THE BANK JOB is inspired by an extraordinary true event, a daring, unsolved robbery, which took place more than 35 years ago in London. A highly-charged thriller, directed by Roger Donaldson and starring Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows, it interweaves a heady combination of intrigue, scandal and danger and has been described by its producers as "an amazing untold story of murder, sex and corruption".
In September 1971, thieves tunnelled into the vault of a bank in London's Baker Street and looted safe deposit boxes of cash and jewellery worth millions and millions of pounds. None of it was recovered. Nobody was ever arrested. The robbery made headlines for a few days and then disappeared - the result of a UK Government 'D' Notice, gagging the press. This film reveals what was hidden in those boxes. The story involves murder, corruption and a sex scandal with links to the Royal Family - a story in which the thieves were the most innocent people involved.
The Sixties had seen flower power, student riots, the green revolution, the first moon landing, Beatlemania and Swinging London. The transition into the "Me Decade", as writer Tom Wolfe called it, heralded the dawn of the computer age, with the creation of the floppy disc and the introduction of the microprocessor. And disco was to come……
In 1971, Britain was still coming to terms with the passing of the Sixties. Shoppers were wrestling with the unfamiliar simplicity of decimal currency, a plague of strikes was looming for the Conservative Government under Edward Heath and additional troops were being sent to Northern Ireland as the situation there continued to deteriorate.
One day in September, news broke of an extraordinary mystery. An amateur radio "ham", Robert Rowland, alerted Scotland Yard that he had overheard a robbery in progress somewhere within a 10-mile radius of Central London. Rowland, who lived in Wimpole Street, had been tuned in to the 27.15 megacycles radio frequency at 11.00pm on Saturday, 11th September, trying to contact a fellow "ham" in Australia. He picked up a conversation between what sounded like a team of bank raiders and their lookout on a nearby rooftop. He began to tape the radio exchanges, while trying to communicate his suspicions to the police. At 2.00am, a senior officer decided to take his report seriously and called in radio detector vans in an attempt to trace the transmissions. Unfortunately, by the time Post Office engineers could be brought in from weekend leave, the "walkie-talkie" conversations had ceased.
As the search intensified, police officers checked on 750 banks in the inner London area, paying special attention to the 150 banks within a mile of Wimpole Street. On Sunday afternoon, they visited Lloyd's Bank on the corner of Baker Street and Marylebone Road, but found no signs of entry - the 15-inch thick doors of the vault were intact and secured by a time-lock. They were unaware that the raiders were still inside. It was not until the bank opened for business after the weekend that the robbery was discovered. The contents of scores of safety deposit boxes in the vault had been looted in what was Britain's biggest ever robbery.
The gang had dug a 40-foot tunnel from the basement of Le Sac, a leather goods shop which they had leased, two doors away from the bank. The robbers tunnelled under the Chicken Inn restaurant and then, using a thermic lance, through the 3ft of reinforced concrete which formed the floor of the vault. The floor was not wired to the alarm system, as it was thought to be impenetrable. Eight tons of rubble were excavated and left behind in the shop when they escaped, with the contents of 268 deposit boxes.
The "walkie-talkie robbery", as it became known, was curiously similar in execution to the one solved by the legendary Baker Street resident Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Red Headed League". In this case, however, countless questions remain unanswered. Only four men were convicted in connection with the crime and much of the loot was never recovered. Of the stolen property which the police did manage to retrieve, most was never reclaimed.
For THE BANK JOB producer Steven Chasman, research into the story meant delving into the real-life background: "Traditionally, when you think about guys who rob a bank, they're criminals, but these - I'm not saying that they're saints - they weren't looking to rob a bank and, as we say in our film, they didn't do anything violent. In fact, we did a lot of research - this film was in development for dozens of years - and, up until our involvement, no-one got hold of the real people involved in the robbery. They couldn't find them. Half of them were given new identities and disappeared and the other half, our sources said, had passed away.
