The Duke: The story of the national 'embarrassment' swept under the carpet for 50 years

·8-min read

Watch a trailer for The Duke

In 1961, the UK was gripped by the theft of a Goya painting from the National Gallery in London — a story being retold in The Duke, in cinemas now.

The portrait of the Duke of Wellington had been acquired at auction for £140,000 (over £3m in modern money) with the help of a special Treasury grant to keep it in the UK, and was put on display at the National Gallery.

Just 19 days later, it was stolen — a first for the famous gallery — and the police set about tracking down the master criminals responsible for the daring heist.

However it was later returned by former bus driver named Kempton Bunton (played in the film by Jim Broadbent), who confessed to stealing the piece of art. He planned to sell it back to the gallery and use the money to help pensioners to pay for their TV licenses.

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After a high profile trial, he was acquitted of stealing the painting, but charged with stealing the frame which was never recovered. However it's a story that remained largely untold, until now.

"It was essentially a big embarrassment to the government at the time and it was swept under the carpet," Kempton's grandson Chris Bunton tells Yahoo.

Kempton Bunton, a 61 year old lorry driver of Newcastle upom Tyne, in London after he had been remanded ar Bow Street Magistrates Court accused of stealing the  140,000 Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery.   (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
Kempton Bunton, a 61-year-old lorry driver of Newcastle upom Tyne, after he had been remanded accused of stealing the £140,000 Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery (PA Images via Getty Images)

The film — directed by the late Roger Michell (Notting Hill/My Cousin Rachel) — began life as a movie when Chris started putting together his family's incredible story, which also involved his father John — played in the film by Dunkirk's Fionn Whitehead.

Here's what he told us about the real story behind The Duke.

What made you decide the time was now tell your grandfather's story?

Chris Bunton: I decided to after getting the approval of my parents in 2013. I've been researching it since 2011 for the 50th anniversary, so I'd done a lot of research, but in 2013, while living in New York, I got a phone call from my brother, saying 'you better get back home as quickly as possible, Dad's had had a heart attack'. They don't think he's going to make the night. So I was on the first plane back to Newcastle. I got there and by the time I got there the following day he'd actually made a miraculous recovery. He'd surprised the nurses and everybody in there. It was kind of a traumatic event.

Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton in The Duke (Pathe)
Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton in The Duke (Pathe)

Events like that are traumatic for all family members, but then with myself living away, it kind of makes you assess in your own life. You feel a little bit helpless, because you're so far away and then at that stage, that's when I really focused and started thinking a lot about the father-son relationship.

That gave me the idea on how to format kind of a screenplay. I always felt from 2011 that it would be a good time to tell the full story, because I felt that my grandfather was treated unfairly a little bit. But once I had more of an idea in 2013, about how to go about it, at that point I then got the approval of my parents and then pressed forward.

Why do you think the story hasn't been quite as well known in the UK as it could have been?

It was essentially a big embarrassment to the government at the time and it was swept under the carpet, pretty much. There was an injunction — although I've never seen this in writing — my dad told me there was an injunction where he couldn't tell this story for at least 30 years after his confession.

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So I guess it was just swept under the carpet because it was a major embarrassment.

When did you first hear about your family's exploits?

Kempton Bunton's grandson Chris Bunton who was instrumental in bringing his family's story to the screen in The Duke. (Supplied)
Kempton Bunton's grandson Chris Bunton who was instrumental in bringing his family's story to the screen in The Duke. (Supplied)

I first heard about it on a ferry trip with my dad when I was 14-years-old. My dad had had a few beers at the time and kind of let it slip. Back then as amazing as it was to hear I still didn't kind of really understand the sheer scale of it until years later. It wasn't something that was really discussed. Apart from that one time when he'd had a few too many drinks. It wasn't something he was proud of and it wasn't really talked about in the family.

Were you taken aback when you first heard the story?

Yeah, completely. It’s not something you expect to hear right? My dad was a fruit machine mechanic who was the breadwinner of the house. I wouldn’t say he had a boring life, but just the routine life. I was shocked.

Do you take after your grandfather's politics, ones that we kind of explore in the film?

Chief art restorer of the National Gallery Arthur Lucas (1916 - 1996) examining Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington, UK, 25th May 1965.(Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Chief art restorer of the National Gallery Arthur Lucas (1916 - 1996) examining Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington, UK, 25th May 1965.(Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I guess I'm on the fence more than him. I do believe that we should take care of people in society who need it. I do believe that it was a just cause that he had with regards to the TV licences. But maybe I wouldn't be prepared to go to jail for the cause myself. But yeah, I think it was a just cause.

On the license fees, the story around it is obviously timely. Do you think that makes the story universal?

Yeah, I think it does. But I think more so the message that is being told in the story is more of a universal message. That's the message of being kind to one another, and helping those in society who need it. The avenue to that, in this case was the TV licences but the actual objective here was really just to support isolated characters in society, and especially now with the last few years and everybody's experience of isolation themselves. I think that message resonates. It really does have an impact on the mental health.

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So it's a very just cause to be kind, to do what we can for people in that situation. He saw pensioners and war veterans, and he focused on them because more often than not, they are left more isolated than other people in society. I think it's definitely a message that resonates across the board

How did it feel having talents like Roger Michell, Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent involved?

Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton in The Duke (Pathe)
Helen Mirren as Dorothy Bunton, and Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton in The Duke (Pathe)

It still hasn't sunk in to be honest with you. It's unbelievable. I never expected it to get this far. If years ago, we could write down a dream cast and dream director, you couldn't have done any better than them. They're absolutely brilliant each one of them. Jim couldn't be a better actor to convey both sides of Kempton's personality and Helen's fantastic. Roger really keeps it fun and I think it's very sad that he's no longer with us, but I think it's this is a fitting tribute to his talent as a director to be his last feature film.

You've touched on this already but how much of an active role did you have? Did you play in the development of the film?

So my role was effectively getting it started. I botched together a screenplay for my own research. I'm not really I'm not a writer but thankfully, the producers who I messaged saw enough in what I put together to see the legs in it. So to me I've always known that it was a story about working class struggle, and the heist is a good headline, but the real story is in the family drama behind it. What I put together highlighted those aspects of the poverty and the tragedy that they lived through. I also recognise that it's a very quintessentially British story.

You must be delighted with the film's reception now?

Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton in The Duke (Warner Bros.)
Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton in The Duke (Pathe)

Yeah, absolutely. It couldn't have turned out better than it has. It's like all the stars have aligned really from the cast, and as you mentioned before, the director, producer, and the writers. It's almost like it was meant, to be from, from 1961 when the painting was taken, it's just like everything's played out. Even Tetley Tea are getting involved in it as well. So it's very surreal, I'm delighted but it's surreal. I don't think it's going to sink in for another 10 years.

What do you hope can be achieved by bringing this story to a broader audience?

I think really, it's an uplifting story. It's a true story but the key messages everybody's had a difficult time over the last two and a half years. I think the key message of the film is just to be kind to one another, try and, you know, help out those in need, and if you can, and I hope that the people who watch the film will get that message, and be motivated to be kinder to one another.

The Duke is in cinemas now. Watch a clip below.

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