BRENNAN CRAN was closing up his till at lunchtime on March 10, 1964, when an odd-looking customer entered his bank.

“I saw this ‘woman’ coming in and she looked like Ena Sharples from Coronation Street with a great coat on and something over her head,” he recalls.

“She stopped for a moment and there was something about her eyes which put me on my guard. She walked up to the counter, and out of her paper bag, which had a string handle, she took a gun and cocked it in front of me. It was a .32 Smith and Wesson – I saw her hairy wrists holding it, and she said it was a hold up.”

Mr Cran, then 25, was hoping to get away promptly to see a doctor as he’d damaged his ear playing mess rugby with the Territorial Army the night before so he’d already counted his notes into £100 bundles.

With his knee, he surreptitiously closed the drawer containing the bundles while offering the robber the loose notes and bags of coins on the counter top.

Speaking from his home in Canada, Mr Cran recalls: “I knew a strong man could only carry three bags of coins any distance so I gave them to her – well, I now knew it was a him – but he was clever enough not to take them.”

This was, of course, the great cross-dressing bank robbery of Darlington, and Mr Cran got in touch from Calgary after seeing it in Memories 340.

Instead the robber, in a shaggy black wig, bright red lipstick and rouged cheeks, ordered Mr Cran at gunpoint to the safe in the back of Barclays sub-branch in North Road.

As they entered the safe room, they encountered bank guard James Greenwood, 65, who the robber ordered to go under a table – from where he was able to reach an alarm button. He pressed it, setting off a klaxon outside the front door, and the robber, with about £285 in his bag, turned to flee.

But the adrenalin was now pumping through Mr Cran, whom the Echo the following day described as a former Barnard Castle School student who was “a judo expert, rugby player and crack rifle shot”.

With his brain racing, Mr Cran calculated he reach the escaping robber before he could make it outside.

“I was closing in on him and I knew would catch him before he opened the glass door, but he turned round with the gun in his hand at waist high and fired at me, so I swerved to avoid being hit.”

The bullet passed through Mr Cran’s Old Barnardian school tie and into his chest, missing his heart by an inch and a quarter (these were imperial days).

“I didn’t think it was that serious at first,” says Mr Cran, who grew up in Great Ayton as his father was a surgeon in Middlesbrough. “It wasn’t that painful, so I thought he had just knocked me.

“There was a fight and I got the gun and hit him over the head with it, and it flew out of my hand onto the ground. I put him in a choke hold and the next thing I remember was I was in the street.”

He recalls seeing a Morris 1000 van pull up which he feared might contain an accomplice, and then a passer-by, furniture man Fred Scott, grabbed the robber in a half-nelson, and the melee rolled back inside the bank.

“I remember Mr Scott was wanting to know what to do with him and then he was saying he was getting cramp from holding on to him, but I couldn’t speak very loudly because one-and-a-half of my lungs had collapsed, and I remember someone was holding me onto a chair because all my strength had gone, and I remember the gun was on the floor with the cartridge in breech...”

Fortunately, police arrived to take control of the scene, and an ambulance arrived to speed Mr Cran to the Memorial Hospital.

“Every time it went over a bump, it was like someone having a corkscrew in your gut and wrenching it,” he recalls. “They put two drips into my left arm and a nurse cut open my new string vest which I had just bought.”

Then he threw up and passed out.

He was actually in an extremely serious condition, but Surgeon Freshwater removed the bullet and the bank sent a Harley Street specialist to oversee his treatment. He went up to Scotland to recuperate and three months later he was well enough to attend the trial of Dennis Cree Turnbull, 35, who was charged with armed robbery and attempted murder.

The court in Durham heard that Turnbull, of Girsby, had turned to desperate measures as his debts had mounted.

But the jury found him not guilty of attempted murder as he said the gun had become cocked during the struggle and it had gone off accidentally.

“The outcome was wrong,” says Mr Cran very clearly. “He came in with a gun and ammunition and he cocked it there and then in front of me so I could see what he was doing. I was shot closing in on him – I didn’t reach him, I didn’t touch him – when he realised he would not be able to get out.”

For the robbery, Turnbull, a father of two, was sentenced to ten years.

After the trial, Mr Cran went on a long, exciting tour of Europe and northern Africa in his new VW car before returning to his sub-branch to discover he had been awarded the George Medal for bravery.

“I went with my parents to Buckingham Palace to collect it, and was the last one to be presented to the Queen,” he says. “She seemed to be very well versed about the circumstances, and was very easy to talk to.” He has just donated his medal to his old school in Barnard Castle.

In 1969, he fancied another adventure and followed his girlfriend, Doreen, out to Canada. They’d met in the George Hotel in Piercebridge, and she’d gone to Saskatchewan to visit relatives.

They had every intention of returning – but never did. They got married, and Mr Cran worked his way up Commercial Union to become marketing manager. In 1987, he started start his own chartered financial consultancy from which, at the age of 78, he is just retiring.

“The incident has not left any detrimental scars,” he says emphatically. “It hasn’t bothered me one iota. I just look upon it as an experience.”