It all began with six men in a van. On the 26 November 1983, half a dozen armed men broke into the Brink’s-Mat depot near London’s Heathrow Airport, where they were expecting to find a million pounds worth of foreign currency.
Instead, they stumbled upon gold bullion worth £26m.
At the time, it was the largest robbery in world history and changed British policing forever.
Here’s what we know about it…
What happened on 26 November?
At first, it just seemed like “a typical Old Kent Road armed robbery”, in the words of detectives at the time.
The gang, some carrying guns, surprised security staff as they started their Saturday shift between 6.30am and 8.15am at the warehouse.
They gained entry from one of the security guards, Anthony Black, who was in on the robbery.
They handcuffed the staff and hit one on the head with a pistol. Another employee had his clothing cut away from his stomach and petrol poured on him, with the robbers threatening to set him on fire if guards didn’t reveal the vault’s combination numbers.
To their shock, the thieves discovered gold, diamonds and cash.
At 8.30am, 15 minutes after the raiders got away, one of the staff managed to break his handcuffs and raised the alarm – but the gang was long gone.
Reports from the time state that the 6,800 ingots of gold weighed three tons, and would have been contained in packages measuring 6ft by 3ft by 2ft.
What was the immediate aftermath?
The police scrambled to track down the robbers and their loot, but with little success.
Two days after the robbery, a Somerset couple saw a white-hot crucible – a metal container used for melting – operating in a garden shed at a neighbour’s property. They immediately informed the police, but officers failed to follow up properly.
The premises weren’t raided until 14 months later, leading to the arrest of local jeweller and bullion dealer John Palmer. But he was cleared of all charges in court.
One of the thieves, Brian Robinson, was caught after Anthony Black (the security guard who was in on the heist, and Robinson’s brother-in-law) gave his name to detectives.
After fleeing the scene, the robbers turned to Kenneth Noye, one of Britain’s most notorious criminals, for help in turning the bullion into cash. Noye combined some of the gold with copper to disguise it, and detectives later found 11 gold bars worth £100,000 wrapped in cloth in a drainage trench at Noye’s former Kent home.
He was later imprisoned for helping to launder some of the cash, but before he was sent behind bars he knifed an undercover detective, who was sniffing around his home, to death.
Noye was somehow cleared of murder after pleading self-defence, but later convicted for murdering a man on a slip road of the M25 in a road rage incident.
Many killings over the years have been linked back to the robbery and those connected to it, and there have been numerous suicides, too.
A man known as “Mad” Mickey McAvoy was jailed for 25 years for his part in the raid. He and Robinson are the only two robbers convicted for the heist itself. They have both died in the past two years.
A conman known as “Goldfinger”, John Palmer, was cleared of smelting and recycling the gold in 1987.
What was the crime’s legacy?
At the start of the BBC drama, a statement reads: “If you have bought gold jewellery in Britain since 1984, it is likely to contain traces of the Brink’s-Mat gold.”
It is thought that about half of the gold has found its way back into the legitimate gold market.
The crime is a seminal event in British criminal history, not only because of the sheer scale of the theft, but because of its ripple effects.
Efforts to dispose of the gold are now thought to have caused the birth of major-scale international money laundering.
The dirty money from the heist also fuelled the London Docklands property boom.
Much of the gold has never been recovered, and four of the six robbers were never convicted.
The Gold begins on Sunday 12 February at 9pm on BBC One.