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The creators of television shows often boast an expansive ego, but as successful as he’s become with the British thriller Guilt, freelance journalist turned screenwriter and producer Neil Forsyth has a clear-eyed take on his own talents.

Charlotte Spencer, Emun Elliott and Hugh Bonneville in The Gold, a gripping drama based on the daring heist of bullion from a London warehouse in 1983.Credit: Paramount+

“It’s just a matter of time,” says Forsyth, whose accent and unvarnished self-analysis both betray his Scottish heritage. “As long as I have it, I can write a good episode of television. I have always recognised my flaws and tried to be not just a good writer, but an improving writer who works on the craft of how to tell stories.”

Forsyth has put that self-belief to the test with his new limited series, The Gold. It’s a gripping crime thriller that dramatises the largest-ever gold robbery in Britain – three tonnes (6800 ingots) of the precious metal, with a value of £26 million ($A200 million in today’s money), were stolen from the Brink’s-Mat warehouse in London in 1983. The series untangles a labyrinthine narrative involving controversial police investigations, intricate money laundering, and multiple trials.

“It was bloody complicated, but the research was fascinating, I did six months with Thomas Turner, our researcher, poring through newspaper archives and court transcripts to piece it all together,” Forsyth says. “I had this vast document and on the glass half full side I was like, ‘Great! The story’s in there’. Glass half empty was: ‘How the hell do I shape this into six episodes of television?’”

Forsyth and Turner dug so deep into the case that they’ve written an accompanying non-fiction book for the show: The Gold: The Real Story Behind Brink’s-Mat, Britain’s Biggest Heist. What they learned confirmed what Forsyth had long suspected, that as brazen as the heist was, it’s merely the starting point for a much more involved and crucial narrative.

Jack Lowden as fence Kenneth Noye in The Gold.Credit: Paramount+

“In the UK, it’s an infamous crime… but what happened next isn’t known at all because it’s really complicated and went on for years, with disparate stories and court proceedings,” Forsyth says. “No one ever tied this elaborate jigsaw all together, and that’s what I was interested in doing.”

The robbery is the opening scene of the show, which is wreathed in period production design, music, and cigarette smoke. But the gang’s gleaming take is so vast that it overtakes the South London thieves. The true focus is the alliance that distributed it – fence Kenneth Noye (Jack Lowden), gold merchant John Palmer (Tom Cullen), and solicitor Edwyn Cooper (Dominic Cooper). Pursuing them is the resolute Scotland Yard officer, Brian Boyce (Hugh Bonneville), and flying squad detectives Nicki Jennings (Charlotte Spencer) and Tony Brightwell (Emun Elliott).

The gold, and the money derived from its illicit sale, united different strands of criminality and reached unexpected places, from London property developments to Swiss bank accounts. It also exposed secret networks that were tied together, such as South London criminals and Metropolitan police officers who were members of the same Freemasons lodge.

Ultimately, The Gold is a portrait of deeply British ambition, social movement, and corruption. As much as the limited series has the trappings of a classic British cop show – the villains all call Bonneville’s chief inspector “Mr Boyce” – Forsyth takes the genre to pieces and then reassembles it with a fresh lens.

Dominic Cooper as solicitor Edwyn Cooper in The Gold. Credit: Paramount+

“Taking myself out of it in terms of moral judgment was important – it’s not a crime drama from the point of view of the police, and it’s not a crime drama from the point of view of the criminals,” Forsyth says. “Everything is morally grey, so the viewer can choose and their loyalties can shift. I also wanted a sense of humanity in it and not being afraid of fusing potentially undesirable characters with some sense of humanity and understanding.”

Forsyth spoke, sometimes publicly and sometimes very privately, to survivors on both sides of the case; in some instances, he was able to get participants to break their silence after 40 years. But when it came to the writing, one central character is represented under a fictitious name, while some supporting characters are composites drawn from the assembled testimony.

“The biggest thing with creative licence and sensitivities is that as long as you’ve done the research, if you’ve put the work in, then you can look yourself in the eye and think, ‘I understand the decisions I’m taking’,” Forsyth says. “The thing about creative licence is that you need to know when you’re using creative licence. You don’t use it to fudge something you don’t know. We always knew the true story.”

Forsyth, who got his start writing for a football fanzine in his hometown of Dundee at the age of 13 and later penned a series of beloved Scottish comic novels, writes with muscular momentum, an ear for humour, and an incisive feel for his character’s motivations. It’s why Forsyth and his fellow producers were able to convince actors such as Lowden (Slow Horses) and Bonneville (Downton Abbey), who normally take lead roles, to slot into an ensemble cast.

“If you get a brilliant actor, it’s a domino effect – you get another brilliant actor,” Forsyth says. “Jack Lowden and I are both Scottish and I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. I’ve always considered him an amazing actor – I think he should be the next James Bond – so that was always in my mind. It’s not a role I’ve seen Hugh Bonneville do before, although I’m sure he has somewhere, and he’s fantastic.”

Bonneville’s police officer is revealed as a veteran of too many British conflicts, while Cooper’s solicitor is someone futilely trying to catch up to his childhood ambitions. As the show unfolds, the characters become far more than their actions in the moment. You see them as flawed individuals, as well as part of a historic system that spurs them on without reward.

“It’s definitely a tragedy. Like all great tragedies it has humour in it, it starts full of ambition and hope,” Forsyth says. “I think the thing about the Brink’s-Mat story, without giving too much away, is that no one truly wins. There’s personal tragedy on the criminal journey, and a very heavy tragedy on the police side.”

But as deeply involved as The Gold is, and as richly drawn as the characters are, Forsyth’s goals are unmistakably clear. His next three years are fully booked with projects to write, most of which Forsyth generated, and he knows what his priorities are.

“It’s nice to have themes in your show, but I aways think that’s secondary to writing unashamedly entertaining television shows,” Forsyth says. “That’s the big thing to me. I think about viewers who’ve had a long day at work and decide, ‘Let’s give this a go’. You try to write smart shows, but don’t ignore your duty to entertain.”

The Gold is on Paramount+.

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