It is hardly surprising that Reginald Bevins, postmaster-general in Harold Macmillan's government, had to break off his summer holiday in August 1963 - the Glasgow-to-London night mail train had been robbed, the driver badly beaten. A dreadful business, you might think.
But Bevins' public statement didn't follow the script we have become used to when ministers parrot the protocol of pat condemnation - "an outrage ... a dastardly act". Bevins had a rather different situation to deal with. Far from being appalled by the crime, the public was engrossed, captivated by the planning, the drama, the bravado, not to mention the scale of the haul.
These days, we are accustomed to bankers being paid millions and banks losing billions. Computer-isation has given money an air of only virtual reality. Hundred-million Euro Lottery winners come and go in a paragraph nowadays, but in 1961, when Viv Nicholson, a coal miner's wife from Castleford in Yorkshire, won 150,000 ($300,000) on the soccer pools and promised to "spend, spend, spend", she grabbed the attention of the nation.
Although Macmillan had said in 1957 "most of our people have never had it so good", almost everyone still had to count their pennies. When the news broke that the gang's cunning scheme had landed them with something like 2.6 million in used pound notes and fivers belonging to Scottish, English and Irish banks, many could scarce forbear to cheer.
So how was the minister to restore the nation's moral compass?
"I don't feel any admiration for these gentlemen at all," said Bevins. "In fact, I would not use the word gentlemen." It was a strange word to use in connection with a bunch of criminals, working-class criminals at that. And a rather mild condemnation.
But the judge at the gang's trial applied the smack of firm government. He threw a cocktail party for the battalion of legal gentlemen involved and imposed prison sentences of exemplary length: seven of the robbers were given 30 years. Doubtless they were being punished for the scale of their crime, but it seems beyond doubt they were being further punished because the press and public had enjoyed it too much.
One could say the same of the Profumo affair, a wonderfully English scandal in which gentleman Jack went to bed with a party girl, told a lie to Parliament and sentenced himself to a life of charity work and worthy obscurity. Meanwhile Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who had introduced them, a public school-educated son of a clergyman, known and used by gentlemen and noblemen but painted as the very opposite of a gentleman - a pimp and immoralist - was driven to suicide (or was maybe murdered) in the cause of protecting the Establishment.
Both of these - the Great Train Robbery and Profumo - were in themselves piffling affairs. The robbery was a one-off; in most other countries the Profumo affair would hardly have been an affair at all - yet both still have resonance 50 years on. Andrew Lloyd Webber has written a new musical, Stephen Ward, to stand alongside Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. And in a masterpiece of timing comparable with the minutely planned crime itself, the BBC is screening its dramatisation of The Great Train Robbery. That Ronnie Biggs has died this week aged 84 to coincide with it is either a conspiracy, his last act of self-publicity, or a piece of good fortune for all concerned.
Whether Biggs has been the lifelong beneficiary of good fortune depends on how you regard world travel and sleazy minor celebrity. The truth is he was fortunate even to be part of the story. The Kray brothers, the only British contemporaries to vie with him as national anti-heroes, were at least villains who maimed, killed and terrorised, and as is often the way, engaged with the titled and famous. Biggs was a two-bit villain. Even among the train robbers, he was a minnow.
None of the gang was exactly a major criminal, but Biggs was neither the brain nor the brawn. In fact, his main credential was that he knew Bruce Reynolds, one of the coup's masterminds. What did Biggs bring to the party? He brought a retired train driver of his acquaintance who was supposed to take the train into a siding after the real driver had been removed.
As it turned out, Biggs's friend wasn't up to it. So they had to force the real driver, Jack Mills, to do it. They encouraged him with a hefty blow to the head that left him badly impaired for the rest of his shortened life. Biggs didn't execute the blow but he was certainly guilty of contributory incompetence.
Reynolds, who died earlier this year, does not deserve our sympathy, but he spoke of his life of crime with some regret: "I've always felt I can't escape my past," he said. "And in many ways I feel that is like a line from The Ancient Mariner, and that notoriety was like an albatross around my neck."
Biggs retained a lifelong notoriety he had no interest in escaping. It was his meal ticket and if this is iniquitous, the British public and certainly the press have been complicit in it. The train robbers have been one of those stories told and retold. Buster Edwards, in later life Waterloo station's most famous flower seller, prompted a biopic, Buster, starring Phil Collins. But Biggs' was a much longer-running story than that. Within 15 months of being incarcerated he had escaped from Wandsworth jail via a rope ladder over the wall, from which he jumped on to a mattress on top of a van.
It was what is described as a "daring" escape and was the beginning of an odyssey that took him to Australia, later to Panama, then to Brazil. It was often recounted to the public as a double-edged tale - on the one hand, he was a criminal who should be brought to justice; on the other, here was Jack the Lad leading the lotus life on Copacabana beach surrounded by improbably good-looking women. What's not to like? I should coco!
He wasn't exactly your lovable Cockney - he wasn't all that likable - but he had a way with a grab-bag of phrases and became an increasingly practised media hand. When British journalists were in Brazil, they dropped in on him and for the price of "a drink" he would provide them with some quotes. He tried to give the air of living the good life, but the more perceptive observers sensed that he wasn't entirely happy.
One way or another, the combination of the not-too-dangerous Cockney and the unforgettable-and-not-too-hideous crime made a story that ran and ran. By the 1970s he was a rather old-fashioned figure - the sort who might have featured as a minor villain in a British "what sort of a joker have we got here?" cop movie. In 1974, when Daily Express newspaper reporters found him in Rio and informed the British police, the exemplary and deliciously named Det Chief Supt Jack Slipper, of the Flying Squad, was despatched there to bring him back. Throw in a quartet of hard-drinking British hacks and you have the stuff of tawdry folklore. Biggs' fathering a Brazilian child prevented his extradition.
By 2001, Biggs was old and ill and wanting to come home. He was in Rio but dreaming of Margate, and when he came back and appealed against imprisonment the story moved into the realm of "Is he as ill as he pretends?" - or "For heaven's sake, is he going to live for ever?"
For a man of no importance, he loomed rather large, or at least very long. If he'd come from Birmingham he might not have played us so well, but he did the love-a-duck Cockney, which is such a part of our national comedy. Could a modern villain get to us in quite the same way? It would be foolhardy to say no - we are infinitely seducible - but even on television no modern no-goodnik vies with Arthur Daley or Del Boy Trotter. We are bombarded instead with endless unreal reality and ersatz outrage. A dozen years ago in Rio, Biggs said: "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here," and he meant it. Now he is gone altogether. End of story.