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Jack English

Ocean’s Eightysomething: On The Set Of ‘King of Thieves’

Caine. Courtenay. Broadbent. A ton of loot. We popped to the pub in Shepherd’s Bush to see heist movie ‘King of Thieves’ take shape

Written by
Cath Clarke

Michael Caine walks on to set into the Princess Victoria pub in Shepherd’s Bush. ‘Cor, it’s hot,’ he mutters in that unmistakable cockney drawl. At 85, he’s a little frail. An assistant helps him across a trip-hazard tangle of electrical wires powering today’s filming. Caine’s co-stars, all legends in their own right, are waiting, arranged around a dining table: Tom Courtenay (81), Jim Broadbent (69) and Ray Winstone (a slip of a lad at 61). It’s a hot day in June 2017, and the four are shooting a scene from a new drama about the 2015 Hatton Garden heist, a theft of gold, jewellery and cash worth £200 million from safety deposit boxes.

In the weeks after the break-in, crime experts went on telly to tell us that the heist bore the hallmarks of a gang of elite criminals from Israel or Eastern Europe assembled by an underworld Mr Big, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’-style. As it turned out, the real culprits were closer to home, a bunch of old lags from London, all in their sixties and seventies – the Diamond Wheezers.

‘Some young actors could take a page out of their book.
Arrive early, do their work, know their lines’

The scene Caine is about to get to work on comes in the aftermath of the robbery. The four ringleaders meet in a gastropub to discuss divvying up the loot. What they don’t know is that the woman sitting at a table in the far corner is a police lip-reader. The scene is technically difficult – loads of testy mile-a-minute banter. Jim Broadbent, playing career criminal Terry Perkins, is blustering about the break-in: ‘Kaboom, fucking wallop, we’re in…’ Ray Winstone is supposed to butt in there, but fluffs his lines. ‘Cut!’ The director James Marsh calls for a quick break. ‘I’m going to try and get better,’ jokes Winstone.

(Left to right) Ray Winstone, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay and Jim Broadbent on the set of 'King of Thieves'

During the break, an assistant carries over bottles of water for the actors, who are wilting on the sweaty set. Caine offers Winstone an apple: ‘Bit of fruit?’ ‘Nah. Ta.’ While the actors catch their breath, the film’s writer Joe Penhall explains to me that swathes of the script are straight from the horse’s mouth. The police put the gang under surveillance almost immediately. The old-timers had left digital footprints everywhere identifying themselves. Caine plays the gang’s oldest member, Brian Reader, who used a Freedom Pass on his way to the robbery. ‘Scotland Yard have got this amazing 100-page document of surveillance conversations that the gang had with each other,’ says Penhall. ‘Mostly in cars, or over pints or curries, they’re bragging and bickering, trying to screw each other out of their shares. I thought: This is going to make a great story. I was interested in them imploding and all turning on each other like rats, which they kind of do. Very elderly rats.’ Chunks of dialogue are lifted from actual conversations caught on tapped phones or by lip-readers. Caine and Winstone helped Penhall to tone down the cockney.

As he wrote the script there were already two rival Hatton Garden films in the offing. Producer Tim Bevan tells me what ‘King of Thieves’ needed. ‘I made it absolutely my business to get Caine. It was critical. The Michael Caine version is the one you want to see.’ Michelle Wright, another producer, chips in, marvelling at the work ethic of the pension-age stars. ‘Some young actors could take a page out of their book. Arrive early, do their work, know their lines. Michael says he’s going to do this till he’s face-up, face-down.’ 

‘King of Thieves’ opens Fri Sep 14. 

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King of Thieves review

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