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Exactly 30 years before the terrible terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, a very different kind of crime was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. Bank robbers in London were emptying the contents of deposit boxes belonging to the rich and famous, not realising that amongst the contents were raunchy photos that would cause a huge Royal scandal. After years of research and development, that story is now told in The Bank Job – and reveals an Australian link.

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.

"an extraordinary mystery"

Then 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 (Sherlock Holmes territory!), had been tuned in to the 27.15 megacycles radio frequency at 11.00 pm on Saturday, September 11, 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 2.00 am, 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 checked on 750 bank premises 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.

"what do people put in safe deposit boxes?"

“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’.

Published July 31, 2008

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