The bus driver who confessed to stealing a Goya masterpiece

That was the theory, anyway. But in November 1965, a 61-year-old retired bus driver from the Northern English city of Newcastle upon Tyne stood up in London’s Central Criminal Court and declared that he had taken the painting. He had never intended to keep it, he added. “My sole object in all this was to set up a charity to pay for television licences [which fund the BBC in Britain] for old and poor people who seem to be neglected in our affluent society.”  

This wasn’t the story of a malevolent Dr No or a glamorous Thomas Crown committing the perfect crime, but of a chap named Kempton Bunton who embodied British eccentricity, underdog rebelliousness, have-a-go spirit, absurd luck, and sheer bloody-minded cheek. And now the stranger-than-fiction tale of the world’s most unlikely fine-art thief has been made into a sparkling comedy drama, The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent as Bunton and Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife. One of its executive producers is Chris Bunton, Kempton’s grandson. “It was always a story of working-class struggle,” Chris tells BBC Culture. “The family didn’t have two pennies to rub together, they were dealing with poverty as well as a lot of tragedy, and that influenced their psyche and their decision-making process. It’s unlike any other heist.”

A dreamer and activist

Kempton Bunton was a local character in Newcastle long before the theft of the Goya. He was regularly fired from jobs for speaking up for his colleagues against the management, he was an aspiring playwright whose scripts were invariably rejected by the BBC, and he was an activist who saw television as a lifeline for lonely pensioners, especially veterans of World War One, such as his own father. In Britain, it was illegal to own a television without paying an annual licence. Feeling that the fee was too high for poorer people, Bunton protested by refusing to pay his own licence fee, and, as a result, he had three short spells in prison in 1960. “I loved the fact that Kempton had dreams beyond his station,” says Nicky Bentham, the producer of The Duke. “And he held on to those ideals, this sense of community, and this idea that one person could make a difference. I thought it was wonderfully uplifting and inspiring that he finally got a platform to share what he wanted to say with the world.”

But, as his grandson says, Bunton’s life was rocked by tragedy, too. Directed by the late Roger Michell, and scripted by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, the film ascribes his wayward behaviour to the grief and guilt he felt about the death of his daughter, Marion, in a cycling accident when she was a teenager. “I’m not saying that that justifies what he did,” says Chris, “but it was horrendous, really.”

Source link