"But I found a few of the real people, we spoke with them and we put that authenticity through our screenplay. One of the gentlemen involved - he's a nice guy, he's in his seventies now - he told me that they got on
quite well with the police, because it wasn't a violent crime. They didn't use guns, they didn't beat anyone up and, in fact, back then there was a lot of controversy about police corruption.
"One thing that people never think of is, what do people put in safe deposit boxes? Sometimes it's personal keepsakes, but very often, people put things in the box that they don't want other people to know they have. So, when these boxes got robbed, no-one could come forward because where did they get all that money? Where did they get that jewellery? Why are there guns in their boxes?
"Some of the guys have visited our set, but we kept their names and who they were confidential, because they are living a different life now and they're parents and grandparents and on a different path. In fact there were a couple of hiccups along the way because one person was involved as a consultant and it brought up so many memories from his past, he didn't want to go there any more and he withdrew from the process. But then, through some persuading, he got back involved again - a very nice guy. I think their genuineness makes things that much more relevant.
"And there's also something timeless about the fact that in our world we're often manipulated by the media. We read a newspaper and think it's fact. And what we found out here was that, because of the 'D Notice' that was issued - allegedly - there was never anything reported about the robbery after the first four days - ever - except for some minor mentions of the arraignments later. That's quite ironic and often, in London, when I'm in a taxi or speaking to someone who was around at the time, they remember the 'walkie-talkie' robbery and what happened. They knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone who was involved. I think there's something sort of magical about it and to try to tell the story in a contemporary way is what we've tried to do."
The significance of the bank's location was not lost on the robbers. Apparently, before leaving, they wrote on the inside wall of the safe 'let Sherlock Holmes try to solve this'…….
FILMING "THE BANK JOB"
When Roger Donaldson was sent the script of THE BANK JOB by Charles Roven, who had produced his film "Cadillac Man", he was immediately drawn by the idea of making a film in England again, his first since "The Bounty" (1984). "I was attracted to the fact that it was a real story and there were lots of interesting facts about this bank robbery. My dad was born here, I have a British passport, my son lives in London, so I was keen to make a film here," says the Australian-born director. "One of the great things about shooting in England is that there is a fantastic depth of really good, talented actors and so casting is always a great pleasure. For me, the movie is about who's in it. And there's fantastic technical expertise, I think this is probably one of the best crews I've ever worked with in my life."
Producer Roven is delighted to be working with Roger again. "What's so great is that Roger is the perfect director to make this film - he has done so many different kinds of movies in his career. He's done the thriller, he's done the character piece, he's done the action movie and he has also done those true stories, those true, heart-warming stories like the one he did a couple of years ago - 'The World's Fastest Indian'. This is the kind of a movie that allows you to blend all these techniques. It is very suspenseful, it's got a tremendous amount of real-life comedy and the characters are really interesting and there's a part of us in all of them."
"I thought this would be an interesting movie, from lots of different perspectives", admits Donaldson. "I enjoy taking a look at what makes society tick and I was interested in the real facts, the history of the period, the time and the politics. I grew up with English TV and the English do have a particular sense of humour that I've always responded to and enjoyed. The writers, Dick and Ian, have made a name for themselves with it, while I brought to the story my own reputation as a director of political thrillers, I guess, with 'No Way Out' and 'Thirteen Days'. It's an amalgam of two sorts of, I wouldn't say styles, but two sorts of talent. What interested me about this script is that it's inspired by real people and real events and it's a period of English history that I think is unique and many of the characters in the story are unique in the part they played.
"I, personally, love the research - that's one of the things I really do embroil myself in. I finished up going to the newspapers of the time, to the national archives, digging up facts that have not seen the light of day since they happened in 1971."
"We were living in London at the time," says Dick Clement. "What we remembered were the headlines about the radios. It was only when we started to research it that we discovered that the story went off the front pages very quickly - it was there for a couple of days and then nothing. Obviously, we had no idea about any of the hidden agenda that's in the movie, because so many aspects of it have never come to light before. How much of it we have got right, I have no idea. We'll let other people decide that."
