In November 1983, six armed robbers burst into the Brink’s-Mat warehouse near Heathrow hoping to steal $1.2 million in foreign currency. While some of the gang doused the guards in petrol, the leader noticed a huge pile of gray boxes stacked on the floor. He opened one and, with that, British crime and policing changed forever.

Inside was gold bullion. The crooks drove off with 6,114 lbs of gold worth about $32 million — roughly $123 million today — a haul that made the proceeds of the Great Train Robbery, at $2.8 million, look like small change. The Brink’s-Mat heist flooded the country with illicit gold, sparked two decades of bloodshed and ushered in a new age of white-collar crime and financial fraud.

The haul was so large that if you own a piece of jewelry bought in the UK between 1984 and the early 1990s, chances are it contains stolen gold from the Brink’s-Mat heist. The cash laundered from the gold paid for several London Docklands developments, and properties in Spain and Florida. It even showed up in the Panama Papers in 2016.

Police display evidence from the robbery, including a bag that was put over a security guard’s head.

There’s a standard way to film a British heist: geezers put a team together, get the shooters, pull the job and do a runner. Sometimes they get away with it — like in The Italian Job — and sometimes they don’t — as in the three movies based on the bumbling Hatton Garden heist of 2015.

Now a BBC drama, The Gold, is using the Brink’s-Mat story to change things. It focuses on how everyone involved — from the robbers to the police — was so wildly out of their depth that they had to make it up as they went along. It’s like the Keystone Crooks with a brutal body count. But there’s a serious point too. Almost by accident, the robbers re-invented modern crime, connecting street gangs with white-collar criminals skilled in money laundering and creating front companies to buy property using the proceeds of crime.

The cash laundered from the gold paid for several London Docklands developments.

In telling the story, the writer Neil Forsyth breaks all heist screen rules. The robbery is over before the title credits. It’s what happens next that fascinates him. “The robbers weren’t expecting £26 million [$32 million] in gold bullion and had no idea how to smelt it down,” Forsyth says. “The smelters had no idea how to get rid of the money and the white-collar criminals didn’t understand the blue-collar ones. The police knew how to catch villains with guns but had no idea about money laundering … it’s like an old-school English comedy about how London became the moneyed white-collar capital of crime it is today.”

Jack Lowden stars as Brink’s-Mat criminal Kenneth Noye.

Forsyth wrote the Mark Bonnar thriller Guilt in 2021, and has penned acclaimed true-life dramas about showbiz figures — such as the BBC Four show Eric, Ernie and Me and the Sky production Elizabeth, Michael & Marlon. In The Gold he finds the desire for wealth and status among the criminals laundering this unexpected booty more fascinating than the shooters. With the gang leaders jailed within the first 20 minutes, the series follows the money. It concentrates on the shady deals in private members’ clubs between chippy South London gangsters and old-school landowners; the vicious haggling in derelict docklands as aging cockneys tease cash out of ambitious yuppies.

“This was the socially mobile 1980s,” Forsyth says. “It’s essentially a story of people wanting to break out of the class that has been assigned to them by birth or gender. And in so many cases that turned into a nightmarish reality.”

The Gold trails the small-time Kent crook Kenneth Noye, played with Del Boy ebullience by Jack Lowden, and the gold smelter John “Goldfinger” Palmer, an intense performance from Tom Cullen. It’s Noye and Palmer who take responsibility for the bars of bullion when it’s clear the six Rotherhithe thugs have no better plan than a local pawnbroker. They move it off to the West Country to be smelted down and mixed with cheaper gold to hide its purity. Noye craves the class of English aristocrats and turns to blue blood to help clean the cash that his smelters generate (in real life he became public enemy number one for murdering Stephen Cameron in a road-rage attack on the M25 in 1996). Palmer was murdered in 2015 in a suspected gangland hit.

The real deal: Marnie and John Palmer on Tenerife.

Forsyth conflates the many wealthy money launderers of the real story into the crooked solicitor Edwyn Copper (played by Dominic Cooper). Copper scoops up cash from Palmer and Noye to squirrel away in Swiss banks, fund London Docklands developments — making The Long Good Friday suddenly feel like a documentary — and build property across the Mediterranean.

All of which, says Dr Gary Armstrong, a criminologist at City, University of London, is true. “The most convenient place to invest the cash from so much recycled gold was in the Docklands property boom, which was in part financed by crime,” he says. The police struggled to keep up.

It’s like the Keystone Crooks with a brutal body count.

In The Gold, Hugh Bonneville, as DCI Brian Boyce, tries to track this dirty money and avoids corrupt cops by recruiting officers from the Fraud Squad and HM Customs and Excise. This model of collaboration has gradually become the norm in large-scale financial crime. Bonneville recalls: “I met Brian over a long lunch and I was amazed by his discipline. He was so suspicious. I asked if he ever lost his temper and the only time he did was when someone leaked something” to a corrupt police force.

Hugh Bonneville as Brian Boyce, the wry detective chief superintendent who followed the trail to recover as much of the gold as possible.

Today computer fraud is soaring while armed robberies make up just 12 percent of reported gun crime. “Robberies with guns are a rarity,” Paul Haden, a former policeman, explains. “Very few people are paid in cash. It’s mostly druggies or alcoholics pointing an air pistol in a corner shop for a few hundred pounds.”

And yet the great British heist lingers in the minds of new generations, thanks in part to the film director Guy Ritchie. “British crime movies are usually the nostalgic championing of an old-fashioned world that conflates gangsters, criminals and heists,” says Ian Nathan, presenter of Classic Films on Sky Arts. “The Americans have grand gangster movies like The Godfather and glamorous heist movies like Ocean’s Eleven, but we love getting Guy Ritchie to put a bunch of Essex boys in a Transit van with a Sean Bean or Hugh Grant cameo. The last computer hacking in a British crime film was probably Benny Hill in The Italian Job.”

The much-filmed Hatton Garden heist rather proves his point. The 83-year-old mastermind of that robbery, Brian Reader, had worked with Noye on Brink’s-Mat. He, along with the rest of his elderly gang, was arrested barely a month after the crime owing to CCTV evidence. Reader was released from prison in 2018 suffering from dementia. His take was an estimated $8.1 million — that’s a big cut, but is dwarfed by online fraudsters who stole more than $1.6 billion in 2021. But that doesn’t look exciting on the telly.

The Gold is available for streaming on Paramount+ in the U.S. and on BBC One in the U.K.

Stephen Armstrong is a freelance journalist who writes for The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The New Statesman, GQ, and Esquire. His first book was The White Island: The Colourful History of the Original Fantasy Island, Ibiza