A life affirming story of the theft of Goya’s The Duke painting from the National Gallery in 1961 that reveals Kempton Bunton’s well-intentioned web of lies, secrets and fantasy.
Reviewed by Nigel Watson
Kempton Bunton, a 60-year-old taxi driver, is on a mission to brighten the lives of OAPs in the dull days of 1961 by getting them free TV licences. His wife, Dorothy, would prefer him to stop such nonsense and keep a steady job. Yet, Kempton cannot stop himself fighting for the rights of the oppressed and regards himself as a modern-day Robin Hood.
Kempton clashes with the law when he refuses to pay for his TV licence and tries to avoid it by taking out a component from his TV set that stops it from receiving the BBC. Such tactics only land him in prison, but this only makes him even more determined to get free TV for OAPs.
On release from Durham prison, along with his son, Jackie, he takes to the streets to get people to sign a petition to further his campaign. In London he even tries to get the BBC, newspapers in Fleet Street and the House of Commons to listen to him but he is summarily rejected by all of them. His many scripts and plays are equally rejected by the BBC and elsewhere, but that does not dampen his enthusiasm.
Much to his wife’s horror Kempton plunges from one flight of hopeless fancy to another. Just as he promises to behave himself, the nation is gripped by the news that The Duke – Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington – has been stolen from the National Gallery. It has just been bought for £140,000 to keep it in Britain and the police speculate that a crack team of art thieves stole it to sell to a rich art collector. This idea is reinforced in popular culture by the first James Bond film, Dr No, where James does a double-take when he sees The Duke on display inside the lair of the super villain.
Kempton sitting in the cinema watching that scene knows the real culprit of this first ever theft from the National Gallery, is himself and not Dr No! With the aid of his son he hides it away from his wife and the rest of the family. His wacky ransom notes to the police and newspapers say he will return The Duke if the government does more for the elderly.
Besides this heavyweight secret, there is a long-standing family tragedy concerning the death of their teenage daughter. Dorothy will not talk about it and Kempton deals with it by writing a script ‘The Girl on the Bicycle’ and by wanting to do good.
Based on a true story, the director Roger Michell (1956-2021) is best known for the romantic comedy Notting Hill (1999) and he shows his adeptness at dealing with an eccentric central character in the two-part TV series The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (2014). He brings a breezy evocation of the Ealing Comedies to the story, appropriately at a time when the BBC is celebrating 100 years of broadcasting and when the licence fee is still an area of dispute and controversy.
Like the Ealing Comedies, the law and authorities are mocked and befuddled by Kempton’s activities. Jim Broadbent brilliantly brings to life the ebullient eccentricity of Kempton and Helen Mirren serves well as his put upon and hard-working wife.
The Old Bailey courtroom scenes in particular are full of humorous exchanges and you wonder if he will feel the full force of the law for his audacious crime. This would be much like ‘breaking a butterfly on a wheel’ to borrow a phrase used when the Rolling Stones were busted by the police in 1967.
The legacy of Kempton’s crime was to make the National Gallery and similar institutions tighten their security and loopholes in the law were closed, plus over 75s were eventually granted free TV licences in November 2000 (although in 2020 this became only available for those who receive Pension Credit).
The Duke is a life affirming story that reveals how Kempton’s well-intentioned web of lies, secrets and fantasy brings to light the profound tragedy of his personal life and the inequalities and flaws in British society.
The Duke is playing at Plymouth Arts Cinema from 25th February – 3rd March.