Ian La Frenais enjoyed the period feel of the story. "So many robbery or heist films that are done now are all so dependent on hi-tech, people breaking in using computers to hack into security systems, so this is an old-fashioned robbery - picks and shovels, digging under the ground, blasting through the bank and tearing those boxes apart with crowbars!"
According to Clement, "what's fascinating is that the geography hasn't changed at all. You can still go to Baker Street, right this minute, and you can see exactly where the shop is, where they tunnelled in from, with a little Chicken Inn in the middle - it's still a fast food restaurant, it may not be a Chicken Inn any more but you can actually see the geography that hasn't changed in 35 years."
"At one point we were thinking of shooting the film in Australia," says Steven Chasman, "because Melbourne looks similar to a European city. It's really quite expensive, shooting here, but we felt that we would want to have the authenticity. The actors are so important and there are such great technicians here, such great artists, and the film would benefit from it. And, obviously, the movie takes place in London and that's why we're here. The biggest challenge, I think, was trying to put as much as possible on the screen, but it's well worth it, because it's been a really fabulous experience."
Production designer Gavin Bocquet was happy to rise to the challenge: "Finding those locations in London that haven't been changed enough for us to shoot was quite hard. We had sixty or seventy sets or locations to find and, with little money, you've really got to be in tune with the director and with Mick Coulter, the cinematographer, to understand what you can shoot in certain locations and what you can't."
"When I counted up one of drafts of the script, I had something like 76 locations, which is twice as many as you would normally have," says location manager Giles Edelston. "The story reminded me about several locations I'd used in the past. None of them exists any more - London is one big building site. But we found quite a lot of new material on this, like the Pigalle Club in Piccadilly - it's always nice to film in a location that has never been on camera before."
Gavin Bocquet agrees. "It was a huge challenge to find those little areas of London that more or less can be shot as 1970s, without much work being done. But we did an awful lot of research into that period. We had some very good BBC news footage, especially of the bank robbery itself, showing how it was, two or three days later.
"Roger was trying to make the whole bank sequence seamless, because, as normal, we have to shoot things in different places, on locations and on some studio sets. We had lots of discussions about the best way of doing that and we've ended up with an exterior street set at Pinewood and three stage sets at Ealing which include the tunnel and the basement of Le Sac. Then another location, which was the bank vault, was built in the old Bethnal Green Town Hall. But we had some very good reference, either from the BBC or from police photographs of the actual bank robbery. The way Roger shot it, the audience will believe the bank vault and the tunnel and the crypt and the Le Sac basement were underneath the shops. And that's always the illusion that you're trying to create. Nobody will really appreciate how we put all that together, if it works, because everybody will think that it was done for real."
The production covered an extraordinary amount of ground during the ten-week shoot. The locations ranged from luxurious Bayswater apartments to East End workshops, from seedy pubs and clubs to august, wood-panelled offices and from the Royal Courts of Justice to Chatham's Historic Naval Dockyard. Scenes on the London Underground were filmed at the decommissioned Aldwych station and, for a memorable two days, the production took over Platform One at London's bustling Paddington Station, complete with a 1971 locomotive and carriages, the first time ever that a film company had brought a train into the station. "The fact that you can shoot in Paddington and on a platform is extraordinary," says actress Saffron Burrows, "You'd see shell-suits walking into shot and hideous orange pieces of luggage - our idea of how design has progressed is horrendous. So you would see the odd real person walking into shot and people were shooing them out of the way. It was kind of wonderful!"
THE BANK JOB was filmed with the latest high-definition digital cameras and that presented some interesting challenges for the production team. As Kirstin Chalmers points out, "It is so much sharper than film, so make-up is more obvious, wig lace shows up more - even hair looks more super-real."
