The bus driver who confessed to stealing a Goya masterpiece

That was the idea, anyway. However in November 1965, a 61-year-old retired bus driver from the Northern English metropolis of Newcastle upon Tyne stood up in London’s Central Felony Court docket and declared that he had taken the portray. He had by no means supposed to maintain it, he added. “My sole object in all this was to arrange a charity to pay for tv licences [which fund the BBC in Britain] for outdated and poor individuals who appear to be uncared for in our prosperous society.”  

This wasn’t the story of a malevolent Dr No or a glamorous Thomas Crown committing the right crime, however 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 story of the world’s very unlikely fine-art thief has been made right into a glowing comedy drama, The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent as Bunton and Helen Mirren as his long-suffering spouse. One in all its government producers is Chris Bunton, Kempton’s grandson. “It was all the time a narrative of working-class wrestle,” Chris tells BBC Tradition. “The household didn’t have two pennies to rub collectively, they had been coping with poverty in addition to quite a lot of tragedy, and that influenced their psyche and their decision-making course of. It is in contrast to another heist.”

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A dreamer and activist

Kempton Bunton was an area character in Newcastle lengthy earlier than the theft of the Goya. He was usually fired from jobs for talking up for his colleagues in opposition to the administration, he was an aspiring playwright whose scripts had been invariably rejected by the BBC, and he was an activist who noticed tv as a lifeline for lonely pensioners, particularly veterans of World Conflict One, akin to his personal father. In Britain, it was unlawful to personal a tv with out paying an annual licence. Feeling that the charge was too excessive for poorer folks, Bunton protested by refusing to pay his personal licence charge, and, in consequence, he had three quick spells in jail in 1960. “I liked the truth that Kempton had desires past his station,” says Nicky Bentham, the producer of The Duke. “And he held on to these beliefs, this sense of neighborhood, and this concept that one particular person may make a distinction. I assumed it was splendidly uplifting and provoking that he lastly acquired a platform to share what he needed to say with the world.”

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However, 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 movie ascribes his wayward behaviour to the grief and guilt he felt in regards to the dying of his daughter, Marion, in a biking accident when she was a youngster. “I am not saying that that justifies what he did,” says Chris, “however it was horrendous, actually.”

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