmian’s story. I wouldn’t have wanted to do another generic story about the Great Train Robbery, we all know about that. Even when you see the robbery played out it cuts back to her looking after the kids.”
The robbers stole 2.6 million pounds – the equivalent to around 40 million today. Did Charmian know about the robbery beforehand?
“No, she’d been told he was going tree-felling for the weekend. Little did she know he was going to come back with three bags of cash and empty it out all over their bed! His share was 147,000 – the equivalent of almost three million in cash today.”
Did you do anything special to prepare for the role?
“The production team sent me a huge box full of documentaries, and I’ve read his autobiography and loads of other books. It’s interesting when you watch the documentaries because a lot of the time it’s someone talking one-on-one with him – and he was the ultimate manipulator and a fantastic conman. I can see him trying to make the viewers see things through rose-tinted spectacles.
“It’s when you see him in the bars of Rio, when he has his guard down and is chatting to women, that you see the real Ronnie. To me he is an enigma. There’s no doubt that he’s charming, but the way he behaved in Rio was deplorable.”
When he told Charmian he wanted a divorce and was planning to re-marry his pregnant girlfriend Raimunda de Castro…
“That’s the real tragedy. Ronnie and Charmian worked as a couple. They had a fun marriage and relationship. Although they came from very different backgrounds, he was working class and she was middle class, they had a meeting of minds. He even tried to go on the straight and narrow for a few years. I find it sad that in Rio he turned his back on all that. Although, to a certain extent, his hands were tied. At one point he says ‘My God this is an impossible situation’. And it was.”
You met with the real-life Charmian Biggs. How was that?
“It was amazing meeting the real Charmian, she was a wealth of information and the depth of her emotional recall was truly amazing. I did feel a lot of pressure because it’s such an incredible story.”
Although they’re divorced has Ronnie Biggs been involved in the making of this in any way?
“Apparently Ronnie was aware that this was being made. He can’t speak because he’s had some strokes, but he spelled out two things for Charmian: ‘I love you’ and ‘Do you need any money?’ Which is amazing. Apparently Charmian told him about the project and she squeezed his hand, which she said meant that he approved of the project.”
What would you say to potential critics of this drama?
“Some people might think it’s too sympathetic towards Ronnie, because there’s some stuff we’ve left out. However, we do show all the things that he lost because of his involvement in the robbery. You’ll see the happiness that Ronnie once had and all the ways in which Charmian suffered. At the end of the day it’s not an impersonation, it’s an impressionistic view from Jeff Pope’s script.”
Do you know what happened to his share of the money?
“By the time they got to Australia all the money from the robbery had gone. Ronnie had spent it on plastic surgery and other things – and everyone had taken their piece of it. By the time he got to Brazil he had next to nothing. But he was one of those people who could make the best out of any situation. When he was kidnapped in 1981 he befriended the people on the boat!”
Did you enjoy working with Sheridan Smith, who plays Charmian?
“It’s been such a joy to work with someone so committed, professional and talented. Sheridan’s been doing great theatre recently, but she’s been more renowned for her comedy work, and she’s really brilliant in this.”
What else have you enjoyed about playing Ronnie Biggs?
“It’s great to play ambiguous characters, who could be heroes or villains, because that’s what we all are, aren’t we? I think Ronnie was one of those people who brought out the best in anyone, but no one’s black and white. It’s interesting how Ronnie decays in Rio after the death of his first child, Nicky, in a car accident in Australia. That’s when he starts spiralling out of control and taking drugs. I just get the sense that he’s got this self-hatred, but he would never let it show. He was always ‘affable Ron’. I think he always wanted to get back to where he was in Australia.”