For director Roger Donaldson, the new technology has its advantages: "It's my first movie in HiDef and, of course, HiDef is the future. It gives you a unique opportunity at the time of shooting, where you can see exactly what you are doing. It's not easy to work with, but to see what you're doing, as you can with digital photography is a real advantage. Mick Coulter, our DP, is a really talented guy, who has made some really great English movies and, like myself, I think he's enjoying the challenge!"
"It's obviously something that's come in over the last five or ten years and I've done a couple of other films in HiDef," says designer Gavin Bocquet. "It doesn't really change much - a negative aspect might be that generally the depth of field is much longer and things come into focus much more quickly, so you have to be careful with your mid-ground and far-ground finishes. We work in a world of illusion, so usually we work things theatrically, but obviously as soon as things start to get closer and in more and finer detail, you have to be careful.
"The advantage is that you usually have a monitor on the shooting unit, which is really crystal clear, so everybody, every department, can see what you are shooting and, if they have any problem at that moment, they can go and deal with it. Whereas, in the old days, the monitor you looked at for playback was very rough, so you relied on rushes and, by then, it would be too late to correct anything. So I think the bonuses actually outweigh the disadvantages."
For the actors, it presents different challenges, according to Saffron Burrows. "There are aspects of HiDef I like, but the fact that it's merciless is not something I like as an actor - it's not as kind as the human eye. The human eye focuses on something and leaves the outer edges slightly out of focus, whereas HiDef is truly not like a painter's brush or a photographer's eye, it's quite clinically clear. I suppose there are benefits to that, one of which is that Roger can go home at night and know that the thing is in focus and can sleep well, so it's obviously the way we're going. It's my second film on HiDef - I do like the speed with which we can work, that's terrific."
ROGER DONALDSON (Director) was born in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia and in 1965 he emigrated to New Zealand to establish a small still photography business. He first entered the film industry when he made the drama series "Winners and Losers" for New Zealand television, directing and producing his first feature film "Sleeping Dogs" in 1977. As this was the first film to come out of New Zealand in nearly 15 years, he lobbied the New Zealand Government to found the New Zealand Film Commission in 1978. Donaldson's first American break was his remake of the film Mutiny of the Bounty, which was released as "The Bounty", featuring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins and was nominated for the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, Donaldson has been involved with many popular and successful movies, among them being the thriller "No Way Out", starring Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman, "Cocktail", starring Bryan Brown and Tom Cruise, "Cadillac Man", with Robin Williams and Tim Robbins, "Species", with Ben Kingsley and Natasha Henstridge, "Dante's Peak", with Pierce Brosnan and Linda Hamilton. His most recent projects are "Thirteen Days", starring Kevin Costner and Steven Culp, "The Recruit", starring Al Pacino and Colin Farrell and The World's Fastest Indian", starring Anthony Hopkins.
DICK CLEMENT and IAN LA FRENAIS (Screenwriters) form the top British writing team, whose trademark naturalistic dialogue, allied to well-constructed plots and memorable but believable characters, have resulted in a number of immensely popular TV series. Their breakthrough project was "The Likely Lads", first aired in 1964, which followed the adventures of two working-class northern lads interested in birds, booze, fags and football. They were busy for the rest of the decade, scripting films and TV shows, with Clement doubling as a BBC producer (on the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore series "Not Only But Also"). In 1973, they resurrected their Likely Lads characters, Terry and Bob, for another hit series, "Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?". At the same time, they began another monster hit, prison sitcom "Porridge", starring veteran character actor Ronnie Barker. In 1983, they created "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet", about British construction workers working in Germany, which was yet another ratings smash. La Frenais wrote the first episode of the long-running "Lovejoy" series, to which he and Clement contributed several scripts and he co-created the popular "Spender", with its star, Jimmy Nail. Apart from penning feature film versions of their greatest TV hits: "The Likely Lads", and "Porridge" (the latter also directed by Dick Clement), they have scripted other memorable big-screen works, including "Otley" (dir. Clement), "Villain", "The Commitments", "Still Crazy", "Goal!" and "Flushed Away".
READ MORE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS AND CREATING THE 'LOOK' OF 1971
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING