London, 1963, and small time crook Buster Edwards (Phil Collins) is on his way to a funeral, except he doesn't have a proper suit, so in a moment of opportunism he steals one from a shop window, turning up just in time to catch the end of the burial ceremony where he is greeted by some of his fellow crooks, along with a police detective who is there to see who shows up. Buster assures him he is going straight, but nothing could be further from the truth, as he continues to generate his income by theft, though his wife June (Julie Walters) still complains about their lack of money.
So how about a major robbery to set the couple up for life? And not only them, but the rest of the gang instrumental in The Great Train Robbery of the mid-sixties, about which this film took Buster as its hero, played up to the hilt by Collins as a loveable cheeky chappie conveniently glossing over the less salubrious aspects of the actual criminal. For this reason the film proved controversial, with Prince Charles and Princess Diana cancelling a charity premiere appearance for the film because wiser heads prevailed considering it would not be particularly laudable to see the Royals endorsing a movie making light of the crime.
Even after over twenty years, the incident was very much in the British public's consciousness, with one other gang member Ronnie Biggs a cause celebre since his flight to Brazil, seen as living it up in tropical climes when the police were powerless to arrest him back home thanks to a lack of an extradition treaty with that country. As for Edwards, by this time he had paid his debt to society and had famously been running his own flower stall in London, so presumably the filmmakers thought it was a pretty safe bet to build a film around him and his story. But even when this was released, there were many voices of dissent when they saw how the man was depicted.
Not only was Edwards a salt of the earth Cockney who was loving to his wife, but in Colin Shindler's screenplay he was a powerful anti-establishment figure who threatened the status quo in the same way that Christine Keeler had during the then-recent Profumo Scandal (also the subject of a film the following year). Whether you swallowed that or not, Collins' relentlessly bumptious performance was not one you would be on the fence about, either you went along with this portrayal as a sixties folk hero who loved his country so much that even when he escaped abroad he couldn't bear to be parted from it, or you found his overbearing mateyness a source of annoyance.
But there were deeper problems than that, and those were related to the real life story and how they were different to the story we were asked to accept in the fictionalised version. Edwards was depicted as a chancer who stumbles into his life of crime, so nowhere in this was it mentioned he had been a major part of a huge theft the year before at Heathrow Airport, though had evaded capture: not quite the amateur this would have you believe. And more problematic for many was the train driver, Jack Mills, seriously injured in the celebrated robbery itself when the gang beat him over the head with a metal bar, leaving him suffering complications for the rest of his curtailed life: we see this happen in long shot, and Buster is not the gang member who strikes him, in spite of rumours to the contrary. Business like that wouldn't fit in with the film's dubious morality in creating a laudable and essentially harmless rogue. As it is, the further this went on the more small time it seemed, more appropriate for a TV play than a big screen outing with its soap opera drama. Music by Collins (of course) and Anne Dudley.