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BBC to Air 'Great Train Robbery' Drama as Infamous Gang Member Dies

Ronnie Biggs P
Getty
Ronnie Biggs

84-year-old robber Ronnie Biggs died on Wednesday, hours before the public broadcaster's scheduled premiere of its high-end drama about his 1963 heist.

LONDON – Notorious British criminal Ronnie Biggs, who took part in the 1963 Great Train Robbery that spawned myriad TV, film and documentary projects, died in the U.K. Wednesday. He was 84. 

His death is awkwardly impeccable timing for the BBC, which is set to air two high-profile television dramas on Wednesday and Thursday based on the robbery -- one from the gang's point of view and one from the police's – named A Robber's Tale and A Copper's Tale, respectively.

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Biggs' publicists, who run his website and the Twitter account @ronniebiggsnews, said: "Sadly we lost Ron during the night. As always, his timing was perfect to the end. Keep him and his family in your thoughts."

Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent stars in A Copper's Tale. Broadchurch writer Chris Chibnall wrote the twin movies for BBC One.

Broadbent stars alongside Robert Glenister (Hustle), Tom Chambers (Waterloo Road), Tim Pigott-Smith (The Hour), Tom Beard (Hunted), James Wilby (Titanic) and James Fox (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

James Strong, who teamed with Chibnall on United and Broadchurch, directs A Copper's Tale, made by World Productions for BBC One.

The script tells the story of the crack team of detectives assembled in the relentless quest to bring the robbers to justice.

The 90-minute film details how the team faced up to the pressure of media focus and carried out an investigation in the full glare of the nation.

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A Copper's Tale follows A Robber’s Tale, directed by Julian Jarrold (The Girl), which tells the story from the point of view of the gang, whose audacious crime secured unheard of wealth and the wrath of the establishment.

The first installment stars Jack Gordon as Biggs alongside Luke Evans (Bruce Reynolds), Jack Roth (Charlie Wilson), Neil Maskell (Buster Edwards), Paul Anderson (Gordon Goody), Martin Compston (Roy James) and Del Synnott.

The drama was commissioned by BBC Drama chief Ben Stephenson and Danny Cohen, then-BBC One controller, now head of BBC TV.

The BBC said on Wednesday that both A Robber's Tale and A Copper's Tale will be broadcast as planned.

Chibnall told the BBC News website the dramas did not focus on Biggs. The first is from the point of view of Reynolds, while the second tells the story of the police investigation.

"With anything like this your thoughts have to be with the family on a day like today," Chibnall told the BBC. "He has children and obviously it's going to be a very difficult day for them."

Biggs was part of the gang that escaped with over $4 million (£2.6 million) from the Glasgow to London mail train on Aug. 8, 1963. This August marked the 50th anniversary of the robbery.

He was given a 30-year sentence but escaped from Wandsworth prison in 1965 and went on the run. He continued to occupy headlines by living the high life in Spain and Brazil while avoiding the British authorities.

In 2001, he once again surfaced by returning to the U.K. seeking medical help. He was sent to prison.

He was released on compassionate grounds in 2009 after contracting pneumonia.

Biggs was admired and disliked in fairly equal measure by the British public, but his escape from prison using a rope ladder, his life on the run in glamorous locales and the original robbery were ripe for adaptation across TV and film.

In 2012, actress Sheridan Smith won a BAFTA TV best actress award for playing the title role in the 2012 five-part series Mrs Biggs, as Charmian Biggs, Ronnie's wife.

Other memorable trips to the screen for the infamous robbery included the 1988 British comedy-drama crime film Buster, based on fellow gang member Ronald 'Buster' Edwards. It starred musician Phil Collins, Julie Walters, Larry Lamb and Sheila Hancock.

And in July of this year, U.K. TV production banner Kowalski Television teamed with L.A. production outfit Scallie Films to make a documentary using interviews with one of the most secretive members of the gang involved in the robbery.

The project's Simon Howley told THR on Wednesday that Biggs' death would have no effect on the project, as it is about a lesser-known member of the gang and barely touches on Biggs.

Biggs, who died early on Wednesday, was being cared for at a group home in London. He could not speak and had difficulty walking after a series of strokes. He was last seen in public at the funeral of his fellow Great Train Robber Bruce Reynolds in March.

Christopher Pickard, ghost writer of Biggs' autobiography, told BBC Radio 4's Today program his friend was "kind and generous" with a great sense of humor, which he retained to the end. Biggs was one of the first products of the "media age" who "inherited fame while running around the world," he said.

Anthony Delano, who wrote a book about Biggs, met the criminal a number of times and described the robber as a "man with no moral compass whatever," on BBC Radio 5 live.